Money, Money, Money

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It’s beat-up-on-the-rich time in America: a cheap alternative to paying a veterinarian’s bill for the dog you just kicked violently upon checking your 401(k) statement.

This, too, will pass, along with the recession, that’s to say. The sun will break through the clouds, and we’ll return to being a nation of strivers, with a built-in delight in acquisition, and in enjoyment of the fruits thereof.

Meanwhile President Obama denounces “shameful” bonuses doled out to Wall Street ex-geniuses, sets a half-million-limit on executive compensation at companies taking federal handouts. Street corner conversation turns—inevitably, I would venture—to the sheer tactlessness represented by jaunts in corporate jets (Chrysler, Ford and GM executives), $1.2 million office remodels (Bank of America’s John Thain), and everything Bernie Madoff said or did while running his alleged Ponzi scheme.

All the ranting and raging have their healthy side, so long as we, the people, don’t take it too far—the way they did, say, in the French Revolution. (Not that the Revolution put a stop to wealth creation in France, or anywhere else!) Reminders of wealth’s excesses—and of the peculiar stupidities of particular rich people—belong up front in public discourse. It would be an awful thing to forget that virtue neither comes with big money nor can be purchased at any price. All this we learn from daily living.

The thing is, we can’t ever do without the rich, bitterly as we may despise them. Wealth, proportionate or disproportionate to effort and merit, is what comes of exertion. If you want to abolish wealth, abolish exertion, but you probably wouldn’t want to, because then life would stop. Everything would run down. “Let us then be up and doing,” Longfellow urged. He knew whereof he spoke. To be up and doing is to be inventing and creating. For invention and creation there have to be rewards. If the rewards are so great they make some spectators wrinkle their noses in disgust, so what? Let them be up and doing.

The reason capitalism displeases (bonuses, jets, etc.) is that it’s such a human enterprise. Humans tend to overreach, and to preen. On the other hand, their preening can do the rest of us good if they invent or offer something that conduces to the general good: from a better mousetrap to a car than runs on electricity or a five-course dinner so filling, and fulfilling, you hate to rise from the table.

Vulgarity, wretched excess, shamelessness—it’s the price a capitalistic society pays for the accomplishments of capitalists. And bloody well better go on paying if we’re to maintain our reason and our liberties.

The best way to cope with the shortcomings of the highly placed and magnificent is not to guillotine such folk, it’s just to ignore them as much as possible, while remembering the large number of wealthy people who do actual good with their money, using it in valuable and creative ways, instead of running their status into the ground.

In the long run, it all comes out about even. No pockets in a shroud—that sort of thing. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.

In the short run, the necessity is to fend off politicians who blast the rich for no worse offense than that of being rich. Regulation, confiscatory taxation—politicians can use such tools to make the rich feel, at a minimum, more uncomfortable—and everyone else feel even worse through the disappearance of incentives to work, invest, plan, grow, do something no one else ever did before.

In an odd way, rich politicians (John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, etc.) and the aspiring rich among them (Bill Clinton, etc.), probably, in an accidental way, extend capitalism’s life span. No capital, no wealth. No wealth, no campaign contributions. The end of capitalism probably isn’t … just yet.


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