Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why Are We Rich?

The sermon I recently heard in a church in an upscale community asked a profound question: “Why are we rich?” The scripture reading preceding the sermon retold Jesus’ story of a rich man who in this life had fared “sumptuously.” The preacher didn’t attempt an explanation of why the man in this story was rich -- the point of his sermon was that with wealth comes a moral responsibility -- but, the question of why, throughout history, some people are rich and some are not is a great question.

Usually those who fare “sumptuously” believe that their wealth is well deserved. The idea that wealth is entitled in an old idea. Within the history of European culture, when the divine right of royalty was embedded, those with wealth convinced themselves that they were entitled to their wealth because of their connection with royalty. Certainly, 500 years ago, if you were a distant cousin to the king, you would have had a huge sense that you were entitled to wealth, based upon your status of birth. And your sense of entitlement would have been widely validated by your peers.

In our culture, where the idea of democracy is embedded, those of us who are financially secure also want to convince ourselves that we are entitled to wealth. Of course, we do not use our blood line as justification, but, rather, we justify our wealth by citing the merit of our work, the merit of our contribution to our society, and by citing the notion that in our society everyone has equal opportunity. It’s appealing to think in terms of justification, but we are fooling ourselves if we really believe that it is the merit of our work that makes us rich. I could point to well paid lawyers, doctors or hedge fund managers, as examples of why justification based on merit is not valid, but since my own livelihood came from teaching, I will focus there.

It is not unusual to hear teachers expressing the idea that they deserve higher pay. I, myself, joined in that chorus at various times. But the question of what pay any job “deserves” is an interesting question. Teachers may convince themselves that they are entitled to their income -- plus much more -- because they have college degrees, because they work hard, because they perform a vital service to society. The rationale teachers give for entitlement may help them disregard the plight of hard working fellow citizens toiling as Walmart clerks, fast food workers or factory workers -- the working poor -- who have little claim to present day prosperity and who have little hope for any future security. But, it seems to me, the smugness of those of us who feel entitled is undeserved -- even as the smugness of the second cousin to the king 500 years ago was undeserved. However we may think it to be so, our prosperity simply is not because of our merit.

The accumulation of money, throughout history, usually has been associated with power. If you are rich, you have power; but, more to the point, if you have power you have the opportunity to gain riches. Our representative democracy today certainly seems based on the power of money and seems ever more successful in delivering money to those who exercise that power.

Our own efforts and merit is not sufficient to make us rich. Ultimately, the necessary condition for our being rich rests not in what we do, but rests in the character of the system and rests in the structure of the society in which we live. A teacher in Darfur, regardless of her level of education or the quality of her work will not fare “sumptuously,” because, the country itself is poor, and is in disarray. Teachers, lawyers, doctors in the old Soviet Union had no personal prosperity, not because they lacked in education or hard work, but, because they had no personal connection to the power contained within the system. To be wealthy in the old Soviet Union, you needed either to be a member of the political elite or you needed to be specifically blessed by the political elite.

Teachers in our society have prosperity not because of their college degrees or their hard work; teachers have prosperity because of the system they helped produce, a system that limits the number of potential teachers. They have prosperity because they support a political / economic system that relies on educational credentialling; they have prosperity because they empower a strong teachers’ union experienced in influencing public opinion and public policy. Teachers in our system, in other words, unlike teachers in the old Soviet Union, are well connected to the power contained within our system. Why doctors are rich or why lawyers are rich or why hedge fund managers are rich can all be explained not in terms of their educational accomplishments or their hard work, but in terms of how they are connected to the power contained within the system.

The question is: How can a wealthy nation conduct itself so that all of its citizens enjoy prosperity? The idea that is widely promulgated is that our system is the best possible -- because everyone in our system has opportunity. The idea that is advanced is that if there was a huge increase in the number of individuals with improved educational credentials, more and more people would enjoy prosperity. But that idea really does not make sense. If 100% of the work force had college degrees, low paying jobs would simply be filled by college graduates. In every bell curve, 50% of everyone will always be below average.

What comes with riches is often a sense of rightness and smugness. In 1500, a distant cousin to the king would have thought it quite right and quite deserved that he was rich. He would have felt justified because the system of the time justified him, and because his peers justified him. In the Republican debate last night, there seemed a sense of rightness and smugness coming through, the sense that this system is OK.

But the system is not OK. And, I see very little attempt to discuss in realistic terms how the present system can or should be changed so that more individuals will have the chance for prosperity. Our democratic process should bring ideas into the public arena for discussion and debate, but that simply doesn't seem to be happening. A great question: “Why are we rich?” We need to discard simplistic answers to this question and seek to understand a profound answer to this question, because understanding the present system is a prerequisite for making wise and needed changes to the system.

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