News shocker: less than one-third of Americans with $3 million+ fortunes think “the wealthy have a moral obligation to share their good fortune with those less fortunate,” a new U.S. Trust survey reports. Imagine two-thirds, then, of plutocratic, yacht-sprawling Scrooges: “Who else earned our treasure, fair and square, in the open market? No one ‘shares’ our loot – except brainy managers who protect our assets. Only saints give away hard-won fortunes to less deserving, ‘less fortunate’.”
Will yawning inequality, let alone crushing, downward mobility, get reversed until voting majorities turn against this mentality of entrenched avarice that betrays good morality, economics and democracy? Dumbed down by Paul Ryan’s austerity playbook, such self-serving defenses delink excessive profits from millions of hard workers hardly awarded the same “free time” by the “free market.” Billionaires, after all, know far more about amassing (and spending) money than about the countless backs which “tote that barge and lift that bail” so they can live high on the hog.
Caught in this mix, the impoverished, agonized single parent faces the mirror: “working hard and persevering isn’t enough. Something beyond my control is broken or fraudulent.” Yet the super-rich, gazing into the glass, see only heroic masterminds who merit “striking it rich.” Who makes the “it” if not the multitudes who turn resources into products and profits? Did miraculous modern appliances emerge from the heads of Edison, Ford or Chrysler, or from numberless hands on the aptly-named “mass production line.” If no man is an island, that goes triple for billionaires — whose fortune and lifestyles depend on everyone else all the time.
Super-Rich, Waiting to Be Thanked
Among today’s most corrupt big lies, this whopper deserves ceaseless debunking: that collective affluence answers solely to a band of elite wizards. This upside-down fairy tale pals around with other delusions, like “every man a king” because “you can be a millionaire.” Behold the debased Gospel of Wealth, itself aligned with the Puritan Ethic, and still translated today: The anointed elite do God’s work and “create” wealth so that dependent lower classes, if they don’t act up (read: rebel), get pie-in-the-sky. Or if lucky the fruits of philanthropy.
Which is exactly how one Goldman Sachs CEO famously embarrassed himself, declaring banks do “God’s work” by fulfilling “very important” roles that produce general affluence: banks loan money to growing companies that “create wealth” which, in turn, allow “people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle.” And immensely lucrative, too.
What’s unnerving, despite the exposed viciousness of this circle since ‘08, is not enough voters banish the slavish assumption everyone’s modest family fortunes still trickle down, like liquor drips from a still. Sure, taking creative risks, working feverishly, and inventing something new, better or cheaper deserve generous rewards. But not over-the-top, super-lottery payoffs that only reinforce the corrosive, primitive equation of great wealth with great knowledge and judgment, even wisdom (did someone say “Donald Trump”?). No baseball slugger succeeds without team members on base to set up the grand slam, and don’t all players count equally when crossing home? Let winners earn a king’s ransom, say $10 or 20 million dollars, perhaps $50 million; let those who inspire new industries take home $100 million dollars. What happened to socially-conscious taxation on income and estates?
When is enough enough? Consider the median American family nest egg, roughly $175K. Wouldn’t a fetching career prize equal 100 times that total ($20M)? Wouldn’t 500 times that multiplier, or a billion dollars, qualify as unbelievable compensation, satisfying even the most profligate family? What rational system allows the top-tier to garner and keep 300,000 times (!) the average family median, well over $60 billion?
For every median family dollar, our fattest cats boast a staggering 300,000 bucks. So much for progressive taxation, social mobility, or representative government. That rarefied air is what produces deified arrogance, as Derryl Hermanutz brilliantly summarizes: “The Divine Right of Private Property has replaced the Divine Right of Kings as the ‘justification’ for the banksters’ ruling power. By acquiring private ownership of the Earth, the banksters and their courtiers acquire the Divine Right to rule the Earth.”
Big Yachts Don’t Raise All Boats
Fueling today’s shrunken Gospel of Wealth is, curiously enough, the circular logic that glories in unspeakable concentrations. Would simply clever computer, finance or technology geeks have banked so much had they not deserved it? And how many, loaded with tens of billions, don’t end up concluding they’ve invented wealth itself, out of the air, just like gods? No doubt big winners glorify the “virtuous” circle beyond dreams of avarice: whoever earns a fortune, without getting indicted, wins confirmation by the invisible hand of capitalism.
In fact, this mentality plays on the discredited Great Man Theory of history (the strongest, heroic will determine the destiny of the age) into a ludicrous Great Man Theory of wealth. Since money makes the world go round, those with the most should rule, having the most to gain or lose. That explains why the 1% grow ornery when tax breaks, credits, and subsidies don’t satisfy their lust for glory. Like all Midas figures, jealous divinities expect homage by multitudes, appreciative of all the blessings they grant.
Robber Barons, Meet Progressives (Again)
Thankfully, progressive voices are joining forces, with once unlikely allies. Certainly, the sustained, tin-ear, oligarchic “party of the stupid” propels change (right, another round of rousing, extremely low-brow GOP presidential debates). Pope Francis, hardly oblivious to tarnished belief systems (apologizing this week for the brutal Catholic conquest of Native Americans), keeps declaring revolutionary calls: “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” the pope said, decrying a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.” One American politician, Bernie Sanders, sounds the same themes and with the same urgency to large crowds.
Even Andrew Carnegie in 1889 (whose essay originated the phrase “Gospel of Wealth”) supported extensive, scrupulous, collective sharing of great wealth. Opposed to automatic aristocratic inheritances. he shunned funding a next generation of idle rich. Long before any sort of progressive income tax, Carnegie defended progressive estate taxes (up to 50%): “By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life.” Of course, this good Christian believed bettering society and other people’s lives rewarded the philanthropist at the gates of Paradise. Who knows, he could well have been right.
P.S. See my related piece, on the Worship of Wealth, “The Illegitimacy of Ginormous Wealth, Fouling Politics, Economics & Religion.”