What's Your Poison?

Economic greed and fear are two sides of the same coin. When things start getting better, will the preoccupation with money also abate? Or will fear simply be replaced by another cycle of greed?
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Forty years ago, two-fifths of America's 6.7 million college students defined themselves "mainly by their lack of concern about making money," according to a Fortune poll cited by Rick Perlstein in his superb book Nixonland.

Twenty-five hundred years before that, the Buddha identified three "poisons" as the causes of all human suffering: greed, aversion and delusion. We all want desperately to prolong what makes us feel good (greed) and get rid of what's painful (aversion). If you don't, you're either enlightened or delusional.

Everyone is poisoned by all three, but Buddhism maintains that each of us specializes in one more than the others. I'm more of a fear guy, though greed pokes through from time to time. As for delusion, at least I think I know that I don't know anything. Well, not really, but you get the point.

The economy, the sum of all our financial actions, also exhibits the poisons, and the dominance of one or another comes in cycles. You can chart greed's upswings through the lens of film history. Eric Von Stroheim's 1924 epic Greed (which, perhaps greedily, ran nine hours, till aversive studio execs slashed it to two). Ayn Rand is famous for her essay The Virtue of Selfishness, and her tribute to this philosophy, The Fountainhead, was released as a film starring Gary Cooper in 1949 -- just as America entered the post-WWII boom. Some believed greed reached its apotheosis in the '80s, symbolized by Gordon Gekko, the main character in Wall Street, who posited it as a moral good.

But we now know that Michael Milken and company, Gekko's real life analogs, were pikers compared to the orgy of speculative greed that ran rampant until a few months ago.

Of course, a web of delusion sustained and nurtured the greed. That so many smart people "knew" Bernie Madoff was legit was just a symptom of the ignorance that consumed the markets and the national mood.

Last fall, in the blink of an eye, fear took hold like a magnitude-10 earthquake, and now rumbles through so many of our thoughts, decisions and actions. Instead of grasping to increase their gains, people are terrified of losing their jobs, their homes and what's left of their diminished assets.

There's good reason to be scared. Things may well get worse before they get better. What might be helpful -- apart from the massive recovery plan that needs to happen ASAP -- is the recognition that delusion is never far behind. Today's doomsday scenarios -- just turn on cable news or read the front page or the financial section of any paper -- mirror the over-optimism of the recent past.

Economic greed and fear are two sides of the same coin: the overriding concern with money. Disavowed by so many boomers all those years ago, it's now become a defining characteristic of who we are, in good times and bad.

When things start getting better -- and you don't have to be a spiritual or financial guru to observe the cyclical nature of economics -- the fear will diminish. But will the preoccupation with money also abate? Or will fear simply be replaced by another cycle of greed?

The lesson of the three poisons isn't to stop pursuing pleasure or trying to avert disaster; these are normal and healthy pursuits. But if we can temper not our desires but our desperation for their fulfillment, our suffering will diminish. And that's no delusion.