the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 June 18


It is not enough for the rich to own everything. They must also act like they own everything. In some cases the rich are rich because they are more clever than we are, by which I mean not me but you. But for the most part they have become rich because they are more privileged, more ruthless, more unscrupulous, or more corrupt ― or some depraved combination thereof.

Thanks to a recent murder trial, I am now informed that ‘narcissism’ is accepted by the American Psychiatric Association as a valid personality disorder, as opposed to a personal failing or character flaw. These ‘narcissists’ believe themselves to be a superior class, fit only to associate with others of their class, entitled to favorable treatment and automatic compliance with their demands, will readily exploit others for their own purposes, are arrogant, haughty, and in constant need of adulation. Sound like anyone? (Besides me, I mean.) Self-importance as mental illness is quite exciting. It suggests that at some point, science will devise a cure. There will be a pill that narcissists can take to stop being egotistical, egoistical bastards.

When a friend commented to me recently on corporate greed, it occurred to me that the corporate project has been more successful than I had previously noticed. Corporations, which are legally persons, were established to shield the wealthy from the negative economic consequences of their actions. This strange legal person is liable, not its wealthy investors. The idea of corporate greed only shows that the wealthy are also shielded from the negative moral consequences of their actions. We blame the fictional persons. We do not blame the very real persons behind them. Corporations are proxies for the rich, we should remember. But if the corporations do well, the rich do well. If the corporations do badly, the rich have probably arranged to do well anyway. And if the corporations do wrong, they alone are responsible.

The rich feel exempt from ordinary standards. Do as we say, not as we do. Why else would Martha Stewart risk her career and even prison by engaging in insider trading and then a shabby cover-up? Because she did not know the law? She is a former stockbroker, and in any case has the best advice money can buy. Because she expected not to get caught? Could be. But I think she did this because she believed she was entitled to do it.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the common thief, historically maligned as the most contemptible of criminals. In fact, the common thief is much more likely to be acting for simple survival than, say, a white-collar thief, who is acting to move ever-so-slightly higher on the ladder of wealth and success. If Jean Valjean swipes a loaf of bread, I cheer. If Robin Hood hijacks the prince’s gold and buys a thousand loaves of bread for the poor, every Saxon one of us cheers. But if some rich person becomes that much richer, well, I have heard better stories.

The head of ImClone has been sent to prison for quite a number of years for insider trading. I actually don’t think that his offense warrants imprisonment, any more than if he were smoking dope or flashing old ladies. Insider trading is a bizarre crime, existing to make an inherently-corrupt system seem somewhat less odious. But odious it is. And yet, it seems reasonable for there to be an economic penalty for violating the rules of an economic game that has so lavishly rewarded the Samuel Waksals and Martha Stewarts of the world. Let them spend the rest of their lives cleaning toilets. Why is it, in a supposedly free-market system, that the jobs that are most necessary and least desirable are also among the lowest-paying? Does it seem like the law of supply and demand is functioning as promised?

National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill has kindly reminded us recently about the lives of the untouchables in India. He does not use a politically-correct term, not even the politically-correct term of the untouchables themselves. O’Neill throws this appalling class prejudice in our faces, like so much of the acid that is frequently used to punish untouchables who presume to leave their stations. Amrutbhai Sarasiya is for me the new image of humanity. He was captured by photographer William Albert Allard with an expression at once so thoughtful, human, and even dignified that I want to embrace him as a friend; and yet he has just emerged from a sewer, covered in shit, which, being born to the lowest subcaste of the lowest caste, he is socially required to clean from the sewer by hand. And should he at some point dare to visit a location reserved for the upper castes, he can expect to have his face dissolved by one of his pompous “superiors”. Might there not be some cause for class warfare in the world?

An expansion of the child tax credit was included as part of the recent debt-financed giveaway to the rich. Hopefully the recipient parents will have the decency to hand over the $400 checks to their children, with the instruction to save it for the point in the future when those children will be required to pay off the debt their parents are incurring. But the tax credit did not apply to those earning $10,500 to $27,000 a year. The purported reason, that they don’t pay taxes, is a lie, of course, since even at the low end they only don’t pay “income” taxes. They pay plenty of payroll taxes, in part to subsidize the lifestyle of wealthy seniors who won’t countenance means-testing, and, since there is really only one federal budget, accounting gimmicks be damned, they pay in part to subsidize anything else the government spends money on, including giveaways to the rich. Naturally the omission of the working poor from this bill looked very bad politically, and the Senate moved to fix the problem, and to pay for it no less. The House, led by the loathsome Tom DeLay, seized the opportunity to extend the original tax cut in time, and to extend it to those earning $110,000 to $150,000 a year. Needless to say, the House version of the bill was funded by borrowing; also needless to say, the House Republicans do not care if the working poor ever get their tax credit, and they probably won’t.

Multi-millionaire “actor” Arnold Schwarzenegger commemorated the United States’ national temper-tantrum on taxes, begun twenty-five years ago with California Proposition 13, by speaking to the Club for Growth, which as the name suggests believes in borrowing trillions of dollars to give to the rich. Said Schwarzenegger: “Our elected officials in Sacramento are facing a budget crisis unseen in this state since the Great Depression, and it was entirely avoidable. Teachers are getting pink slips, cops are getting laid off and the taxpayers are facing an increase in taxes and California’s future is in danger.” So, Arnold calculates, we can spend more on public services and cut taxes at the same time? With such reasoning, he could follow Ronald Reagan into the California governor’s office. A pity he cannot follow him into the White House. We could certainly use that kind of thinking in Washington.

George Bush claims to think that any criticism of the outrageous handouts to the rich is class warfare. I think he may have a somewhat-distorted perspective, and not merely because he is a president’s son and senator’s grandson. He is also a pampered rich person in a country that seems to love them, in an era when capitalism is (nauseatingly) triumphant, when entrepreneurs and even the landed gentry just will not stop chattering about all of the wonderful things their system has done for the world. I say ‘their system’ because, like everything else, they own it.

Far from agreeing with Bush’s class-warfare charge, billionaire Warren Buffett has said that Bush’s tax cut was itself class warfare ― for his class. He noted that he already pays taxes at the same rate as his secretary, and under Bush’s plan, could both increase his income and lower his tax rate to 3%, which he graciously conceded would be “a bit light”. He sounded both sincere and genuinely embarrassed by the action being taken for the welfare of the most well-to-do. For that reason, I would counsel sparing him.

For everyone else, the guillotine. There was a day when peasants would occasionally rise up and lynch their landlords. If the peasants were feeling merciful, they merely ransacked and burned down the manor house. By comparison, class warriors of today are quite tame. Now the peasants are merely demanding a share of the tax cuts that the rich think belong, like everything else, exclusively to them.

But consider the recent G-8 summit. The G-8 makes no sense. Invariably when it is introduced, it must be described as “the world’s wealthiest nations, and Russia”. There is no commonality to the group that makes Russia belong. By contrast, there was a certain sense to the G-7 ― no concern for appearances, no political correctness, just the world’s wealthiest states gathering unashamedly to talk about money. It is a shame that wealth so often brings prestige. But these matter-of-fact assemblies of wealth did become prestigious ― the Augusta National of the world ― which is why Russia wanted in. And it was allowed in in total contravention of the original point. It is no longer matter-of-fact but matter-of-fiction. Host France compounded that this year by inviting, among others, Brazil, Nigeria, Algeria, and the G-77. The summit is now irredeemably silly; it is no longer even respectable for its brazen celebration of economic power.

But it did still manage to infuriate the global protest scene. The class warriors were so upset by the fact that rich countries would meet, and meet with developing countries no less, that they responded by smashing up ... Geneva. Geneva, a city that had nothing to do with the summit, a city nearly synonymous with the kind of pacifist, internationalist, cooperative non-involvement that the protesters celebrate when they are being their least ― but still ― tiresome. Yes, Switzerland is also rich, but if the protesters had a beef with the Swiss economy, they should at least have smashed up Zurich.

So on second thought, let us not have class warfare. Let us not guillotine the rich for their arrogance, if only because, like previous guillotining projects, it is sure to get out of hand. But let us also not have those who have destroyed our world so that their lives can begin and end in luxury and privilege whine about being treated unfairly.

Unfair? Sure, guv’nor. I can’t imagine.


Original version


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