If we can slightly alter Forrest Gump’s famous maxim to “stupid is as stupid thinks,” then we must deduce that rich people are stupid. Not because they lack intelligence or make dumb choices, but because they tend to believe some silly things. My father, whose brilliance still occasionally breaks through the clouds of Parkinson’s Disease, explained to me why so many brilliant people were taken in by that unprepossessing louse Bernie Madoff: “Greed is a solvent for intelligence.” True enough. And wealth (the having of money) like greed (the wanting of money) also affects one’s thinking. If it is not a solvent for intelligence, it is at least a corroder of it.
I’d like to look at two of the more common fantasies that rich people actually believe. Like the Easter bunny, in exchange for credulity these fantasies deliver goodies as sweet and hollow as chocolate eggs. But these confections are of a moral order: they tickle our moral taste buds, our feelings about our purpose and goodness. Similar to candy, the sugar buzz passes quickly but leaves behind a little rot in the intellectual teeth with which we bite into reality.
And so I submit two fallacies of wealth: two easily disprovable humbugs that are accepted as unquestionable truth. Each of the fallacies is destructive in itself, but they also lead to some truly pernicious corollaries that bring us great peril.
FALLACY #1: WEALTH IS NECESSARY
This fantasy is taken to a comic extreme by the modern Republican Party, which calls the rich the “engines of economic growth” and “job creators.” This is self-serving for the billionaires who own the party, of course. But our economic system is called “capitalism,” not “wealthism.” What is needed for its smooth running is capital. And it doesn’t make any difference to the machine if its fuel comes from Warren Buffett, a mutual fund, taxation, or Kickstarter.
Wealth is inevitable in capitalism—it just isn’t a necessity. In fact, it is inevitable in any economic system. The rich we will always have with us. Some people, through intelligence, willpower, greed or cruelty will find ways to make a lot of money. No society has ever eradicated wealth, though some have professed to. In fact, in claiming to eradicate it, governments have created only totalitarianism based on lies, not to mention economic catastrophe. These are healthy, laudable impulses: owning property, improving one’s material circumstances, planning for the future, and increasing one’s comfort and leisure. But for these conditions to rise to the status of wealth, or our current super-wealth, is not necessary for the system to work.
I do not mean here to critique capitalism itself, nor to suggest that rich people are immoral. I propose no radical policy, but only reasonable honesty. Wealth is inevitable, and can be a positive force in a free market system. But we could get along just fine with a whole lot less of it.
COROLLARY 1A: WEALTH IS A MORAL GOOD
Once the first fallacy has taken root in the mind, the next step is almost subconscious. If wealth is necessary for the system, and the system is a moral good (a premise Americans accept as a given), then the corollary need not even be argued. It is self-evident. And now, if I am a wealthy person, I start to feel really good about my wealth. I can bear any exposure to the miseries of poverty without the slightest twinge of guilt. My attitude toward the poor is pity.
This corollary helps to explain the contempt the ascendant plutocrats have toward organized labor and civil servants—it’s more than just a power play to destroy a Democratic base. It also helps to explain the odd antipathy toward teachers that has taken hold of our popular discourse in recent years, and the rise of charter and for-profit schools. When wealth is a moral good, then the profit motive becomes a cleansing force. People who want to have a career in working for the common good (unless their profession has been politically marginalized by religion) are automatically suspect. Schools should be run for God or Mammon. There is no other motivation that makes sense in a plutocracy. That teachers, or letter carriers, or IRS agents, or cops, etc. should aspire to a solid middle-class lifestyle while doing something positive for society simply does not compute.
Eric Cantor, number two in the House majority leadership, used a frequent euphemism for wealth when he accused Obama of wanting to “more heavily tax the most successful Americans.” Obviously there is only one type of success in Cantor’s world. Mitt Romney has a house in that world too: The only possible explanation of criticism of his millions was “the bitter politics of envy.” Humanity is divided into those who succeeded in becoming rich, and those who failed.
COROLLARY 1B: POVERTY IS NECESSARY
COROLLARY 1C: POVERTY IS A MORAL GOOD
These two steps are trickier and I expect would be denied by many rich people. Certainly they would be refuted by many economists. But economists, as an economist might say, respond to incentives. Give a dismal scientist a cushy gig at the Heritage Foundation, or some such position of prestige and remuneration, and who couldn’t rationalize the trickle-down theory?
Their logic doesn’t hold. It is not possible for everyone to be rich. The current alarm over the environmental costs of the masses of China and India aspiring to Western lower-middle-class standards of living is evidence enough of this reality. The global economy is infinitely complex, and isn’t a simple zero-sum game. But at the same time, the using of resources by some people inevitably takes them away from others. It takes a lot of poverty to create a little wealth. In fact, we might even define wealth as the distribution of poverty to one’s advantage.
In the America of the last 30 years or so, the rise of the super-rich and their political power has coincided with the decline of unions, the stagnation or decline in middle and lower class wages, and an increase of poverty. This vast redistribution of wealth cannot possibly be coincidental.
Here is the argument of the plutocrats, an argument that is often hidden, even from themselves: The system is good; wealth is good; you cannot have wealth without poverty; therefore, poverty must be good. And now the class lines harden, resentment and suspicion rise, and America is no longer the land of opportunity, but has one of the lowest levels of class mobility among developed nations. The attitude of the rich toward the poor is now indifference. A shrug.
FALLACY #2: I DESERVE MY WEALTH
Funny as it ought to be, many people who inherited their money actually believe this. They might frame it in terms of “birthright” or a sense of belonging to a class or family, or they might see it as a sort of responsibility, a family burden, that absolves them of guilt. I suppose the foundation for this fantasy is slowly built up by the childhood years of being socialized to privilege, by the endless parade of enablers and fawners, by a limited circle of acquaintance, by the subtle blackmail of being liberated from the consequences of selfishness and mistakes, by the narrowing of options and increasing of pressure during adolescence. Just like those who are photographed with the cheesecake smile and the oversize Powerball check, the heir and heiress won the lottery. But they won it at birth and have 21 years to get used to the fact, which is why their record for holding on to the money is somewhat better than the hapless winners of huge government jackpots who so often squander it all within a few years.
A succinct expression of the heir’s justification was put forward by the Earl of Grantham, the grand lord of the BBC’s Downton Abbey series. His aristocratic family’s money is long gone. (It is not explained if this fortune was gained by slave plantations in the West Indies, by paying starvation wages in Yorkshire factories and mines, or by simply forcing his tenants to live in squalor.) He held on to the estate by marrying American money. He has no job other than being earl. The vast inequalities of his surroundings, the violently unfair system of which he is beneficiary—all this is rationalized when he says, “I am the caretaker or this fortune, not the founder of it.” To him, this is not a statement of the absurdity of luck, but of sacred duty.
I would argue that it isn’t possible to earn a million dollars. No single person does work that valuable. You can make a million dollars, you can get it, inherit it, or steal it, you can be paid it, but nobody can earn it. Nobody can deserve it.
Take, for example, three captains of industry who started with little and built vast fortunes: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Apologists who seek to justify such successes generally have two justifications: hard work and genius.
Hard work is cheap. Most people work hard. Hard work is, merely, the cost of admittance to be a full-fledged adult member of the human race. You either work hard, or you’re a loser. Bill Gates is legendary for his long hours. But did he work harder than a single mother of three with three jobs? Than his janitor? Than the seven-year-old who removes copper from the toxic remains of his trashed computer in an Indian slum? Than the Honduran woman who bends over a sewing machine for 14 hours a day so that he can buy his socks for $3.99 a pair? The world is crawling with people who day-to-day bust their butts for a pittance.
What about brilliance? Again, this is an overrated commodity when it comes to getting rich. Mark Zuckerberg appears to be a very smart guy, and he certainly had a very good idea. But as everyone knows he made his fortune by winning a race to get that idea started before anyone else. Facebook’s success was all about being first. Many people had more or less the same idea—some slower competitors may have even had better ideas—but Zuckerberg won the race. If his idea was so brilliant that no one else could have had it, then there would have been no race.
Steve Jobs is credited with having ideas that no one else would have had. That may be true, and his innovations are certainly wonderful. But the vast empire of Apple, Inc. is built not on genius, but on mundane business practices: low pay for the domestic workforce and sweatshop labor abroad; blackmail of cities to get tax breaks; hiding of the environmental and human costs of acquiring raw materials and of processing discarded equipment; monopolies; tax shelters; planned obsolescence; savvy marketing; top-notch lawyers; a $500,000 federally backed fund’s investment that made the Apple blossom special in 1984; and, as we have just recently learned, collusion with competitors to suppress salaries.
But the most absurd justification of all has been advanced by hedge fund CEOs to support their special tax breaks: they take risks (with other people’s money) for the good of society. As humorist Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. If we really wanted to use risk-taking for the good of society as the criterion for deciding who should be in a lower tax bracket, what professions would you list as most deserving? Would hedge fund CEOs be in the top 1000? And here we see what it takes to be a successful Republican. Eric Cantor has shown that he is capable of standing in front of a microphone and saying that hedge funds deserve tax breaks . . . with a straight face. A rare gift.
What enables a person to get rich, I suspect (besides luck, or course) is most often a mind-set, a skill set, a type of intelligence, or simply a talent for making money. It’s a wonderful talent to have. It might be combined with brilliance or determination, or it might not. It might be channeled by noble ideals, or it might be purely selfish. It is value-neutral.
COROLLARY 2A: THE POOR DESERVE THEIR POVERTY
In narcissistic America, we have a cultish devotion to the fantasy of the self-made man. This conveniently places the cause of my good fortune within myself. The temptation to apply the same reasoning to the poor is irresistible. And now my pity and indifference have turned to contempt.
And here we can see the necessity of vicious Republican (and often Democratic) economic policies. Cruelty toward the poor is an integral part of their entire moral and intellectual framework. If they were to entertain the notion that the sufferings of the poor were due to external macro-forces (and not due to intrinsic micro-flaws in the characters of poor individuals), then they would be forced to question their cherished self-image.
Cruelty to the poor only makes them need to inflict more cruelty. They have to keep up the assault, they have to keep imagining enemies in every dark corner: communists, socialists, redistributors, welfare queens, collectivists, and other bogeymen. To do otherwise is to admit that their entire world might be an illusion. And people fear nothing more than the death of their illusions. To let up on the assault is to suggest that war may not be necessary. If they stop attacking, they may realize that their foes do not exist. The name for this situation is class warfare. But it feels so cleansing and natural to the plutocrats that they can’t see it as such. Not until someone complains: the rich call it class warfare when the poor fight back.
MORALS AND REASONS
“Man is a moral animal,” said the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón, “abandoned in an amoral universe.” We need to believe that we are good, even while the amoral universe inhabits us and torments us with troubling compulsions. Many say that this moral insecurity is especially pronounced in America, which has a strong Calvinist streak and has always cast itself as a “city on a hill.”
Benjamin Franklin, with his tongue, as usual, firmly in his cheek, explained how one might reconcile these impulses. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
In Franklin’s case, the thing he had “a mind to do” was to eat a fish, despite his vegetarian principles. Among the things his contemporary Americans had a mind to do were to enslave Africans and murder Indians. Preachers found some reasons (slavery in the Old Testament, for example) and politicians made others (manifest destiny). The things we all have a mind to do, then and now, are those potent amoral desires for wealth, sex, power, comfort, etc. If we can’t, like Buddha, rid ourselves of desires altogether, or, like Jesus, tame our desires to our morals . . . why, then we deify our desires and tame our morals to serve them. It’s a lot easier.