Monday, January 20, 2014

The Rich Are Immoral

The Rich Are Immoral

Last week, it was the poor who were immoral.  This week, we can focus on the crass, bloated, greedy rich.

This Sunday’s New York Times had an arresting first paragraph in an opinion piece, “For the Love of Money” by Sam Polk, “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.”

Not a bad way to hook you in to reading the rest.  It turns out that Mr. Polk had a number of personal issues that went well beyond love of money. He was an insatiable consumer of booze, of drugs, a self-confessed burglar subject to fits of rage. He also fesses up to cheating on his girlfriend. Thankfully, there is no mention of a dog. All in all he was an out and out crud--the type of spoiled and self-absorbed caricature that the rest of us love to deplore but happily watch via any number of TV reality shows.  We like tawdry too.  And we would love to be insulted by a $3.6 million dollar bonus.

Mr. Polk says, “I generally think that if one is rich and believes they have “enough,” they are not a wealth addict. On Wall Street, in my experience, that sense of “enough” is rare.” In a similar vein (without the uncomfortable self-confession and flagellation) there have been several recent articles and op-ed pieces, some political and some analytical, which have explored this concept of “enough.”  How much enough is “enough” before you can push away your plate, or, at the very least, just share a piece of cheesecake for dessert?

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt takes a broader view in his 1987 piece for EthicsEquality as a Moral Ideal.”  Frankfurt’s “enough” is related to what he calls “the doctrine of sufficiency.” Society has a moral duty to make sure everyone has a sufficiency.  It does not have the right to decide what is too much, or to act in a redistributionist way. “If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.”

Of course, everyone doesn’t have enough.  The numbers of people in the largest economy in the world who experience poverty is staggering.  In the past recession, between 2009 and 2011, approximately one third of all Americans dropped below the poverty line for at least two months.  The annual poverty rate in 2011 was 14% (think about that for a second.) 

But, just because a great many people are poor, does that mean the rich are particularly avaricious and immoral?  Frankfurt likes to challenge with extreme examples.  To paraphrase one, let’s assume you in a remote location with nine other people.  All ten of you come down with a potentially fatal disease, but when you look at your supplies, you find a total of forty doses of medicine, and to be effective, each person needs exactly five doses—four won’t cure and six will be toxic.   You could all be self-sacrificial and say that if all couldn’t survive, none should (of pretty questionable morality itself.)  Or you could draw straws, or find some crude but equitable way of selecting the losers.  Maximizing the number of survivors should be the only moral imperative.  But, what happens if one of the ten of you happens to be very rich, and decides that he needs an extra dose of five just in case he gets re-infected later on. So, he offers everyone in the group the following deal: one million dollars for anyone willing to vote him an extra share.  The impact of that, of course, would mean one more dead person, a situation Frankfurt (and we) would find morally abhorrent.  But, if there were 41 doses, would the same apply?  If the rich guy bids on the 41st dose, what harm does that actually do?  We know the 9th and 10th people will die anyway, so it’s irrelevant whether they get anything.  Our rich person doesn’t “need” the extra dose, it is not going to do him any good, but if he wants it and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone, why shouldn’t he have the right to engage in some “conspicuous consumption”, such as it is?

Isn’t that greedy? Shouldn’t he be doing something better with his money, something suitable for announcing at a beauty pageant, like curing cancer or world peace?  That 41st dose has absolutely no utility. Perhaps, but why is it our business? If we live in a culture that values a work ethic, and if that person earns his wealth through honest effort without causing harm to others, why should we care?  Yes, one can question a value system where a brilliant math teacher earns a tiny fraction of the “quant” he taught, or an inspiring vocal coach that of a pop star, but that is reflective of a capitalist system that pays highly for special talents.  If I had a cut fastball like Mariano Rivera I would still write Syncopated Politics, but I might otherwise reorder my workweek.  In a nanosecond.

I don’t see the difference between the factory worker who pulls an extra shift so his daughter can have skating lessons, and the hedge fund associate who does the all-nighters because he wants the house in the Hamptons.  The Dad seems more human to me, and warm and fuzzy makes for nice Hallmark movies.  But honest and legal effort, regardless of the motive behind it (beaming child, expensive bauble) has an intrinsic value and should be respected.

So, where is the moral issue?  It arises when powerful forces use their economic heft to further tilt the playing field by having the government give them preferences.  Those are the people who can never have enough if there is more to take.  Why pay taxes if the government says you don’t have to?  Why operate your facility safely if the government won’t mandate it? Why spend your own money on infrastructure, if the government is willing to spend the taxpayer’s? It’s not grifting if the government says it isn’t.

Sadly, the doors are always open for this.  The politicians who run the government are often acutely sensitive to individual needs: the need to collect campaign contributions, the need to get the proper committee assignments, the need for a fine watch and a luxe engagement party for a daughter, the need to stay in office, the need to have a soft landing at a cushy job when you are no longer in office.  So, when someone approaches them with a nice wad of Citizen’s United-blessed confidential cash in return for just a teensy paragraph in a 1000 page piece of omnibus legislation, they often conflate their own self-interest with some ideological imperative.  And once bought, they tend to stay that way. It’s amazing how much outrage can be aroused when 300,000 people are unable to draw “enough” water for their personal needs—outrage at needless government regulations, not at the plight of the citizens who are suffering. 

Charles Dickens, speaking through Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield, once famously defined “enough” as  "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

Of course, the conditions in those days were positively Dickensian.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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