This article is part of Uncommonwealth, a series of articles that discuss housing affordability, economic justice, and inequality in the United States.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast on NPRon how homeownership in the United States had now become a luxury. There were three guests on the show, including two financial advisors and the CEO of Redfin, a major real estate brokerage firm. Throughout the podcast, all three individuals acknowledged and lamented that owning a house was now unreachable for most Americans and that things were getting continually worse on this front.
“How would Americans build wealth now that they are mostly incapable of buying a home?!”, they asked. “We must build more houses to increase supply”, they said; “We need more loans from banks”; “We must create more subsidies and downpayment assistance programs to help Americans buy into the housing model”; “No, what we need is to help economically disadvantaged communities find other mechanisms for building wealth, like investing in the stock market”…
All sensible thoughts, to be sure, but what I found fascinating from this conversation is that none of the participants even remotely questioned the fact that — in our purportedly rich society — we as individuals are forced to figure out on our own how to build wealth to provide the basics for ourselves and our loved ones, the same basics that in other rich societies are more or less guaranteed.
But why is that the case? Why, while other rich nations are able to provide access to all basic necessities for the vast majority of their citizens, we in the United States must go it alone, go out of our way, struggling to figure out mechanisms for building wealth just to secure the basic necessities of life: housing, healthcare, education, retirement?Is not the definition of being rich not having to struggle to fulfill these basic needs?
The fallacy of accumulation and wealth
Throughout many parts of the world, and especially in the United States, there exists a culture that prioritizes a single thing above all others: the accumulation of money and wealth.
In the pursuit of wealth, we sacrifice our time, our families, our values, our energy, our communities, our planet, all with the unrelenting goal of achieving as much as we can materially in our productive years so that we may live more comfortably in our old age, so that our descendants may have a better life than ours.
Ever less attainable, however, the American Dream has become for most something akin to a nightmare. As wages stagnate and the cost of living continues to increase (in large part due to everincreasing real property prices), more and more Americans continue to struggle, working harder and longer, just to stay afloat, much less build wealth.
Round and round we go, helpless and frustrated, destroying ourselves, our lives, our institutions, our society, and our environment in this singleminded, endless seeking. We believe there simply is no other way and we have come to accept and normalize this destructive approach to life.
As those of us who are lucky enough to accumulate begin to do so, however, we realize the fallacy in all this: there is no end to our precarity, there is no permanent sense of security that can come from accumulation, there is no point at which we feel that we have enough…
Eventually, we realize that no matter how much we have got, we will always feel the need to accumulate even more. And even if we do end up with all the material wealth in the world, we continue to live in fear of losing it all, building walls and underground bunkers, daydreaming about colonies in space to keep out those less fortunate than we are and whom we now perceive as a threat.
Eventually, if we have any consciousness at all we begin to realize that we are not trying to meet real material needs through our striving, through accumulation; rather, we are working endlessly to quell what is truly an insatiable psychological need.
The compulsion to accumulate
Accepting the pursuit of money and wealth as a core value and a way of life is not a conscious, rational choice we each make because we have concluded that it is the best path forward. Rather, this behavior is a compulsion, a kneejerk response that arises from our fears: the fear of not having enough, the fear of losing it all, the fear of being left behind, the fear of unworthiness, the fear of knowing that if hard times were to strike you will be all alone, left to your own devices.
We seek money and wealth because we want to feel secure; because our need for psychological safety is the most predominant feature of what we have become as a society. In our minds, the only solution to this constant anxiety is to accumulate wealth at all costs. If we have enough money in our bank accounts, then we feel that we won’t need society, we will be able to purchase all the things we need, the basics and the luxuries and we will finally be able to rest from our unease…but then we never do, we never can.
We tend to think of this narrow mentality as somehow being intrinsic to who we are, as something immutable, as a feature that defines us as a nation or civilization. In reality, however, this mentality is a response to the weakened present state of our social contract. Continuously undermined by the extremist individualistic notion that a society is at its best when we are all left to our own devices and by the political project dedicated to eroding it, our social contract has disintegrated, shriveled, leaving us wallowing in a deep sense of abandonment, alienation, and fear.
Forsaken and living in constant fear of the future, not knowing how we will manage in our old age or how our children and grandchildren will fare as things get worse, our natural response is to grasp, to hoard, to strive to accumulate as much as we can, lest we are truly left behind.
The anxiety that lingers deep within us compels us to seek any measure of safety, to cling and to grasp, and the compulsion thus arises within us to pursue desperately and unconsciously — unaware of the damage we are causing — the wealth we believe will provide us the elusive sense of security we so eagerly seek.
We have been shown in American society time and time again that we are indeed alone. And we are left alone, unsupported, because we are so divided. Individuals in this country from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities cannot see others different from them as part of who they are, as part of their community, part of their humanity.
Rather than creating social systems that allow us all — rich or poor, black or white, average or exceptional—to access the basic necessities of all humans, we cruelly and foolishly resolve that we would rather be poor, insecure, uneducated, and ill than share the wealth we have extracted from our society with those whose very existence we begrudge; we have decided that we would rather have no meaningful social safety network, no universal healthcare, no affordable education, no universal housing than share access to all this with others whom we cannot relate to.
The cost of our choices
The cost of our greed and bigotry, our inability to empathize, and our lack of compassion is that we who live in a supposedly rich society ALL live in a permanent sense of precarity, of constant fear, and dread, no matter how poor or rich we are.
The forsaking of collective and cooperative values in favor of individualistic ones has led us to live not in a robust, prosperous, sustainable society but in a chaotic, predatory jungle in which the strongest prey on the weakest and in which we are all ultimately rendered vulnerable, miserable, and insecure.
The undermining of the social support that all humans need to thrive for the sake of a false and distorted notion of individual freedom is leading us all directly towards impoverishment, degradation, and societal collapse, but we are not willing to see it.
And the toll this has on us physically, mentally, and emotionally is tremendous. We in the United States are now falling behind other advanced economies, unable to keep up not only in terms of our quality of life but also even with regards to our life expectancy.
We must ask ourselves today, why do we truly care so much about building wealth? Is this a conscious pursuit or is it an irrational compulsion stemming from our fears and anxieties?
We must ask ourselves: if we were to live in a society with a truly level playing field, a society that was cooperative, in which all basic needs were affordably met and in which all of us were able to save at least part of our earnings, then how important would the accumulation of wealth be?
This compulsion, this collective disease, the unfettered quest for wealth is destroying us, it is dividing us and it is making us poorer than we ought to be. One oftenoverlooked consequence of this free-for-all mentality is that we are continuously blowing up our real estate markets.
For most Americans, the simplest, most straightforward approach to building wealth is to purchase a home. And for those of us who are in a position to do so, this approach to wealthbuilding is not only wellsanctioned by society but also heavily supported by government policy and subsidies.
The problem is that once we begin to see our homes, not as a home, but as an asset, we begin to distort our relationship with land, with our homes; we begin to subject our houses to a casino economy that seeks to maximize the value of our asset, our house, our land, rather than to preserve its dignity as a place in which we can live, grow, work, thrive, learn, and play.
We begin to build barriers to the supply of housing, we begin to hoard and to speculate while excluding those less fortunate than us from the game; we begin to promote policies and actions that lead not to affordable housing for everyone but to widespread exclusion, to real estate bubbles, and their inevitable crash.
We must normalize nonaccumulation
If our society is to survive, if our planet is to survive, then we need to wake up and realize that this compulsion that has taken over the hearts and minds of the vast majority of us is destroying all that we love.
We must realize that the answer is not to double down on “helping everyone” build wealth through housing or through more creative or specialized mechanisms like stocks and bonds. Those of us who advocate for this approach mostly do so out of the guilt that arises from knowing that our own wealth has nothing to do with our hard work, but, rather, with our own privilege and advantage.
We must realize that when we “become wealthy” from the nonproductive gambling in the real estate or stock markets or in cryptocurrency or in whatever other fanciful investment we may make we are not actually “building” wealth, we are simply transferring money from one person (generally someone poorer, less educated, with more limited access to information) to another (generally someone who has been bestowed by society an unwarranted advantage). This isn’t building wealth, this is theft.
Let us ask ourselves: “If I buy my house for $200,000 and sell it for $500,000, where does that difference come from?” “Is it value that I somehow with no effort of my own magically created or is it value that was created by society, by the businesses and workers in my city, by the thousands of people who moved here who work hard every day, value that I didn’t create and that I get to appropriate?”. Let us ask ourselves if that is fair.
What we need is not to help others get in on the racket. What we need is to restructure our society so that the incredible amount of wealth we have already built (in the US alone estimated at almost $100 trillion) is more evenly distributed; that every American has access to affordable high-quality healthcare and education; that every American has the ability to purchase or rent a home at a price that is affordable to them, regardless of where in the country they live or who they are; that every American is taken care of financially in their old age.
It is possible to do this, this is what it means to be rich: to be in a society in which everyone is able to easily fulfill their basic needs. As long as we are incapable of doing this, then we do not deserve to call ourselves rich.
We must start with ourselves and ask ourselves why we chose the job we have, why we make the investments that we make, why we glorify the billionaires. We must challenge the compulsion to accumulate wealth and realize that life would be so much better if we didn’t feel forced to participate in this rat race, in this American Nightmare.
And when we have mustered the courage, then we must challenge others and normalize the nonaccumulation of wealth and begin to design the features of a society that can allow us to achieve that. Other rich countriesare able to afford their citizens a much higher quality of life than ours without the imperative to build wealth, so we must know that it is possible.
How soothing, how refreshing, how nurturing the thought of being truly free, of living in a society in which you are not simply left to fend for yourself: free to choose your job because you love it; free to live anywhere you would like because you can afford to; free to spend time with your loved ones and travel on a regular basis; free from want and deprivation; free from the fears of falling behind, of being saddled by medical bills or tuition debt; free from the persistent anxiety that characterizes our regrettable way of life.