Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English


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The Lawfetchers

Here’s how ALEC works: A small group of wealthy, powerful men meet in secret and write a law that would bring lots of money to them and their friends. Then they fly a bunch of state legislators to a big shindig, wine and dine them, put them in a fancy hotel, wow them with speakers such as Milton Friedman and Dick Cheney. Then they share the laws with the legislators, who maybe tweak them a bit and then take them home and introduce them as their own. There must be a word for this. It’s not “representative,” and it’s not “democracy.” It might be “lobbying,” but ALEC’s lawyers evade this definition to slip through a loophole in anti-corruption laws. Anyway, “lobbying” is too weak a word. I’d say ALEC is more of an outsourcing of the most basic function of government. Our elected politicians aren’t lawmakers, they’re lawfetchers.


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How much do teachers work?

I teach high school English. I love my subject, and I love kids. My job is difficult and demanding, sometimes stressful. I’m far from perfect, and in the complex, ever-changing art of my profession, there are plenty of things I could do better. But there is one area in which I know I’m beyond reproach. I’m a hard worker.

Some people think that teachers have it easy. They think we work only nine months of the year, and part-time at that. So let’s see. How much do teachers work? I don’t know anything about national averages, but I can tell you about me.

During the school year, I very rarely put in a week of less than 60 hours. I’d like to use that number, because I’m completely confident that it’s an underestimation. My wife would say that my true average is much higher. I’m usually in the building for over 10 hours, and I rarely take a break at lunch. I have work at home maybe two or three, occasionally four nights a week. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a few hours. I get the bulk of my essay grading done over the weekend. And it takes many hours of sustained mental effort to grade a set of essays well. There’s no multitasking. You have to think hard.

My district’s academic year is 39 weeks, but a couple of those are only half-weeks, like Thanksgiving. So that means 37 weeks of 60 hours each, or 2220 hours, plus two weeks of 30. I feel safe using these numbers because I am certain that the reality is considerably higher. Over the three weeks of Christmas Break and Spring Break, I usually have a fair bit of grading, around 10 hours a week, for a total of 30 hours. This year, on Christmas Break, I had around 160 essays to grade. In the summer, we’ll say it’s a year I don’t go to a week-long teacher workshop. I do no schoolwork for two weeks, and then for the other seven weeks I work about 5-10 hours a week.  This summer, one of my many projects was to make props for the plays we read aloud in class. And I had meetings and work sessions with colleagues. So that’s at least 50 more hours. Then the week before school is full of preparation and meetings, a full 40-hour week—or more, if the lawfetchers in Columbus have been especially fecund. That makes a total of 2400 hours per year.

If you have the standard American workweek of 40 hours, and if you only get two weeks off out of the 52, then you put in 40 times 50, or 2000 hours. You’re 400 hours behind this teacher. Are there lazy teachers? Of course there are. There are lazy people in all professions. There are even some lawmakers lazy enough to let lobbyists make laws for them. But if there are any lazy teachers in this building, I haven’t met them yet. I’m proud to work in this school. The faculty and administrators and staff are nothing short of phenomenal. I’m amazed by what they do. I’m honored to be one of them.

I’m proud to be a teacher. I really like it when I meet people and I can answer the inevitable question, “What do you do?” by saying: “I’m a teacher.” I think that’s a really cool thing to be able to say.


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Yes, ALEC is Nonpartisan

ALEC calls itself nonpartisan. Some people question this, and point to the fact that over 99% of their members belong to the same party. But I think “nonpartisan” is quite right. To be partisan, you have to believe in a set of political principles. And on every major issue, ALEC is all over the political map, sometimes favoring progressive principles, sometimes conservative. Sometimes they’re libertarians, sometimes they’re champions of the welfare state.  Like some Democrats, they crave enormous and ever-growing public spending. They lie on their backs with their mouths open under the great federal spigot and only pause when they have to laugh.

ALEC is vehemently opposed to many core Republican principles. They will fight to the death against states’ rights: they think every state’s policy should be set by a small, secret committee of bureaucrats (them).

What about other issues, say, immigration? Well, if their companies can build the fence and provide the private border security, then they’re all about keeping the illegal immigrants out. But more commonly, as in the notorious Arizona law they wrote, ALEC wants to let the illegals in so that they can be arrested and put into the private prisons built by the taxpayer and operated, at a tidy profit, by ALEC members. Prisons for profit are an ALEC staple. In fact, their privatization strategy is pretty much the same for prisons and for schools: they get government money for each inmate or student; they supply the inmates or students with as little as they can get away with; they pay the guards or teachers as close to minimum wage as possible; they pocket the change. And the change, in both cases, runs into the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Two things America produces in great quantity are children and prisoners.

Republicans claim to be all in favor of small business. ALEC eats three small businesses over easy every morning. There are no ALEC members who run small businesses. The annual dues are 25 grand!

Most Republican state legislators are opposed to Affirmative Action which might help poor and downtrodden students attend state universities. But luckily for these principled politicians, ALEC is all for Affirmative Action. A portion of their corporate fees is set aside for what they actually call “scholarships” for poor and downtrodden state lawfetchers to attend the conferences.

ALEC adores government regulations. They write thousands of pages of the stuff every year. They are a factory for red tape.

Mitt Romney mocked Obama for his statement: “You didn’t build that.” And Republicans claim to be on the side of the people who build things, the people who do the real work that keeps the economy moving. ALEC is not interested in building. They’re into destroying and mooching. They are attempting to dismantle American public education, a huge and mostly successful institution that took a hundred and fifty years to build. And they mooch. The reason they target state houses is that they want public money. The for-profit universities want more government-sponsored loans that students will never be able to pay back, the online education providers want more local funding for their teacherless schools, the for-profit schools want more vouchers for wealthy families. ALEC doesn’t build anything, and they have nothing but contempt for the suckers who do.

And ALEC certainly isn’t Tea Party, though they like to direct the populist rage toward teachers. Tea Partiers froth at the mouth at the thought of any redistribution of wealth. ALEC is all about redistribution of wealth: from the taxpayers, from the workers, from the urban poor, from the country rednecks, from the suburban middle class, from the 99% … to them.


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Namaste: A Spiritual Approach to Grading

The reason why one is so vastly more fortunate to be a teacher of English, versus the uncapitalized subjects, is the grading. Yes, the grading. It’s a burden, it’s a bugaboo, it’s a bear. It’s the slayer of weekends. As Macbeth’s Gaelic teacher said, it doth murder sleep. And yet, if we are lucky enough to work in a district that does not overwhelm us with students, it is a source of lightness and rejuvenation.

Not always. There are plenty of times when I would echo Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Grading can get in the way—of my family, of my sanity, of my students’ education. And, no matter with what enthusiasm I approach a stack of essays, I might get beaten down by it. The poet Marianne Moore was talking about our subject, of course, not our job, but I’ll continue the quote: “however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”

When I find myself in that place for the genuine, that’s when I love my job. The grading of an individual essay is an occasion, a moment cut out from the regular march of time, an event of heightened consciousness. And though it’s a public act, it’s intensely private. I explain it to my students this way: it’s a meeting of minds. I expect them to dig into their hearts, and to grope outward into the unknown world, in every essay. And, as a reader, I expect the same of myself. What makes the write a rite is this commitment of reader and writer to find each other in a place for the genuine. Sometimes there is nothing genuine in an essay. The whole damn thing might have been cut and pasted from cheateressays.com. Or the student might be too frightened, too tired or too lazy to access their own authenticity. But with good planning and good luck, these problems can be minimized. More likely impediments are on our side of the red pen: our own fear, fatigue and laziness.

The solution isn’t coffee, though that might help. Rather, we, like many of our students, may need an attitude adjustment. For those who love tinkering with car engines, that is a self-energizing activity. The attitude with which they approach the work refreshes them psychically. But other people groan when they pop the hood, and curse under their breath as they gaze down at the old clunker. The chore depletes energy. With grading, the trick is to acquire that attitude which makes it energy-producing.

My trick is to take a moment before I begin a stack of essays and say, quietly, Namaste.

It’s a very old Sanskrit word and a traditional Hindu greeting: literally, “I bow to you.” But many writers in English, especially those of a spiritual bent, get a little carried away, and maybe something gets found in translation. One yoga teacher offered: “That which is sacred within me salutes that which is sacred within you.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and perhaps for some Hindus, that is the deep power of the word. In any case, it works for me when I modify it as a pre-grading mantra: “That which is genuine within me, may it find that which is genuine within each essay.”

* * *

Our assignments can be obstacles. If we make no invitation to the genuine, the student will either be obediently banal or be genuine in a destructive way. Either way, we lose—the grading is misery.

Formulae can have the same numbing effect. While boiler plates such as the five-paragraph essay may sometimes be unavoidable, and occasionally even useful, for our own sakes we have to minimize such institutionalized deadness. If the very structure we force students into is a cliché, we shouldn’t expect much originality.

Then there’s our method of grading. Rubrics have their place, but it isn’t a genuine one. They offer a tempting shortcut—and bypass the rougher, higher ground where minds can meet. By taking an essay as the sum of its parts, the rubric denies the essential mystery of any sincere piece of writing. I use rubrics for one-dimensional assignments that need a quick grade rather than a meaningful response—presentations, posters, etc.

Rubrics provide the comforting illusion of objectivity. But we can’t escape our subjectivity. And we shouldn’t commence our grading with the lie that we can. No student falls for it, even if we convince ourselves. We must continually inventory ourselves for favoritism, faulty assumptions and sloppy thinking. When we make a mistake, we must promptly admit it, fix it if we can, and learn from it. But we must accept our subjectivity. There’s no other route to the genuine.

Then there’s consistency, another bugaboo. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Later in “Self-Reliance” he wrote: “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I may not be a great soul, but I would like to grade soulfully. And this means, in effect, that I am open to be changed by a piece of writing. If the old proverb is correct, “You can never step into the same river twice,” then we will just have to admit: Two essays can never be graded by the same teacher.

* * *

We encourage our student-writers to take risks. Should we not take our own advice—and take risks in our grading? It might sound shocking at first. But if we don’t, aren’t we assuming that we’ve already reached some promised land of master teacher perfection? That we don’t need to grow? That the essay is a form without mystery? That the art of writing is a measurable, limited field of knowledge—a spreadsheet of words—and that we have the algorithm for converting it into a point value?

I must admit that a certain selfishness underlies this approach to grading. I believe that I have the basic human right to enjoy my work. I also believe that teacher and student are embarked upon a joint venture, and teachers lead not so much by knowing the way, but by being unafraid of the dark.

There’s a certain amount of idealism here, surely. I don’t live up to it all the time, maybe not half the time, but it’s what I always strive for. It’s the ideal I aspire to, and the sincerity of the labor is all I have to offer. That’s hard enough, anyway. Even now, as I do what is for me the pleasurable task of tinkering with my own writing, I’m procrastinating from a stack of essays.

But I will get to it. And I will start by taking a moment for my word.

Namaste. The word itself bows to us across the millennia and across the curving earth. The suffix, te, will be a familiar object to you if you know Spanish or French. It means “you,” in the familiar form, as direct object.   It’s the long-lost twin sister of Shakespeare’s thee. The Indo-Europeans—that Stone Age people we know only by the linguistic record—carried this steadfast syllable, always the familiar, sometimes the object, and it became tu in Urdu, Gaelic and Latin, toe in Farsi, ti in Russian and Welsh. Language is full of such hidden connections, and who knows what doors and passages are still secret from us. Students, when they write, inhabit this ancient and amorphous structure that is ever being clumped, unclumped and reclumped together by the collective endeavor of human consciousness. They invite us in. How can we turn them down?

 

 

* This essay was published in the July, 2011 issue of English Journal.


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Greatness and Mediocrity

I would like to add on to what Peter Greene wrote in a wonderful post on his Curmudgucation blog a couple months back, the “Myth of the Hero Teacher.

The successful district is not one with a hero teacher in every classroom. That’s a comic book. And in any case, even great teachers have bad days, bad months, bad years. If a hero teacher is the primary caretaker for an elderly parent with a long, slow decline, their heroism might be redirected. Getting divorced, having a child with cancer, suffering from depression can diminish greatness. A teacher might be great with some students but not others. Some teachers start out great, but burn out. Some teachers take a long time to become great.

If you have a school system in which students can only learn from the superhero teacher, what you have is a failing school system. You probably also have an unstable, unsafe community overwhelmed by the enormous societal problems in this country.

A great school district isn’t one with a great teacher in every room. A great school district is one in which mediocre students can learn from mediocre teachers. The great students will soar, the great teachers will inspire, but in a successful district, education will happen for pretty much everybody.

This does not in any way mean we should strive for mediocrity. Of course we should hire the very best people we can. And of course we should invest heavily in helping each teacher be the very best that they can be. And of course we should fire or counsel out the people who have no business being in the classroom. But even if you do all these things well, if your school district does not exist in a comic book or a movie, you will still end up with a range of teacher quality.

Education is a systemic endeavor, a community endeavor, a societal endeavor. The classroom is located within this context. It does not exist in some Marvel universe outside of the world and its problems.

The myth of the hero teacher is both a weapon and a smokescreen. It’s a handy club with which to beat teachers, and a distraction while reformers go about their real agenda: undermining school systems, weakening communities, and ignoring societal problems.


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Fear the Level Playing Field

It’s common knowledge that high school girls are outperforming boys, and that college enrollment is now close to 60 percent female. It is now easier for boys to get into most colleges than girls, as admissions offices strive to avoid hitting this 60%, what some call the “tipping point.” The debate over this ironic form of “affirmative action” has been curiously soft-spoken, but it has had one wonderful side-effect: it has exposed as a sham a traditional argument against affirmative action—that a person who is admitted due to their minority status will always feel that they don’t belong, that they were given an undeserved pass.

No one has used this argument to oppose this new almost-universal bias against women. Colleges quietly tilt the playing field and never, ever, ever worry that men will suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

Because the same people who used that argument have now forsaken it, we can see it as the shabby circular reasoning it always was. The argument might be paraphrased: just as these males shouldn’t feel inferior because they’re not inferior, those minorities should have felt inferior because they were inferior. It’s merely the members of a privileged group projecting their feelings of superiority onto perceived interlopers. George W. Bush himself embraced this argument—even though it was refuted by his own experience, when, as a “legacy,” he was comfortable being admitted to Yale over more qualified men and women.

The evaporation of this specious argument is an ironic delight. But there’s a much more important item absent from the debate about the decline in boys’ performance: the most obvious explanation. This explanation is not notable for its certainty—it may not be the true root cause. But, because it is so blindingly obvious, it should be the first hypothesis that we consider.

To use the level playing field analogy, let’s imagine a controlled experiment. In the past, the field was tilted: men were playing downhill, women uphill. Men were winning. Now the field is level. Women are winning. If nothing else has changed, it’s a matter of basic deduction: women are smarter.

Pundits have bent over backwards to find that something else that has changed. Personally, my first bet would be video games (which seem to me to be vacuum cleaners for gray matter), but this line runs into a powerful lobby and rarely gets far. It’s easier to attack education, which, we are told, favors girls—who are better at sitting and thinking. And don’t forget: most teachers are women. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that boys were doing fine in the same educational system in the past. And recent years have brought more “boy-friendly” strategies and more male teachers—with little effect.

It’s more likely that the decline (if there is one) is not in educators’ sensitivities but in boys’ self-discipline. This is a fascinating question, but enormously complicated, with a web of intermingling culprits (parents? popular music? atrocious diets? ADHD epidemics?). Such a nebula of causes is pretty much unfathomable, and certainly does not condense into saleable books and programs—the stuff of which careers in punditry are made. Far easier to attack something smaller and more subject to control: education. And conveniently, this plays into the talking points of those who have led the vilification of teachers in recent years, and also those political demagogues and business interests intent on dismantling public education.

Why do we shy away from the most obvious explanation of the data? As a man, I see no cause to take offense at such a suggestion. I’m smarter than many millions of men and women, and many millions of men and women are smarter than me. What does it matter that there’s a few million more women in the latter category? Or that, statistically, women are one or two or three percent more intelligent? In a world of seven billion people, such percentages are irrelevant.

Personally, I’m far from convinced that an innate intelligence difference is a significant cause of the problem. What is significant is our willful ignorance of the most likely explanation. If we allow our fear to blind us to the obvious, then how can we possibly look at the problem honestly? And what are the real motives behind our accusations and proposals?

A more likely culprit for boys’ decline, in my opinion, is a potent resentment caused by the loss of power and status, a sense of denied birthright that some boys and men feel nowadays: a thwarted entitlement; a haunting sense that we aren’t important anymore, and may not even be necessary. It’s an existential paranoia. Such feelings often run deep and hidden, and have great destructive power. Witness fanatical Muslim terrorists yearning for a return of some medieval caliphate, or our homegrown zealots fantasizing about the “next American century.” Lost power is a humiliation. It hurts.

My hunch may be way off. And there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of overlapping and intermingling causes. But I don’t think action needs to be so complicated. Maybe that too is blindingly obvious. If we can overcome tribalism, and begin to think of ourselves as part of one tribe of seven billion, we’d go a long way toward solving this and other problems. No gender, creed, race, or nationality produces inherently superior or inferior humans.

I remember, some years ago, being thunderstruck one day when I saw an advertising billboard featuring Joe Camel. He leaned on a sports car with a sexy woman in the background. I knew that I was part of the target audience: a male. Yet it amazed me. The advertisers were expecting me to identify with a camel, because it was male, rather than a human, because it was female. They were expecting my gender identity to trump my species identity! And it worked, of course it worked. Advertisers know how I think.

This knee-jerk response, splitting the world into male and female, sensing a tribal rift, this is the real problem. It’s not something that can be overcome easily or quickly, but it is something we can work on, something that we can face honestly.


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The Rich are Stupid

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.