First there was John A. Thain's $87,000 rug. Then there was Citigroup's planned $50 million corporate jet.
Then the world of politics got involved this week when the New York State inspector general released a report saying that Antonia C. Novello, the former state commissioner of health, had such an ingrained tendency for shopping that she had employees from her office squire her on buying expeditions to Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and three different Albany-area malls.
Ill-advised shopping has certainly turned up recently in the news, and yet the issue also forms the core of a much more contentious and continuing debate. As spenders spend while the economy plummets, the psychiatric world is trying to decide whether compulsive buying should actually be considered a disease.
At least for now, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - which is known as the D.S.M. and is something like the bible of psychological maladies - does not list the condition as a technical disease. While shopaholism, as the laymen say, has been recognized by the German psychiatric community as a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it still awaits its day in the United States.
According to April L. Benson, author of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self," that day is almost certain to arrive.
"At best, shopping is an activity that can promote self-definition, even healing," Dr. Benson said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. "But like any behavior it can spin out of control. In extreme cases, there's no doubt it's a disorder. It can be as dangerous as drug or alcohol addiction. Suicides have been known to occur because of debt."
There has been no suggestion that Ms. Novello or Mr. Thain, who was pushed out after Bank of America took over Merrill Lynch, the brokerage giant he once ran, suffer from any disorder.
But the state inspector general wrote that one of Ms. Novello's subordinates said that her "fondness for shopping was so well known that employees in the office would give her sales fliers or coupons to encourage her to leave the office so that they would not have to work late."
The report, which also accused Ms. Novello of misusing state employees for other personal chores, was referred to the Albany County district attorney. Ms. Novello's lawyer, E. Stewart Jones, who did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment, has said that she did not do anything that calls for criminal prosecution.
The literature's first mention of compulsive buying was in the early 1900s by two of Freud's disciples, Eugene Bleuler and Emil Kraepelin, who coined the term oniomania - from the Greek root "onios," which means for sale - to refer to those obsessed with making purchases. Bleuler wrote of "buying maniacs" for whom even the simplest expenditure "is compulsive and leads to senseless contraction of debts." He suggested the condition was akin to kleptomania, describing it as a form of "impulsive insanity."
A leading expert in the field, Dr. Donald W. Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, suggested that compulsive shoppers tended to be women who have had relatives also predisposed to buying binges, and lived in areas overflowing with goods and the disposable income to buy them. He added that medical trials to treat the condition have been stymied by a lack of government funding.
There are some, however, who wonder whether oniomania should, in fact, be included in the D.S.M., including Dr. Jack Drescher, a Manhattan psychiatrist and former president of the New York County chapter of the American Psychiatric Association. After musing that the condition may not have much of a "cross-cultural effect" ("There are no shopaholics in poor countries"), Dr. Drescher said: "The question is, is there a pure strain of social behavior that leads people to shopping and nothing else?"
For Ellen Mohr Catalano, an executive coach and former self-help guru, the crucial question was treatment. Ms. Catalano, co-author of "Consuming Passions: Help for Compulsive Shoppers," suggested taking one's addiction in hand then "placing it away from who you really are."
"You don't tell yourself you can't do it, or can't have it," she cautioned. "You just give yourself some space."
As for the economy, it matters, Dr. Benson said. In fat times, compulsive shoppers work with extra fervor to keep up with the Joneses. But in lean times, their guilt is a conflicting brew of shame (widespread unemployment) and temptation (cut-rate sales).
"It's like giving matches to a pyromaniac," she said.