Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.

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Controlling The Masses

With tongue in cheek, I recently imagined the possibility that a small group of very wealthy men meet secretly to decide what steps should be taken to continue the status quo — to allow them to continue to amass huge profits and maintain their power in a supposedly democratic society. I want now to suggest that while the meeting of such men might be a “paranoid fiction,” the notion that the country is becoming increasingly undemocratic and that the wealthy exercise their power in insidious ways is by no means a fiction.

In his book The Revolt of The Elites, subtitled “And The Betrayal of Democracy.” Christopher Lasch notes that the dissolution of classes was one of the “great benefits of democracy.” He quotes Henry Adams as saying that “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization now aims at this mark.” Lash, in expanding on this claim, notes how we have always rejected the notion that there is in this country a “laboring class.” As he goes on to point out

“A laboring class implied as its necessary antithesis a learned and leisure class. It implied a social division of labor that recalled the days of priestcraft when the clerical monopoly of knowledge condemned lay people to ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition. To have broken that monopoly — the most pernicious of all restraints on trade, since it interfered with the circulation not only of commodities but also of ideas — was widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the democratic revolution.The reintroduction of a kind of clerical hegemony over the mind would undo that achievement, reviving the old contempt for the masses and the contempt for everyday life that was the hallmark of priestly societies. It would recreate the most obnoxious features of class societies, the separation of learning from everyday experience.”

In other words, democracy is incompatible with the notion of social or economic classes. In a democracy everyone is educable and all have a right to participate fully in the political process. Priestcraft presupposes an intellectual elite that has knowledge and exerts power through that knowledge, as was the case, for example, in ancient Egypt. These classes of men were less concerned about closeness to their God than they were about their presumed authority over the ignorant. As Lasch notes in this regard, “[Priestcraft] was incompatible with the authority of reason and freedom of mind.” And that’s the point.  Ignorance among the many was encouraged in order to assure the power of those who knew — or claimed they know. Is it possible that we are headed down that same road?  Lasch does not suggest this, but I do wonder.

Consider these items: To begin with there is the obvious shrinking of the middle class in America, the continued growth in wealth and power of the very rich, and the growth in the numbers of the poor who depend upon others for their daily bread. Next, there is the widespread attack on the public schools, targeting such things as teacher unions which seek to assure the teachers a living wage and, presumably, allow the profession to attract better minds to our schools which currently rank near the bottom of the 32 “developed” countries. This trend is coupled with the stress on job-preparation in the schools and the trend away from liberal learning in the colleges, a trend that assures that those who graduate will know something about one or two subjects, but lack the ability to think critically about things outside the area of their expertise. They may learn how, but they are not encouraged to ask why.

Both of these trends seem directed toward creating a class of persons who will make good workers but fail as leaders, malleable and adaptable, but not thoughtful and imaginative. The very few who can afford to attend private schools and continue to amass great wealth might very well be separating themselves as a “priestly class” who claim to know what is best for the country and — through the media which they control — what is best for the masses to think about. It was never clear that the priestly class in Egypt really knew anything important, but it was clear that they used what they knew to control those who knew even less. Knowledge is power; ignorance guarantees the lack of power.

Though I hesitate to attribute superior knowledge to our “ruling elites,” a pattern is emerging that suggests the priestly class that claims to know and thereby gains control over those millions they keep in the dark by pulling the strings of those they have seated in places of political power and controlling the media that daily preaches to the masses the false values of a materialist culture.

Priorities

There was an interesting take on the aftermath of the recent World Cup games in Brazil. The author nicely balances the pros and cons and leaves it to the reader to balance the two. For me, the cons greatly outweigh the pros: it is not just the USA that has its priorities skewed; the entire world seems to — as the article makes clear.

In the end, soccer’s governing body got everything it wanted – beautiful new stadiums, surprisingly efficient transportation, high-scoring matches, record TV ratings and a perpetual stream of images of fans having the time of their lives plastered all over social media. An even more significant victory was the muting of the protests that overshadowed last year’s Confederations Cup. They were nowhere to be seen, at least not within view of the international media’s cameras, as the focus remained squarely on the football much to the delight of FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.

But after traveling around the country and seeing the situation up close, it was clear that the outspoken proponents of improved services and functioning infrastructure were the biggest losers. Whether it was roads in desperate need of maintenance outside Natal or the abject poverty not far from Arena de Sao Paulo, you could understand why people here would gather and scream at the top of their lungs about $500 million spent on Maracana’s second renovation in seven years or the $300 million used to build a world-class soccer stadium in Manaus, an Amazonian jungle city with no top-tier soccer team and little use for a 40,000-seat venue requiring millions more to maintain.

Seriously?? A 40,000 seat venue in the middle of the jungle while thousands nearby cannot put food on their plates? Isn’t this a bit like fiddling while Rome burns??

Good Fortune

In reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov I have noticed a number of recurring themes. I have commented in a previous blog on one of them: the conviction on Chekhov’s part that in great measure a person’s good fortune is simply a matter of luck. Another theme that recurs is the conviction that one person’s good fortune is only possible as a result of the hard work, suffering, and even death of others less fortunate. This is a thought that may or may not be true, but it is almost certainly one that never crosses the minds of very wealthy folks, like the Koch brothers, for example, who have earned their millions by sending the less fortunate to work in their coal mines and oil fields to sweat and strain so the brothers can use their millions to live the high life and attempt to buy a government. Nor does it occur, I dare say, to John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s pizza chain whose employees work for minimum wage and are cajoled into voting for the candidate of the owner’s choice at election time. And one must wonder how much time the descendants of Sam Walton have spent worrying about the thousands of exploited workers who sweat and toil so the Walton heirs can sleep on silk sheets and eat at the best restaurants. In any event, it does seem to me to be a thought worth considering and I have selected a couple of passages from two short stories by Chekhov to convey the rather persuasive way he presents his case.

In the first case, “Gooseberries,” the narrator has this reflection:

“obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would not be possible. It’s a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as the wind stirs an aspen — and everything is fine.”

We hear the echoes of the notion that good fortune and happiness are a matter of luck, and as Chekhov says in another place, quoting Pushkin, “Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion.” Indeed. But the notion that happiness for one person rides on the backs of misery for countless others is repeated in another of Chekhov’s stories, “On Official Business,” where the narrator, a coroner investigating the apparent suicide of an impoverished man, after a sleepless night in which he was haunted by dreams, reflects as follows:

“What [the men in his dream] sang had occurred to him before, but this thought had somehow sat behind other thoughts in his head and flashed timidly, like a distant lantern in misty weather. And he felt that this suicide and the peasant’s grievances lay in his conscience too; to be reconciled with the fact that these people, submissive to their lot, heaped on themselves what was heaviest and darkest in life — how terrible it was! To be reconciled with that, and to wish for oneself a bright, boisterous life among happy, contented people, and to dream constantly of such a life, meant to dream of new suicides by overworked, careworn people, or by weak neglected people, whom one sometimes talked about with vexation or mockery over dinner, but whom one did not go to help.”

At the end of the second of Chekhov’s stories above, the beadle,  a poor man, dressed in tatters,  who works hard to keep body and soul together, struggles on foot through the deep snows left by a blizzard that fell overnight and has kept the coroner and his doctor friend trapped at a friend’s house a mile out of town; he hopes to find them and assist them on their way back into town. He remarks with a mixture of relief and concern that “Folks are very worried, the kids are crying . . . .We thought you’d gone back to [Moscow], Your Honor. For God’s sake, take pity on us, dear benefactors. . . ”  But, as Chekhov says with stinging irony, “The doctor and the coroner said nothing, got into the sleigh, and drove to Syrnya.” The beadle, of course, will walk back to town through the deep snow. No thanks, no tip. He doesn’t really expect any. After a night of soul-searching on the coroner’s part, it’s back to business as usual.

Indeed it is a truth that should challenge our cherished illusions that those who are careworn and suffer in this culture are dismissed “over dinner” by the contented fat-cats as lazy and shiftless. And yet it is precisely those people, struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level, who make the easy life possible for the fat-cats.

Poverty and Prison

One of the most insidious falsehoods out there is that the wealthy have earned their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty. The poor, it is commonly said (by the rich), are lazy and unmotivated: if they really wanted to they could apply themselves and be off the dole. This sort of reasoning is known as “rationalization” and is frequently used to attempt to justify the reduction in social programs that help those most in need — as though “need” is something people bring on themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth as a brief passage in Anton Chekhov’s brilliant short story “Ward No.6” tells us. In that story the young Ivan Dmitrich has just seen a couple of prisoners pass on the streets in irons accompanied by soldiers taking them back to their prison cells. He reflects as follows:

“Not for nothing has age-old popular experience taught us that against poverty and prison there is no guarantee. And a judicial error, given present-day court procedures, was very possible, and it would be no wonder if it happened. Those who take an official business-like attitude toward other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude toward the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time. Only the time to observe certain formalities, for which the judge is paid a salary, and after that — it is all over. Then go looking for justice and protection . . .  And is it not ridiculous to think of justice when society greets all violence as a reasonable and expedient necessity, and any act of mercy — an acquittal, for instance — provokes a great outburst of dissatisfied, vengeful feeling?”

These truths are coming home to growing numbers of people in this country in this economy as a recent study has shown — focusing on the plight of a great many young people who will doubtless soon either be in prison or regarded as ne’er-do-wells by those who are comfortably off:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Almost 6 million young people are neither in school nor working, according to a study released Monday.

That’s almost 15 percent of those aged 16 to 24 who have neither desk nor job, according to The Opportunity Nation coalition, which wrote the report.

Other studies have shown that idle young adults are missing out on a window to build skills they will need later in life or use the knowledge they acquired in college. Without those experiences, they are less likely to command higher salaries and more likely to be an economic drain on their communities.

“This is not a group that we can write off. They just need a chance,” said Mark Edwards, executive director of the coalition of businesses, advocacy groups, policy experts and nonprofit organizations dedicated to increasing economic mobility. “The tendency is to see them as lost souls and see them as unsavable. They are not.”

But changing the dynamic is not going to be easy.

The coalition also finds that 49 states have seen an increase in the number of families living in poverty and 45 states have seen household median incomes fall in the last year. The dour report underscores the challenges young adults face now and foretell challenges they are likely to face as they get older.

There is nothing quite so ugly as righteous indignation. When we think of those who are down and out it might be well if we were a bit less smug about their condition and recall that there but for the grace of God might go any one of us. As the middle class disappears into the impoverished class the notion that those people deserve their fate because of a failure on their part is absurd; we might think along with Ivan here that so much of what happens to each one of us is a matter of pure chance and the question of whether we deserve our wealth or our poverty is moot at best. Sometimes shit just happens, as growing numbers of people are learning every day.

True Freedom

I am reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov for the fourth time. Like all great books, it rewards repeated reading: there seem to be layers of meaning in such books and with every visit you come away with something more. One of the issues Dostoevsky deals with in this novel is the question of human freedom: what is it and how do we achieve it?

In America we think that we have freedom as a birthright: our ancestors fought for it and it is precious and worth protecting, though recently we seem to be showing a disturbing willingness to trade it in for a sense of security. But do we even know what it is? Most people think freedom is simply the absence of restraint or the ability to choose among the large number of loaves of bread on the grocer’s shelf. If we aren’t in jail we are free; if we have a great many choices we are free. This is true. But there’s more to it than this, as Dostoevsky tells us in this interesting passage buried in the middle of his novel — in a chapter dealing with the life and some of the reflections of the saintly elder Zosima.

“The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: ‘You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them and even increase them’ — this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united . . . by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have [possessions] is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, and love of mankind, . . . We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. . . And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation. . . And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and the oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but they have less and less joy.

“I cut away my unnecessary and superfluous needs, [and]  . .  . attain freedom of spirit, and with that spiritual rejoicing! Which of the two is more capable of upholding and serving a great idea — the isolated rich man or one who is liberated from the tyranny of things and habits?”

Someone once said: we don’t own things, they own us. Wise words. And Zosima’s words are also sobering, especially at a time when 1% of this country controls 40% of the wealth and most of the remaining 99% strive only to become part of that 1%.

Working For The Man!

In many ways Wal-Mart is a mixed bag (no pun intended!). The company employs 1% of America’s workforce, 1.4 million people. That’s a good thing. They also support “Second Harvest” and contribute to local charities where their stores are located. And they have given the organic foods industry a huge shot in the arm. Those are all good things. But they refuse to allow their employees to unionize and they pay them an average of $12.00 an hour. That amounts to $24,960.00 a year at a time when the poverty levels for a family of four is $23,050.00. Those are not good things. As I say, it’s a mixed bag. And to make matters worse, the family of Sam Walton who founded the company is rolling in dough — among the wealthiest people in this country. One does wonder why they couldn’t put pressure on the company to shell out a bit more money to keep their employees higher above the level of abject poverty. But that’s just me.

Contrast this with Whole Foods which also prohibits unions among its employees, but pays them $15.00 an hour which raises their annual income to $31,200.00 — more than $6,000.00 above the levels of the Wal-Mart employees. They also have stock shares for many of their employees. These salaries will not put these employees in a class with Sam Walton’s offspring. But the fact that Whole Foods obviously cares about their employees and wants them to be loyal and happy workers is a breath of fresh air — and sets that company apart from Wal-Mart with its “profits-first” approach to retailing. And, as we know, Wal-Mart is famous (infamous?) for running Ma and Pa stores out of business. So it’s a good thing (note sarcasm here) they are able to hire back many of the people they put out of work! But, then, as supporters of “Second Harvest” they may also be feeding many of those people as well — not to mention their own employees.

It is embarrassing and not something we can be proud of when the largest retailer in this country (the world?) gains its reputation at the expense of the people that are forced to work for the very company that has shrunken the job pool and made the box stores one of the few places where people can earn enough to put food on the table. But of greater concern is the shrinking middle class which has historically kept the capitalist ship afloat. Paying the average worker starvation wages doesn’t do much to help shore-up the middle class and support a struggling economy. I dare say the CEO of Wal-Mart, who assuredly considers himself a loyal American, hasn’t thought about that.

More importantly, Marx talked a great deal about exploitation but he failed to account for the growing middle class, which lessened the likelihood that there would be a revolution as he predicted. But as the middle class shrinks America begins to look more and more like the capitalist model Marx targeted in the nineteenth century with the very rich exploiting the very poor. And the very poor increasing in numbers and growing impatient.

Compassionate Capitalism

Capitalism comes in many forms, from raw “free market” capitalism to the form we recognize in which capitalism is tempered somewhat by social programs to benefit those who might otherwise be excluded from the table of plenty where the capitalist sits and eats his fill. Robert Heilbroner wrote the definitive study of “raw” capitalism in 1985 and he characterized it as follows:

Its ideological aspect lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation. . . .The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material

world. — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as ‘mother’ Nature.*

This view of the world was, of course, the view that Karl Marx attacked in this three-volume study of capitalism that led, eventually, to the establishment of socialism in countries like Russia and China. Marx was particularly concerned about the unethical dimensions of capitalism, its notion that the exploitation of workers was acceptable in the name of higher profits for the owners of the means of production. In fact, the ethical concerns raised by Marx were what carried the book to the popular heights it achieved later on; as a book on economics it was filled with flaws and misconceptions and is nearly unreadable. Marx’s economics rest, for example, on the “labor theory of value,” which has since been shown to be simplistic and downright unworkable.

Our country started out with what historians call “mercantile” capitalism, a form in which the mother country, Britain, dictated who the colonies were to trade with and to whom they could send exports. Most exports went directly to England, of course, while others were taxed heavily by Britain when sent elsewhere. In a word, the mother country called the shots and merchants and farmers who were eager to make profits in this country had to bend to the yoke willingly provided by Great Britain. This yoke eventually became a burden and erupted in the American revolution, of course. Indeed, Marx predicted that all forms of capitalism would eventually lead to revolution as the workers of the world would find their burden excessive and rise up and throw it off.

The fact that this has not happened in this country after the British yoke was thrown off is largely due to the growth and expansion of the middle class — a class that Karl Marx never saw evolving from the heart of capitalism. In addition, especially since the Great Depression, this country has introduced a number of social programs that have tempered capitalism and made it more compassionate, if you will — programs designed to assist those in need, those excluded (as mentioned above) from the table filled with rich foods that feed the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalist hierarchy. Also, a number of steps have been taken to temper the “rapacious” attitude of those in this country toward Mother Nature to whom they owe their very lives.

But the middle class and the social and environmental programs that make capitalism more compassionate have recently come under fire in the form of the Republican strategy to enrich those who control the wealth in this country and widen the gap between those with great wealth and those who are impoverished — while, at the same time, eliminating as far as possible those governmental restraints on further capitalist “rapaciousness” toward the planet. In a word, as the planet itself comes under attack, the middle class, which Karl Marx never saw coming, is in danger of falling into the chasm that is widening in this country as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. I discussed this in an earlier blog and it is reinforced by information collected by the Pew Research Center:

As the 2012 presidential candidates prepare their closing arguments to America’s middle class, they are courting a group that has endured a lost decade for economic well-being. Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some—but by no means all—of its characteristic faith in the future.

Will this eventually erupt in a revolution as Marx predicted? Is “Occupy Wall Street” a sign of things to come? Will our continued denial of the stewardship we owe Mother Earth finally catch up with us? Time will tell. But much depends on the awareness of the growing number of those at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid who may or may not realize what is occurring. As of this writing they seem content to remain in the dark.

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Robert Heilbroner: The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, Inc.), p. 135.

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.

Foot-In-Mouth Disease

Almost immediately after defeating Newt Gingrich and the other also-rans in Florida recently, Mitt Romney — who must now be regarded as the front-runner for the Republican nomination — made the talk-show circuit. He should have stayed in bed. He doesn’t seem to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot into it.

“I’m not really concerned about the very poor,” he said. Nor is he concerned about the very rich. They “can take care of themselves.” Also, they will certainly vote for any Republican this side of Genghis Khan. But the very poor, by which I take it he means those who live on less that $5,000.00 a year, are not a group of people who have the man’s attention — or sympathy. Or any political clout. It’s the middle-income folks Mitt’s concerned about. “The middle-income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now.” I take it, Mitt doesn’t think a family trying to survive on less than $5,000.00 a year is “struggling.” Welcome to Mitt’s world, but you must wear blinders.

In a sense, Romney simply made a political gaffe. The Democrats will make hay out of it while the Republicans will try to pretend it never happened. On a deeper level, however, such off-the-cuff remarks can reveal something about us we may not want revealed. I suspect this is the case with Romney’s remark. I suppose one should applaud Mitt Romney for being honest. I dare say many will. We prize honesty in this country — or say we do. It’s not clear we know what we are talking about when we say that, but we do say it. Quite a lot. But honesty in this case also reveals hardness of heart and a complete lack of sympathy for the chronically disadvantaged in this country. One suspects that Romney is just articulating (in his way) the thoughts of a great many others in this country who would just as soon sweep the poor under the rug as not.

I recall a former student of mine whose father was immensely wealthy and who had bailed him out of two failed businesses before the third attempt took hold. The young man became quite wealthy after that and we met on occasion. He held forth one day about those who couldn’t make it in this country because they lacked grit and determination. In a word, they were poor because they were lazy. I recall the conversation vividly, but can’t remember what I said in reply. What could one say, after all, to someone who was that blind? I daresay most, if not all, of those in poverty could “work” their way out if they had wealthy fathers to bail them out when they went under. But they don’t. And Mitt won’t be there to help, either.

The notion that the poor are so because they are lazy or shiftless may be more widespread than we would like to admit. It is also vapid and borderline cruel. In a wealthy country like ours there shouldn’t be any poor. There are, of course, and we have a moral obligation not only to acknowledge their existence but also to lend them a helping hand when we can. For most of us that will mean paying higher taxes as that’s the only thing we are in a position to do. But if it does mean higher taxes, so be it. We can afford that more readily than we can the continued apathy and callousness of the likes of Mitt Romney.