Monday, December 20, 2010

Have Nots and Do Nots

One thing (maybe the only thing) I have in common with Winston Churchill is that when I open a newspaper, the first thing I read is the editorial page. I am actually more interested in the letters to the editor than in the editorials from the staff of the paper. It is a strange habit, since I am often astounded at what I read, and usually not in a good way.

The letters in yesterday's Boston Globe included one such astonishing piece. Fred Bement of Boxborough wrote to defend the wealthy against covetous tax policies. In so doing, he repeats a common fallacy, which is that the rich are rich because they deserve it. He rightly points out that many rich people got rich through hard work; he wrongly attributes economic inequality to a differential work ethic. I recommend the online comments, even though most are anonymous, because several are eloquent in their rebuttal of Mr. Bement's letter.

Of the many fallacies he packs into his short letter, the most offensive is the assumption that anybody can get rich through hard work. If this were the case, then all of the coffee farmers I know would be wealthier than anybody in Mr. Bement's gilded ZIP code. Closer to home, as many readers have pointed out, jobs are scarce and the jobs that are available -- at any level of education -- often do not pay as well as the same jobs did a generation ago.

Some people become wealthy, it is true, through a combination of hard work and clever thinking. Most of them, however, would admit that a certain amount of luck is involved, and part of that luck is being born in a location where the infrastructure exists to pursue wealth. Much of the supporting infrastructure that is required to pursue and attain wealth is provided publicly. Even if one pursues a "private" education, one is likely to hire workers who receive a public education. Workers and capitalists alike get to work on public roads and sidewalks, and depend on publicly-funded police and fire protection, as well as publicly-funded courts to protect property rights. As the disparity between rich and poor grows, quite frankly, the entire country depends on publicly-funded national defense to maintain the disparity. (This is not a comfortable thought, but a small nation that consumes a third of the world's resources relies on more than cleverness and hard work to maintain those material flows.)

If even the hard-working among the wealthy are not self-made, how much truer is it of those who inherit wealth? Messrs. Buffett and Gates have recognized the problems of unearned wealth, as I have recently written. It is interesting that the aspiring wealthy do not understand this as well as the accomplished wealthy.

A final problem with the concept of the "deserving rich" is that so much wealth is gained by those who are more willing than others to impoverish others. The billionaires behind WalMart and Dunkin Donuts are the most obvious examples, but throughout our economy, the ruthless are rewarded. It is bad enough that they earn their money on the backs of the poor; smugness should not be added to their ill-gotten gains!

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