Thursday, August 03, 2017

Bezos-Post Meditation On the Evils of Wealth


WaPo |  How did we lose sight of the ancient wisdom about wealth, especially given its ample evidencing in recent studies? 

Some will say that we have not entirely forgotten it and that we do complain about wealth today, at least occasionally. Think, they’ll say, about Occupy Wall Street; the blowback after Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent”; how George W. Bush painted John Kerry as out of touch. But think again: By and large, those complaints were not about wealth per se but about corrupt wealth — about wealth “gone wrong” and about unfairness. The idea that there is no way for the vast accumulation of money to “go right” is hardly anywhere to be seen. 

Getting here wasn’t straightforward. Wealth has arguably been seen as less threatening to one’s moral health since the Reformation, after which material success was sometimes taken as evidence of divine election. But extreme wealth remained morally suspect, with the rich bearing particular scrutiny and stigmatization during periods like the Gilded Age. This stigma persisted until relatively recently; only in the 1970s did political shifts cause executive salaries to skyrocket, and the current effectively unprecedented inequality in income (and wealth) begin to appear, without any significant public complaint or lament.

The story of how a stigma fades is always murky, but contributing factors are not hard to identify. For one, think tanks have become increasingly partisan over the past several decades, particularly on the right: Certain conservative institutions, enjoying the backing of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, have thrown a ton of money at pseudo-academics and “thought leaders” to normalize and legitimate obscene piles of lucre. They produced arguments that suggest that high salaries naturally flowed from extreme talent and merit, thus baptizing wealth as simply some excellent people’s wholly legitimate rewards. These arguments were happily regurgitated by conservative media figures and politicians, eventually seeping into the broader public and replacing the folk wisdom of yore. But it is hard to argue that a company’s top earners are literally hundreds of times more talented than the lowest-paid employees.

As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.