The “Deserving” 1%

The topic of the 1% who control 40% of this country’s wealth has been worn to death. But that doesn’t mean people will stop talking about it, or that they should. A good friend of mine was recounting a story he heard about the “amazing 1%” who are getting bad press when, in fact, they deserve their immense wealth because of their creativity, initiative,  and intelligence. He couldn’t recall his source, so I can’t tell you where he heard this. But no matter. I want to deal with the broad issue and it really doesn’t matter where the story comes from.

To begin with, it is a bit a bit outrageous to say that all of those who comprise the top 1% of the wealthy in this country are deserving of their wealth because of their creativity and ingenuity. Clearly, that is a half-truth, at best. Some, perhaps many, of those people deserve to be wealthy, because their ability should be rewarded. Whether this means their abilities deserve the hundreds of millions of dollars it translates into is another question when there are thousands of people in this country who cannot put food on the table. The “poverty level” is defined in terms of an income of $22,350.00/year  for a family of four — and more than 15% of this country is at or below that level. That’s nearly forty-seven million people! Further, it is estimated that there are 750,000 homeless in this country. Clearly there is a moral issue here: it’s a zero-sum game. The chances of those at the bottom of the financial pile ever getting on their feet, much less to the top, are slim to none.

The suggestion of the claim that the top 1% deserve their wealth is that the bottom 99% deserve to be deprived. This is nonsense, of course. There are a great many, thousands I dare to say, who deserve to be wealthy but who never will be because they have been denied the opportunity. Does one think for a moment that those in the top 1% didn’t have an advantage? I recall one of my former students who “made it” in the business world after two out-and-out failures. Each time he failed his millionaire father bailed him out and helped him start again. And yet in the years after his success he insisted that those in need deserved to be there– otherwise they would have worked their way up as he had. I’m not sure what you say to a person who makes such an outrageous claim. We eventually stopped talking.

For every member of the top 1% like Bill Gates who made it “big time” on the basis of his genius and determination, there are thousands of others who are there by virtue of birth, opportunity, luck, parental assistance and/or (dare I say it?) lies and deception. Recall Mitt Romney’s advice to recent college graduates that they should borrow $20,000.00 from their parents and start their own business. The man lives in a different world from the rest of us. How many people could do that? Only those who already have a leg-up.

The half-truth that those who have great wealth deserve it translates into the certainty that there are some wealthy people who deserve to be rewarded for their abilities. That the  huge reward is well deserved in the case of the 1% is highly doubtful in face of the obvious fact that there are so many who must do without and the related fact that so many of those who have great wealth did little if anything to deserve it.

But in the end, the problem is not reducible to moral quibbling. The huge disparity in wealth between the very rich and the very poor in this country coupled with the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” have serious implications with respect to the very survival of this society — as I have mentioned in previous blogs. The moral issue can be ignored, as so many are able to do in this society. But the question of our survival as “the land of opportunity,” where generations of immigrants have realized their dreams, where Horatio Algers were found on every hand, is yet to be answered.