Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do The Wealthy Serve Us?

Christianne Amanpour’s guest mentioned Benjamin Franklin wrote that he wouldn’t mind being preserved in a “vat of Madeira wine” in order to see if the Constitution held up 200 years later. Amanpour responded, “he was amazingly perspicacious when this Constitution was signed.”

Honour sinks where commerce long prevails. - Oliver Goldsmith
I've seen a few episodes of the latest PBS Masterpiece series called 'Downton Abbey'. It's a story about the lives of a fabulously wealthy family in Victorian England and their staff of domestic servants. Probably a reasonable depiction of how the 'upper class' lived, but it seems more like a fable from the distant past. But, maybe there are those living today who would like to emulate that past and have themselves as the subject of some future series? Looks like it to me anyway.
This CBS News report identifies Congress as a Millionaire's club.
Is this OK?
If not, what do we do about it?

Not only do the wealthy tend to see their wealth as a deserved privilege, but they sometimes go to great lengths to deny it, rationalize it, flaunt it, connive to obtain it, and even lie about it. Not all wealthy people do this, but a lot of them do -enough to make you wonder if they aren't living in some kind of parallel universe apart from the rest of us.

But wealth can be a relative thing, too. I am much better off than millions of people, some of whom struggle daily to even feed themselves. And, I don't feel particularly guilty about the luxury I enjoy, even though early biblical training may have had something harsh and unyielding to say about not freely sharing with those less fortunate. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to do what? Fact is, there has always been inequity among people, and in earlier times the disparity was probably greater than it is now.

For example, look at our founding fathers; weren't they better off than most of their compatriots? Yet, the sacrifice that these relatively well-educated and prosperous founders were, they put everything they had on the line to espouse freedom -for all, not just themselves! Think they may have figured out that a rising tide might lift not only their boats, but every other citizen's?
Nowadays, many Americans seem downright schizophrenic about wealth. Maybe that's just a sign of the discontinuities between greed, the legitimate desire to get ahead in life, and basic jealousy? Let's face it we live in a material world, and the quest for wealth and ownership of lots of stuff is reinforced by our lifestyles and media every day. All you need to observe this is an occasional peek at a TV game show, or the ads that play to desires for a life of ease, luxury and dissipation.

Then, there are the super rich and famous movie & TV stars, sports heroes, entrepreneurs of all stripes, plus drug dealers and other swindlers & crooks who have managed to amass large fortunes which they take as evidence of their personal worth. And, don't forget those with good old inherited wealth, many through no effort of their own, except maybe choosing the right parents, spouses or significant others at some point in their past.

All of these folk types somehow get held up as successful examples made possible by 'the American Way'. And who can argue with that? Well, these conditions do exist outside of the US too, you know. They occur because of power struggles, crime, good fortune, great ambition and, sometimes even good will.

Titans of industry, from the 'robber barons' of 100 years ago, to the kings of industry, begotten by wars, technology advances, creative opportunity and sometimes plain luck all make interesting studies. There are blue-bloods, dark villains, white knights and Horatio Alger characters, plus some folks who just worked very hard and saved what they earned, to choose from.

Today's Billionaires were yesterday's Millionaires, but who cares that some folks can never have enough? Even great philanthropic gestures like endowments to medical research, educational institutions, charities & other worthwhile public facilities do not necessarily earn the respect they may deserve, particularly after the benevolent benefactors become history.
Look at Bill Gates & Warren Buffett for example; even their announcements that most of their great wealth will be left to charity and good works isn't enough to satisfy some detractors, who choose to hold their wealth against them!
Definitely, Bellingham has some folks with an attitude about those having wealth, although possibly they may exempt themselves from such criticism.

Point is, I don't think wealth, per se, is evil; in fact wealth has the potential to do great good, as it has over time.
For example, what do you think it takes to have a capitalist system? Wealth, of course, plus to ability to invest it toward some purpose. Like maybe, jobs? Services? Products that are useful and even essential? Education? Charity? Taxes paid to Govt to provide pubic services? Those are some of the good things that money can help provide.
But, of course, money can also be used for not so good purposes, and we must find a way to discourage and sometimes punish that.
Looking back to old England, Winston Churchill was born to great privilege, and in reading his biography I was tempted to despise him for his attitudes born of that heritage. But, can you imagine anyone more capable of leading Great Britain during the threats of WWII? I can't.

Through the ages there have been many kings, emperors, and other rulers of great wealth & power. Some were repressive, ruthless and evil, but others were great benefactors of their people. So, that tells me that wealth is not necessarily bad, although it's ability to control power makes it an object to be feared and reckoned with.

George Washington was a wealthy man in his day, but look what he did for our country! So were Jefferson, Madison and some other founders quite wealthy and also essential to the formation of our nation.
Since then, many of our Presidents have come from great wealth; Teddy & Franklin Roosevelt come immediately to mind, as does John F Kennedy. All served our nation honorably and with distinction, as did others as well.

You know, legislating, administering, enforcing and acting in the public interest does take a lot of time and energy that most of us do not have, or even want to do. So, why not let the wealthy take care of that for us? After all, they've got the time, resources, contacts, skills and habits necessary for these tasks. Sounds like a plan to me, as long as we have reasonable assurance they won't tilt the scales too much for their own benefit. Just make sure we get honest folks in there to do our bidding, without having to vote, inform ourselves, or otherwise get involved at all. That way, we can fully enjoy our leisure, get on with what we have to do and just leave the rest to 'staff' - like the good folks in Downton Abbey. Right!

So, it really should be no surprise that our Federal Government continues to attract people of wealth; that in itself is not all bad. But, the potential for badness being evidenced is still there, and wealth can readily translate into customs, perspectives and attitudes that may not fairly represent all citizens -particularly those without wealth. People of privilege sometimes get the big head, thinking they're somehow more important than others and throw their weight around. That conduct is irritating at best and all kinds of trouble at worst!
Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals. - George Washington
For example, look at this piece by Timothy Egan about Michele Bachmann. What does it say about her attitudes on privilege, a sense of entitlement, truth telling, respect for her peers & moral philosophy? Don't know about you, but this kind of stuff bothers me! It's not her wealth that makes her act this way, but it certainly helps keep her in the media spotlight -and in office.

Then, there's 'Campaign reform', an oxymoron if I've ever heard one! And, 'Tax Code reform', another one. 'Earmarks'? How about 'Budget debates'? 'Entitlements'? 'Exemptions'? 'Incentives'? It seems most of the issues we face in Washington, DC & elsewhere have a large component involving financing & funding. Hey, that's necessary! Maybe folks who know something about wealth & money feel more at home with all that. But, who else gets to impact fiscal decisions? Lobbyists? Corporations? Political Action Committees? Political Parties? Unions? Exclusive Clubs? What about us?

This whole wealth thing is just getting me exhausted! Of course, the Wealthy serve us, and sometimes very well. But my fear is not that they serve themselves first, but that there is anything left for the rest of us consumers of democracy. After all, that's name of the game in getting wealthy in the first place. Or, so I've heard.
Oh, shoot, this has become a rant. And its happened without a single beer. That's some kind of sign I think -of what I do not know...
Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. - George Washington

Laws of infernal dynamics:
▪ An object in motion will be moving in the wrong direction.
▪ An object at rest will be in the wrong place.
▪ The energy required to move an object in the correct direction, or put it in the right place, will be more than you wish to expend but not so much as to make the task impossible.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

John Buckle: You can lead a fish to water but you can't cure its fin rot.

TANSTAAFL: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.