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Crimes of Economic Madness

I am long used to my hometown Baltimore being the murder capital of the nation. Suddenly this week Maryland is the murder-suicide capital. We have seen two such gruesome crimes this past week, and what makes them especially distressing (if such superlatives are even possible given the crime) are reports that they were sparked by economic troubles endemic to this current recession.

In Frederick County, last weekend, Christopher Wood shot himself, his wife and three children, apparently driven to despair by $450,000 in mortgage and credit card related debt. Soon after, in Towson, Maryland, William Parente strangled his wife and two daughters before strolling over to a nearby Crate and Barrel, purchasing a knife, and stabbing himself; preliminary investigations suggest that Parente was defaulting on millions of dollars of investments made for clients.

The first thought that leaps to my mind – all minds- upon hearing emerging details behind the crimes is, why the family, too? It’s one thing to kill yourself, but why take out your whole family with you? According to neighbors and those who knew these men, it seems they were otherwise largely normal, even good citizens and fathers. What could drive them to such horrific explosions of insanity?

A colleague of mine once declared, while musing over outrageous CEO salaries, that greed is a form of mental illness. What else can you say about shameless executives jockeying for more money than they can possibly spend in a lifetime? I laughed at the remark at the time- my colleague is a veteran socialist, famous for dramatic comments. After the Wood and Parente cases, however, I wonder if he isn’t right … Though in these crimes we are seeing this illness in its sudden, monstrous inverse.

How can you kill yourself, much less your little children and wife- and for debt? This seems inconceivable to me, no matter how deep the debt. These men were blinded- by what? They could not imagine life for themselves or their families in bankruptcy or penury. I suspect the shame killed them inside, too. Perhaps they could not look their children in the eye, or their parents, their neighbors- or themselves. They had failed to meet society’s standards of success, and had bet the house- literally- in straining to achieve them. In itself, though, I don’t believe this is enough to drive them over the edge; no, they must been nursing some incipient madness to begin with…

It seems that both Messrs. Wood and Parente were caught up in familiar rackets of the economic bubble that recently crashed: Wood had speculated on a house in Florida- no money down; Parente took advantage of the real estate boom to provide bridge loans for construction- and then turn around and offer Madoff- like returns to his investors. In short, it looks like these men were bitten by the bug of greed that infected our economy and brought it to its knees.

They were victims (I loathe to call them that, but no other word really suits) of our financial frenzy that involved tremendous leveraging and risk taking, all for the prospect of riches. What happened to mere comfort as a worthy goal of a lifetime? Or safety, contentment, security? No, those goals are not good enough for us any longer: we dream of Larry Ellison’s billions; we are inspired by George Soros’ bold risk taking. This risk taking is madness itself, lured by unreasonable demands and goals.

The Obama administration is right to insist on future regulations to our banking and investment systems that may reign in excessive risk taking and lighten future economic crashes. It seems increasingly evident, however, that something else requires repair, something that transcends mere policy work: the American Dream.

The American Dream is a pretty silly notion, really, and yet it has drawn Americans on for decades, motivating us to economic productivity rarely matched around the globe. Americans work unseemly hours, and commute unseemly distances- for what exactly? A bigger house on a bigger lot, with a larger garage and more numerous, more spacious cars. We must have flat screen TVs in every room- even the bathroom, too, the New York Times reports this week from a homebuilders’ convention. Americans move on average every seven years.

Why can’t we stay put? What drives such restlessness? It’s this Dream, I suspect: we can never have enough. Donald Trump is now a TV star, nightly reminding us that his story, his rude ambition, his real estate empire and penthouse suites, is the American way.

The Parentes harked from Garden City, a perfectly lovely upper middle class enclave on Long Island. What could possibly spark Mr. Parente to want more than his comfortable law firm salary provided? Somehow he saw stars in his eyes – the obscene wealth glinting from every corner of Manhattan, perhaps- and was emboldened to strike up lucrative investment products on the side.

Friends in Manhattan who witnessed first hand the recent bull market report that six figure salaries were no longer good enough- millions were expected, and they, too, were often not good enough. In short, exorbitant incomes were expected- the model set by hedge fund managers accruing unimaginable fortunes in short time spans. New York had not seen wealth like the hedge fund wealth, according to a longtime East Side friend. And hedge fund wealth quickly became the norm. And indeed, it still is- how else to explain the shameless, indignant insistence of government subsidized bankers and brokers angling for their bonuses? Immense gain is the name of the game- how you get there matters less and less.

Now, one of my Manhattan friends has run away and taken a job with a non-profit in suburban Maryland. She describes it as a sort of escape from a madhouse, where people were locked into outrageous expectations with outrageous demands. That fever gripped the entire nation in recent years, to a certain extent. Smaller time gamblers took on second homes in Florida, for example- like the Woods. We were all wrapped up in a wider insanity that now explodes in crimes of economic madness.

In addition to fiscal reform, we require a cultural reformation. Americans need new professional goals, new financial demands, involving realistic and reasonable ambitions, less risk taking – and stress. Did we really enjoy ourselves over the past decade, driving hours to and from 12 hour work days, balancing multiple mortgages and deep credit card debt, gorging on a mammoth consumer binge? It appears not; we were still unsatisfied, always wanting more. This lifestyle was not enjoyable while we were in it; now that its bubble has burst, mutilated families- the Woods and Parentes-drop from its bottom. There must be a better way. We need a new standard for happiness

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is a Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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