While wealth is seen by most as a good thing, as a strength in both the individual and in society as a whole, we do ourselves a serious disservice when we ignore the weakness that wealth, especially concentrated wealth, creates. In a time of abundant wealth in the United States, wages are stagnant for working people, poverty is on the rise, debt is skyrocketing, and every service consumed by ordinary Americans is going up in price, and becoming less available. And the reason for it is plain to see. The rich are killing us.
Put down the torches and pitchforks. The rich are certainly to blame for the current state of affairs in America, but it is not evil that motivates them. It is weakness, specifically a weakness tied to their inability to understand hardship, due to never experiencing it themselves, and in most cases, never even seeing it. It is the same ignorance middle class families see in their children at those moments in childhood when we teach the next generation about money, about work, about saving and about the value of a wage.
A significant portion of today’s moneyed class were born into wealth, and most of those who were not were instead born on the smoothly paved path to financial success. According to the Brookings Institution, close to 45% of our wealth is inherited, and “over 60% of the Forbes richest 400 Americans grew up in substantial privilege.” That’s a massive amount of wealth to be controlled by those who have never had to experience the cost of a missed paycheck, or the anxiety of economic uncertainty. That’s a whole lot of people who were never really taught about the value of their own riches, much less what to do with them. Some figure this out on their own, but most never remove the blinders.
To Donald Trump, himself a trust fund baby who never once experienced hardship, these are the “best people” he promised to bring into his administration, and under his direction they have orchestrated a massive shift in wealth away from working people, and into the pockets of those who already have more than they can responsibly use. From the tax cut, to school privatization, to healthcare cuts, and on and on, it’s terrible policy, but we would be incorrect to call it evil, or attribute it to malicious intent. They’re not evil. They’re just ignorant, and in their worlds, an encounter with poverty is about as likely as a unicorn sighting.
And for our part, we would be incorrect to lay the blame solely at the feet of the weak-minded rich and powerful, for it is us who worship them, who provide them with the platform that enables their misplaced confidence and self-assured vulgarity. We are the idolaters, and too many of us believe the lies simply because they are the lies we want to be told, when we know in our hearts and minds that we should press for the uncomfortable truth. We believe too easily, question too infrequently, and simply hand over our votes, our futures, and even our faith based not on what our leaders think and believe, but what they are willing to say into the microphone, and how they hug a flag. They are children, and yet we let them lead us.
In “A Theory of Justice,” philosopher John Rawls explains a thought experiment he calls “The Veil of Ignorance.” In short, it says that our idea of a just society will almost certainly privilege our own circumstances. Those with wealth will favor a top-heavy system, while those without will favor a system that distributes wealth more evenly. The only way to combat this prejudice is to remove ourselves from the equation, to construct a veil of ignorance that assumes we have no choice in where we end up in the system we create, that our position must be random. Only then can we create a just system, or make a reasonable attempt at doing so. Rawls is taught pretty much everywhere, but I believe it’s safe to say he’s not a part of the curriculum at the Wharton Business School.
So when the government shuts down, this is the lens through which I see the problem. It’s not that Donald Trump wants to hurt working people; it’s that he doesn’t see them. Our pain is a fiction, our discomfort a Bigfoot story. It isn’t real to those who have never seen it and could never imagine it, and this is why they do what they do. So when Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary and billionaire, says out loud into a microphone that he “doesn’t understand” why federal workers need food bank assistance, I take him at his word. He’s not evil. He’s just showing us the weakness of wealth. He’s showing us why he’s a terrible choice for the job he now holds.
As I look over the family accounts and think about the big financial questions we face, it is an act of discipline to write sentences like “They’re not evil,” and “They’re just ignorant.” In reality, they could be evil. The president’s cabinet is worth $4.3 billion, easily the richest in history, and it is very difficult to see what they do as a product of weakness rather than malice, but I must. I must believe that ignorance can be educated. Immaturity can be outgrown. Weakness can be exercised.
In that, there is hope, but if I’m wrong, and I often am, then it might just be time for the torches and pitchforks.
Contributing Editor: Brett Pransky
Brett Pransky is a teacher, a father, and a writer, but not necessarily in that order. When not engaged in the good fight, he spends his time as a mild-mannered English professor at Ohio University. Find him on Twitter @BrettPransky.