There’s a standard opening for stories about money that has become a cliché, or bad joke. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are in a bar and Fitzgerald opines with naiveté that the ‘Rich are different from you and me’ to which Hemingway dryly responds, ‘Yes, they have more money.’ It’s a nice little anecdote, but mostly untrue. Money changes things. And if you have enough money to be called ‘rich’, it changes lots of things: who you are likely to marry, what school you are going to attend, if you’ll go to school at all. It determines how well you eat, if you eat, where you sleep, how you live. You can use money as a short hand to judge your odds of having a long life, or of receiving decent healthcare, of receiving an education or even being able to retire. Money, as a consequence, also changes other things. What you might want, with whom you associate, with whom you compete, what you think is important. A person who routinely orders from the best restaurants in a city is not likely to understand someone who must make do on less than 5 dollars a day. Will the clever Wall Street hedge fund manager be able to imagine, much less appreciate the ingenuity that it takes to survive on such a meager allotment ($4.25 a day is Virginia’s daily SNAP amount)…or the desperation it engenders? I have my doubts.
In the years before Ronald Reagan rekindled the embers of class warfare in this country, the concept of noblesse oblige was a given. Even though it’s a patriarchal concept that’s not especially attractive (hidden within the obligation is the sense of unspoken superiority– that noblesse part was a nod toward the nobility of the ancient regime), at least it informed the members of the upper class that there are certain foundational principles, rules of the road for our culture. Part of our social contract is to obey a moral economy of sorts wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege. In short, with wealth and power comes responsibility. Modeling examples of good public behavior and civic-mindedness was not just expected, but demanded.
Now almost everyone gets this at one level, or another. If you watch conservatives playing with rationales for food stamp cuts, for example, you can see them moving through various positions that try to maintain the gloss of moral respectability. First, there was the argument that governmental efforts to aid the poor were socially devastating by breaking up families (the better for ‘single mothers’ to collect aid). This argument was shuttered when Bill Clinton effectively eliminated much of welfare as we had come to know it. Next, came the argument that we are perpetuating poverty by reducing incentives to work. I have yet to meet a single American who prefers living on $4.25 a day as opposed to finding a job. Conversely, there’s more than ample evidence that for every job available there are ten Americans looking for work. That means there will be chronically high unemployment stuck right around 9 to 10% in real terms (counting those who have simply given up looking). So helping the poor will help alleviate real-time misery and pump some money back into the economy. To reduce unemployment benefits at this point, or, as the Republicans are doing, to make an extension of unemployment benefits contingent on cuts elsewhere to the social safety net is simply to deny your obligations to help the poor, in addition to slowing down the economy, an action that is both cruel and economically stupid.
Those who advocate cutting unemployment benefits or cutting food stamps are now in search of a rationale that isn’t ridiculous on its face, a moral fig leaf, so to speak. In the vanguard of these moral apologists is the Republican’s bug eyed granny killer, Paul Ryan, who provides the deep thinking libertarian response that the workings of the market are inherently moral and not to be tampered with (as if an economy were not a wholly man-made construct). They argue that despite the free market’s inability to provide for education or retirement or health care or even safe drinking water we should all bow to its poker chip clatter. When this argument fails on a more or less daily basis, conservatives turn to blaming the victim: suggesting that the poor are lazy. Or drug addled. Or sexually promiscuous. None of which is statistically borne out, by the way. And, not surprisingly, the rich seem to have as many problems with drugs and idleness and sexual promiscuity as the poor…with much less reason, to boot. All of which is beside the point, anyhow. Would refraining from smoking pot or having sex magically make more jobs appear? That’s not the way an economy works, even if you’re suffering the intellectual acuity of Paul Ryan. It’s not a character problem that leads to 9 % real unemployment. It’s a lack of jobs.
This effort at finding moral rationales for shredding the social contract does not stop with denigrating the poor, of course. That’s only half the story. The other half is the tremendous propaganda work done on behalf of the rich and powerful. The fairy tale goes something like this: wealthy American’s are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and they worked really, really hard. No mention of how easy or difficult it was to get themselves a good education, or maintain a stable relationship, or that perhaps they had the opportunity to choose exactly what they wanted to work hard at in the first place. Again, money changes things. If you start with money, you get to make those choices. You have the opportunity to make a decision about what you’ll dedicate your life to—that’s not true for the poor, or even for most of the middle class in real terms, especially now, when a job outside of your chosen ‘career’ path is more likely than not. No, instead, many nominally middle class Americans are in dead-end jobs with little or no hope for real advancement. Statistically, we’re one of the most unequal countries on the planet. We’re also less like to see social advance from one generation to the next compared to other Western Nations.
In short, the unfettered free market model is failing the ‘American dream’ and every Republican in congress right now is looking for a rational to explain that inconvenient fact outside the obvious one: the rich have no sense of obligation to our country or our culture. Since the late 1970s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled (and the incomes of the top 0.1 percent have risen even more). Yet, the wealthiest members of our society take no social responsibility for their exponentially increased levels of wealth and power. This is not an accident. The only entity capable of enforcing the social contract–our government– has been defanged through tax cuts and deregulation thanks to efforts of conservatives over the last forty years.
In Sunday’s New York Times there’s an interesting glimpse of the mentality that drives and excuses this kind of behavior. Sam Polk, a rabid Wall Street trader has come in from the cold. Like an addled alcoholic, he confesses in the Times that he’s addicted to money, not out of material need, but psychologically. The same thing that fuels his need for money, fuels the alcoholic’s need for drink: a sense of spiritual emptiness and desolation, a need for validation and self-worth. “IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” Let’s be clear, no one ‘needs’ 3.6 million dollars as a bonus to satisfy material comfort. They need it because they have a problem. Currently, we might say approximately 1% of our population has a problem. They are addicted to money, to the exponential advantages it brings and the power it provides. As Polk freely admits, “Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.”
Conservatives with their insistence on dismantling the social safety net, and hobbling whatever meager regulations our dysfunctional government can put in place are acting like enablers, essentially handing the keys to the Cadillac to a drunk son. Every alibi is allowed and every action is forgiven, but the drunk is still a drunk, and eventually, of course, the drunk hits bottom. Unfortunately, in this instance, our particular drunk can take society down with him. This need not happen, of course, but as every member of AA will attest, the first step to finding a cure is admitting you have a problem.