As the megarich continue to stockpile wealth, it’s helpful to think of their greed as a problematic affliction
Extreme wealth has become a modern obsession. The desire to achieve billionaire status permeates pop culture, from hip-hop lyrics to reality television to motivational Instagram posts, where the ultrarich are lauded. As ordinary people’s economic fortunes teeter, this paradigm is coming under increased scrutiny.
How many superyachts the size of apartment buildings can one person own? How many private jets? How many mansions? All that money creates an explosion of trinkets and possessions they can’t possibly use or consume, yet the megarich refuse to give them up. Perhaps a better way to think about this obsessive accumulation of wealth is to acknowledge what it really is: hoarding.
The behavior mirrors what I would see while spending hours watching a marathon of Hoarders, the reality TV series that explores hoarding disorder and homes that are so overcome with clutter that they are dangerous. Each episode focuses on an intervention led by the hoarders’ loved ones. Friends, family, and a team of professionals help clean up the clutter, and the hoarders start therapy.
People in hoarders’ lives often feel towering frustration and profoundly neglected. They feel like the junk is more important than they are. The interventions on the show demonstrate that, yes, this is a psychiatric disorder that involves highly irrational thinking. There was one episode where the clutter in the living room nearly stacked up to the ceiling, and the hoarder remonstrated the cleaners to be careful — there was a framed picture of her daughter buried under the piles of trash, and she didn’t want the glass smudged.
Many hoarders don’t see this as a problem. So many hoarders on the show genuinely can’t see what all the fuss was about. They mainly go along with the intervention to save relationships that are on their last frayed thread. Those who can grasp that there is a problem seem stymied.
The über-rich seem similarly oblivious to how they cause harm and even trauma in the lives of others around them. When we look back on this era in history, will we consider the way billionaires hoard wealth to be driven by profoundly disordered and irrational thinking? Unlike the people featured on Hoarders,the hazardous conditions billionaires create with their acquisitiveness and hoarding have become a threat to all life on Earth. There has already been plenty of speculation about whether extreme wealth hoarding is pathologically narcissistic or sociopathic — it’s the cruelty and disregard.
Their drive to accumulate wealth is about amassing and wielding power, but on a deeper level, it seems to be about insecurity.
In September, Billy Foister, a worker at an Amazon warehouse in Eton, Ohio, suffered a heart attack on the job and died. It took Amazon’s internal safety responders 20 minutes to respond and provide him with treatment. Days before he died, Foister put a product in the wrong bin. It was caught on camera, and within two minutes a manager was reprimanding him. Two minutes to respond to a product being stocked incorrectly; 20 minutes to respond to a heart attack and collapse.
Foister isn’t the first such case. Amazon’s warehouses are notoriously stressful environments. This abuse is what made Jeff Bezos the richest man ever to have lived. This kind of exploitation lurks behind every great fortune. No matter how much money is stockpiled, it never seems to be enough, and the Billy Foisters of the world keep being tossed into the kiln that keeps the machinery churning.
Wealth inequality is at levels that haven’t been seen since the Gilded Age (which, in case you forgot, was followed by the Great Depression). Notably, economists today are forecasting a global recession. Billionaires and other ultrawealthy Americans are pleased with President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and incensed by the modest wealth tax proposed by Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren. A robust conversation about how much wealth is too much and how much society should claw back is timely, as is a deeper discussion about what is driving the instinct to hoard. This is about how we relate to each other as human beings.
I recently finished reading Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. The book examines billionaire philanthropists and challenges their motives and methods. In it, Giridharadas isolates the elephant in the elegant rooms of the ultrarich: an emotional component driving their decisions. The book reassured me that I wasn’t imagining the demand by the billionaire class not just to be praised, but to be liked.
I had noticed this demand for accolades before, particularly in rags-to-riches stories, where a humble start is used to cast the billionaire as a hero. “I started with nothing” is meant to erase all the harm they’ve caused. We’re also supposed to say what “good guys” they are and laud their justifications for hoarding vast fortunes. Some billionaires don’t hide their rapaciousness. They want to be feared. That’s how they want their “respect” packaged. Their drive to accumulate wealth is about amassing and wielding power, but on a deeper level, it seems to be about insecurity and making other people responsible for beating it back. They’ve strong-armed the world into propping up their self-esteem.
People with hoarding disorder seem to hoard for themselves. They find comfort in acquiring more stuff and avoid the anxiety of having to purge any of it. There is shame attached to hoarding disorder. Hoarders and their families hide the clutter, often isolating themselves from friends and neighbors. The disorder destroys social capital. Billionaires seem to hoard more for their own narcissism than anything else. The whole point of billionaires’ hoarding is so that other people know about it, see the fruits of it, and are amazed by it. They’re also hoarding social proof. It’s why the pivot to philanthropy Giridharadas discusses is so predictable.
The harm that’s done to amass these fortunes can’t be brushed aside any longer, and we have to stop accepting “solutions” that fail to address these harms. The bill has come due, and it’s staggering. The people who ran it up should be made to delve into their vaults of hoarded wealth to pay for it. It’s time to stage an intervention.