Monday, July 9, 2012

Wealth Supremacists

A story is making the rounds of a particularly snotty-nosed Romney donor throwing her weight around in the Hamptons during the Mitt Romney fundraising this past weekend of July 7th (which happened also be one of the hottest on record in the US). Arriving at the gate to the estate, according to the Times, this woman "yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney. 'Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.' " No doubt all the other millionaires and billionaires attending appreciated her distinction.

This election is highlighting the full commitment of many Americans (almost all of the super-rich and, I suspect, a majority of everyone else) to the divine rights (plural) of wealth. This is the firm conviction of Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and of course, Mitt Romney. But it is also an article of faith among many Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

The picture is complicated, but it is coherent and explains the social and economic development of the US over the past 35 years. It explains why even many poor Americans vote to deprive themselves and further enrich the wealthy. It explains the cult of testing in public schools, coupled with the vilification of teachers by people who send their own kids to private schools. It explains a criminal justice system that allows the systematic crimes of wealth to go unpunished while sending poor law-breakers to prison for years for even the most minor offenses. It explains why Obama, with an easy line of attack against Romney, instead pussy-foots about. 

A wide array of public figures endorse wealth supremacism. And many more quietly endorse it while publicly paying lip-service to issues of justice. These quiet idolaters of wealth include people like Bill Keller, former Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times and son of Chevron CEO George Keller. They include Thomas Friedman, himself a billionaire by marriage. Numerous corporate executives, sports figures, and Hollywood stars are also among this number. Again, they may say all the right things, but actually doing something to counteract the trend is beyond their imagining.

The cult of wealth, the divine rights of wealth, are reinforced in popular entertainment, in schooling (both grade school and so-called "higher-education", in the criminal justice system, in housing — everywhere. Crucially, the notion of superiority the wealthy embrace today is not accompanied by notions of noblesse oblige endorsed by past aristocrats. I'll explore this further in forthcoming posts. 

To begin:

The first and most important of the divine rights of wealth is the right to wealth itself. Why do the rich have a right to wealth? Well, they are superior to the rest of us. They merit wealth. Why do they merit wealth? They are better — harder working, more intelligent, more honest, more virtuous. 

This view was expressly endorsed by Harvard economists and Romney adviser Gregory Mankiw in a 2009 blog post entitled "The Least Surprising Correlation of All Time:" 

"Smart parents make more money and
pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the crux of the position held by an enormous percentage of the wealthy and by, as I said I suspect, most Americans. 

In this simple statement we see a confluence of several seemingly disparate strains of thought. In this statement are elements of the reductionist thinking that plagues psychology (especially evolutionary psychology) today. We see also the tacit assumptions of virtue attached to wealth. We see elements of what is called "meritocracy." And we see the air of superiority embraced by those who are better off.

To all this and more, I will return soon.


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