The wascally wealthy: How would we do without them?

It is always fashionable to slam the rich unless the rich are fashionable. Rich industrialists and stock barons are evil; wealthy athletes and movie stars are chic. This paradox is one of the consistent social tangles of humans. It guides our social values, but limits our humanity.

The Sunday newspaper magazine, Parade, recently published its annual listing of what people earn. Entertainers were high on the list. Actress Tina Fey earned $4.6 million; the person she admirably mimicked, Sarah Palin, earned $125,000 as governor of Alaska. A Texas plumber age 35 earned $39,300; baseball player Alex Rodriguez, two years younger, was paid 800 times more — $34 million.

History is filled with rebukes of the rich and powerful. The Old Testament enshrined the sentiment that riches corrupt and poverty is near virtue. Even the rich hate the richer, as evidenced by the rants of our “middle class.”

Yet rational contemplation dissipated most of the class hatred, jealousy, envy or resentment toward the wealthy. Accumulation of wealth is one of the main driving forces in the material and intellectual progress of the human race.

It is easy to illustrate: Select any number of the richest people in modern history, then ask whether society would be better off had they never lived or had they been replaced with poor people.

Can you completely discount the extra value of Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates or Ted Turner? Their extra value to society is what their inventive minds and industrious spirit produced, as well as the aid their riches have given others.

Andrew Carnegie made steel, gave away money and built libraries. He last funded a library in 1919. At that time there were 3,500 in the United States and Carnegie had paid for nearly half of them. Henry Ford conceived a better way to build and sell cars and made a fortune. Since its founding in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation has distributed more than $15.6 billion to charitable causes worldwide.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the Ford and Rockefeller foundations jointly established agricultural research centers in Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria and the Philippines that conducted research leading to the Green Revolution and saving millions from starvation.

It takes wealth to endow and support hospitals, university research programs and clinics, and donations from rich people and corporations have helped produce new medical procedures and life-saving innovations.

How much better would civilization be without the wealthy? Start with Solomon, said to be the richest (and wisest) man of his era. Is his legacy less or greater because he was super-rich? Consider great art and music of the Renaissance, perhaps not created by the wealthy but certainly financed and sponsored by them.

Then there’s the mantra that the rich do not “pay their fair share.” Of course, the top 5 percent of U.S. taxpayers pay more than half of the federal income taxes. And according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in 2008 the top 50 contributors to charity pledged a total of $15.3 billion. The yearly average since 2000 is $13.1 billion.

It would take 2.6 million average American families (2007 median income, $50,000) giving 10 percent of their income to equal what the top 50 rich families gave to charity.

Hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, dubbed “queen of mean” for terrorizing her employees, topped the Chronicle’s charity list with $5.2 billion in 2008. She died in 2007. Was that enough to atone for the slight and mistreatment she may have inflicted on others? In 2006, Warren Buffett pledged $43.5 billion to charity over 20 years.

Perhaps ill feeling for the rich comes from the claim that their wealth came on the backs of poorly paid workers. That has been true and still is today in some places. Humans have even become rich from slave labor.

The main sin attributed to the rich is greed. Yet that knows no class distinctions. Poor people can be as tight-fisted as wealthier people. Low-income households are victims of robbery and burglary much more frequently than wealthy ones; the perpetrators are most often in the same class and neighborhood.

Resentment of the rich is misplaced and detrimental. They feel the same greed, insecurity, sympathy and responsibility as the rest of us. Ask the rags-to-riches lottery winners who find that wealth is not as liberating as they expected.

“Rich” is a relative term. My grandfathers, sharecroppers nearly all their adult lives, would probably say to me today, “You’ve got above your raising!” I have, thank goodness! So have all of the other descendants of sharecroppers. We are rich relative to them.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]

login to post comments | Harold Brown's blog

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Spear Road Guy's picture
Submitted by Spear Road Guy on Tue, 05/12/2009 - 10:46pm.

I agree with the comment on greed not being just a rich man's problem.

Vote Republican

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.