10 April 2013

"To Be Wealthy, Not Rich"

I said last time that I had an idea where the line between honest reward and dishonest greed lies.  If memory serves, I wrote about this before, but repetition is essential.  Let me repeat that, "repetition is essential."

Rich: When you make in a year what the average person makes in a lifetime. 

You could make the case it is less, but it would be hard to deny that anyone who makes in one year what the typical person makes in a lifetime is rich.  Anything above this is morally questionable because no one truly needs more than a lifetime of money in a single year. 

Oh, you may desire it and all that it can do, and if you get that sort of money year in and year out you may 'need it' to pay for all the stuff you now have, but there is no moral argument you can make to justify getting it in the first place.  By moral I mean you cannot say 'I deserve it,' in any form. 

Now, according to my definition, that means anyone who makes $2 million in a year has forty times the money the average earner does, $50,054.00, and is thus rich.  99.5% of the country earns less, and they would all consider $2 million to be rich.  "OK, that's rich," you're thinking, "but what good does defining it do?" 

First of all, it makes 'rich' not a number but a proportion. In India, many middle class Americans would be rich because the average wage is so much lower.  Rich is always a comparative state.  To be rich is to have far more than others.  Richness needs poverty to be rich, at least relatively poor.  What good is a lot of money if everybody has it, after all?  I repeat, rich requires poor. 

Second, the disparity ultimately distorts a free society. Political giving is one aspect. As we all tend to favor our own interests, the rich will use their power to preserve their power.  Having money, they have greater power than most and thus are more likely to succeed in protecting their advantage.  The rich are a greater danger to our freedom than the poor because of their concentrated power.

Third, by defining rich as an excess disparity of money and power, it tarnishes the patina of respectability that having money imparts. Anyone who has more than forty times the average income is morally suspect not admirable, and their actions deserving of extra skepticism if not outright suspicion. 

Fourth, it sets a moral ceiling on acceptable disparity, as even the best CEO cannot be said to work 40 times harder or better than the average worker.  Yes, we should reward daring and intelligence and other fine qualities, but do we really believe anyone is over forty times better than everyone else?  As the top CEOs today earn over 200 times the average worker, that comparison is even more stark and unbelievable.

I thank Robin Leach, who in the 1980s regaled us with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and turned filthy rich into squeaky clean.  I know we shall ever have billionaires amongst us, but by recognizing the reality of the rich perhaps we can lose a little of our fawning reverence for them. 

Now, I must be off.  I have a cold and am just 50 pages into Hugo's novel "Les Miserables" which says all this much better than I.  

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