Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Tuesday Column: Wealth Worship

[This is a reworked version of a post that first saw light of blog last week as "Wealth and Plutocracy."]

Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s billionaires — the plutocracy’s swimsuit issue — is out along with its familiar bods: Bill Gates at the top with $50 billion, which is more than the total GDP of about 150 countries; Warren Buffet at $42 billion; Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican-Lebanese financier, at $30 billion; the gang of five Waltons (Sam’s heirs), each of whom clocks in at close to $16 billion for a sum-total of $79 billion; and so on. Three years ago there were 476 billionaires. Now there are 793, each of them a tea leaf of speculation for the rest of us. Wealth these days elicits reactions usually associated with sex: desire, envy, resentment (toward those who have so much of it), moral judgments. But no matter how ostentatious, other people’s sex lives are irrelevant to public welfare. Not so with wealth, least of all the wealth of the wealthiest, because that wealth isn’t of their making as much as they’d like you to believe.
“Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get,” Michael Kinsley wrote in a recent column. “But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous.” He then followed with this fatuous line: “It’s probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us.” The last line assumes cause-and-effect between wealth and material virtue that adds up to this: The wealthier you are, the more you’ve contributed to the general well-being. It’s a convenient way of saying that the wealthy should be praised most and taxed less because they contribute so much. The proposition has been taken pretty much at face value since Ronald Reagan began the go-go years of tax-cutting. But to equate wealth accumulation with making life “better for the rest of us” is absurd. Read the rest...