Occupy Wall Street Must Learn That We Are What We Buy

The core problem behind inequality is an economy driven by hyper-consumption.

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In America, we ceremoniously graduate newly minted Ph.D.s, MDs, JDs and MBAs who know only how to progress in their own chosen fields. They may, of course, turn out to be perfectly good teachers, doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but they shall always remain trained. Through no fault of their own, they will never have been educated.

Do we want a genuinely robust and fair economy and stock market? Then we must first reorient our American and other societies from their corrupted ambience of mass taste, toward a more distinctly cultivated environment of thought and feeling. Indisputably, there is still great beauty in the world, but it would be best not to search for it at the bank, the brokerage, the classroom, or the shopping mall.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Adam Smith had argued, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that a system of "perfect liberty" could never be based upon "mean rapacity," and "needless" consumption. On the contrary, said Smith, who remains a fashionable mainstay of conservatives, the laws of the market, driven by competition and a consequent "self-regulation" (including his famous "invisible hand"), demand a principled disdain for all vanity-driven consumption.

For Adam Smith, "conspicuous consumption," a phrase that would be used far more devastatingly later by Thorsten Veblen, could never be a proper motor of economic or social improvement.

In America, even in that part of Main Street that intentionally knows little of Wall Street, there is widening anxiety and palpable unhappiness. Taught that respect and success lie in high salaries, and corollary patterns of consumption, the American dutifully worships the commonplace. Why should it be otherwise? Galvanized by mostly patronizing and shamelessly vulgar entertainments, a lonely American crowd unhesitatingly follows a flamboyant but impotent ringmaster.

This "ringmaster," and the surrounding circus of public life, are most conspicuous in politics. Soon, Americans will turn yet again to another presidential election. Ironically, this falsely reassuring ritual will have no adequate effect upon what we have already become as a people, or even upon the essential durability of our financial markets.

Wall Street remains wholly dependent upon the self-destructive imitations of mass society. Such a mutually corrosive dependence or "synergy" can never succeed. Instead, we must first create conditions whereby each of us can feel important and alive without somehow surrendering to manufactured images of power and status. Without such altered conditions, millions of Americans and Europeans will continue to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness of daily life in mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs, and oceans of alcohol. Insidiously, without impediments, the resultant brew will effortlessly overflow and drown entire epochs of art, literature, and sacred poetry.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Dodd-Frank Act Be Repealed?]

Despite the endless noise and bravado, America is now generally an unhappy society, one where citizens can rarely find authentic meaning or satisfaction within themselves. Only this distinctly human problem of a socially crushed individualism can become the promising starting point for repairing what is fundamentally wrong with our broad economy and financial markets. All else is "epiphenomenal," or merely what philosophers since Plato have recognized as "shadows" of reality.

Were he alive today, Plato would call our economic problems a "sickness of the soul." Before Occupy Wall Street protestors continue to direct their anger at just the "usual suspects," a predictably futile exercise, they should first understand very basic logical distinctions between cause and effect. In matters of structural economic corruption, what now needs to be differentiated are underlying pathologies, and their visible symptoms.

"Pathologies" of engineered hyper-consumption are critical. In themselves, however, the "symptoms" of resultant unfairness and inequality, are never genuinely significant.

Corrected 02/16/2012: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Thorstein Veblen.