Beyond the “Fear and Greed Index”

Investors are driven by two emotions: fear and greed.

— CNN-Money

These days, for the 5% of Americans who have substantial cash to invest, it has become increasingly easy to acquire large capital-gains in stock-market equities, even over the short-term.  Super-wealthy investors, with periodic bolstering from the Fed, nowadays produce the frequent bubbles of absurdly inflated share-prices, later cashing out just before the predictable slump occurs.  Such gains are then taxed at only a 15% rate, far lower than the 28% rate imposed on most wage-dependent earners.  Moreover, of course, as such investors die — notwithstanding their frequent hubris about mortality (cf. my article “Greedy Old Plutocrats”), they leave behind obscenely massive “estates,” the cash-value of which is then passed on tax-free (up to the current lifetime gift tax limit of $11.58 million).

CNN’s quite-serious assertion about human motivation is constantly calculated in their “Fear & Greed Index.”  One may laugh at the fatuous reduction of the human being to a subhuman creature, reduced to such two “basic instincts,” but few would deny that the typical big investor is just such a creature.  What about the immeasurable joys of just being alive?  All is frozen and reduced — to this one primal craving for “more” (and dread about “less”).  “Having” becomes all, and with it, the reduction of all qualitative experience into the calculable: “how much”?

A century ago, in his brilliant essay on “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903), sociologist Georg Simmel linked this drastic diminution of human experiential-values to urban life , with its all-embracing “market-values” imposing a price-tag on everything. (These days, for instance, billionaires routinely acquire “trophy-wives.”). Historically, the city has always been a marketplace, in which human consciousness increasingly exhibited the shared delusion that daily living consists almost exclusively of “buying” and “selling.”  The informal rhythms of pastoral-agrarian life — with its ever-varied aesthetic-sensuous qualities (sunsets, newborn calves, the melting-of-the-last-snow) — were increasingly forgotten.

The basic human motivation — in extreme cases, described by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm as an “anal-hoarding” fixation — became a single-minded, obsessive avarice, and with it the often-pornographic obsession with the “pleasures” such wealth may bring.  In our current, urbanized world, vast realms of human experience, subjective and interpersonal states which cannot be quantified, perhaps do not even “exist”–from the affectively stunted, diminished awareness of such ever-calculating wealth-addicts.

Exultant feelings of emerging “enlightenment,” poignant moments of pathos about a loved one’s fallibility and transience, loving glances of devotion and tragicomic forbearance, solitary jubilation when one’s embattled integrity is redeemed, enchanted delight in the buoyant song and graceful flight of a single bird, wounded yet unbowed moments of somber resolve — such are some of the high-points of the incalculable affirmation of being fully alive.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.