In the New York Times article “For the Love of Money” by writer, investor, non-profit founder, and former Wall Street hedge-fund trader Sam Polk, the point is made that “dozens of different types of 12-step support groups…exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no Wealth Addicts Anonymous.” Polk says this is a telling absence that reflects the culture’s explicit approval of and support for the addiction to wealth.
Superrich celebrities and CEOs, says Polk, are our cultural gods. After divulging the abbreviated version of his own tale of addiction and recovery, Polk’s article ends with a couple of possibilities for those still in the throes of their addiction. One is to form a support group in order to “confront our addiction together.” And for those not quite ready to throw in the towel and leave their banking jobs forever, he proposes creating a fund into which Wall Streeters could put 25 percent of their annual bonuses. The fund would then be used “to help some of the people who actually need the money that we’ve been so rabidly chasing.”
While a quick Google search validates Polk’s claim that 12 Step programs for an addiction to wealth are indeed nonexistent, others are not so willing to acknowledge that any such addiction exists in the first place. In her Salon article “A money addict’s neoliberal fantasy: Sam Polk and his civilizing mission,” Falguni A. Sheth is adamant about disabusing those NYT article readers of the notion that Polk’s account is anything except a shallow redemption narrative shoved inside simplistic Judeo-Christian framework, and she uses a liberal application of strikethrough text feature along the way to help her get the point across. Sheth extrapolates Polk’s founding of the non-profit organization Groceryships as yet another example of the wrongheaded way neoliberals address social crises, which is through private charity instead of addressing the root causes of said crises.
Instead of creating a charity that will award, and Sheth puts irony quotes around the word award, grocery scholarships to families who commit to taking nutrition classes weekly, going to meeting with counselors, and taking tests, Polk should and could be taking actions that would be more empowering to those he is attempting to help. Some of those actions, according to Sheth, would be for Polk to use his Wall Street contacts to influence and pressure Polk’s current senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to spend less on defense and more on transportation subsidies, thereby making healthy foods more accessible. (Sheth refers to California senators because Polk no longer lives in New York. After leaving Wall Street and returning from extended travels in Mexico and India, he did not feel comfortable living again in New York, which he compared to “an alcoholic going into a bar,” with regard to the wealth, ambition, and greed he had inextricably linked to that geographical location.)
In truth, Polk has a good amount of personal authority when it comes to knowing what is and is not an addiction. His ascent through the ranks of banking would never have happened, he says, had he not gotten sober. A “daily drinker and pot smoker and a regular user of cocaine, Ritalin and ecstasy,” Polk had a predilection for self-destruction that got him arrested (twice), fired, and suspended from university. Polk even credits his experience with drugs and alcohol in allowing him to recognize his pursuit of wealth as an addiction.
Though Polk was thrilled with steady climb up the Wall Street ladder, his therapist became concerned that he “might be using money the same way [he]’d used drugs and alcohol,” which was as a way to make himself feel powerful. She thought that focusing less on accumulating wealth and more on healing his inner wounds may be more beneficial to him. Polk did not yet see things the same way. Right before getting off of Wall Street, Polk was a 30-year-old making a $3.6 million bonus. However, Polk felt that $3.6 million was not enough. When his demands of an $8 million bonus were not met, he walked out.
In an interview with Forbes, Polk says that he had the horrible feeling of asking for something that he really did not want. He asked himself if he could really work there another year even if they gave him the $8 million. But Polk says that he started seeing his fellow traders differently before the day he walked out. It was his “absurdly wealthy bosses” who changed his view of unlimited wealth. One day, during a conversation with one of them, a realization hit Polk like a punch in the gut: Despite all this man had, Polk realized, he was still afraid of losing money. From that point on, Polk saw the way traders directed vitriol at the government when their bonuses were limited after the crash, or at the mention of higher taxes, or at anyone and anything that was a threat to their bonuses.
Polk eventually recognized the behavior for what it was: “Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk?” Polk asks. Polk answers his own question by stating that an addict will do anything to get a fix including walking 20 miles in the snow or robbing a grandma. He credits the years of healing work that he did with his counselor with providing him with enough of a core sense of self to walk away from his addiction to wealth. It has been three years since Polk left Wall Street, and he has accomplished a lot in that time. He has married, spoken about getting sober in jails and juvenile detention centers, taught a writing class to foster system kids, created the nonprofit Groceryships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has also written a memoir. Perhaps surprisingly, it does not glorify but rather proclaims that Wall Street traders as addicts.
By Donna Westlund