Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Money and Morality

Some of you may have been offended or amused by GOP presidential candidate Tommy Thompson's gaffe before a Jewish audience the other day, wherein he allowed as how:

"I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition."

Thompson's hilariously counterproductive efforts to dig himself out of his use of Jewish stereotypes are one thing. As Mark Schmitt usefully noted over at TAPPED, his remarks were also offensive insofar as they implied he wasn't actually earning his pay during his many years of public service, as compared to his recent "private sector" gigs at places like Akin, Gump, where he is presumably pulling down big bucks to show the company flag while actually running for president.

But let's take this up another notch. The other planted axiom in Thompson's riff is an even more invidious and important one: the idea that the ability to pull down large sums of money constitutes "earning"--in the moral, not the mechanical sense--that income, implying an identity between wealth and virtue.

This is indeed an attitude that's deeply engrained in the American psyche, and that does help explain our relatively high tolerance for economic inequality. But it doesn't survive much genuine reflection.

Since we have created the largest upper class in human history, is one to deduce that the current generation of wealthy Americans is the most moral, the hardest working, the most responsible group of people to grace the planet? Does anyone really think that, say, the millions of unfortunate people who couldn't find jobs during the Great Depression were morally inferior to, or lazier than, today's millionaires? Probably not, yet the self-congratulation that so often accompanies such wealth accumulation, particularly when accompanied by the belief that taxation is virtually theft, seems to reflect that point of view.

There's no question that any capitalist economy is going to reward some skills and assets more than others, and create some level of inequality, and much of the western world's economic policy debates over the last couple of centuries have revolved around prudential questions about the degree to which such inequality is necessary or incidental to the efficiency of markets.

But that's economics, not ethics, and it's more than a little important to keep them straight. The kind of inequality this country has today may or may not be a byproduct of economic forces that we must at least respect, even if we decide to override them in the interests of a more decent society, or in the pursuit of a more stable and long-term prosperity. But there's nothing "natural" or "moral" about vast inequality, and its tribunes must be challenged every time they try to pretend otherwise, even through the sloppy use of words like "earned."
-- Posted at 2:09 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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