Does being rich make you a terrible person? I was listening to a podcast exploring this idea the other day. The host was firmly on the side of the wealthy, or at least, was strongly against any rush to condemnation.
The episode was a few years old, so at the time of the recording, you needed to have a personal income of $300,000 to be in the 1% (it’s about $420K today). That’s not really all that much money, the host supposes. It’s a college professor nearing retirement that made some good investments in rental properties, or it’s a small business owner that’s made a good run at it.
And, he continues, these kinds of people aren’t bad at all. They work hard in their communities. They own land, so their property taxes pay for schools. They give to charity and, of course, create jobs.
These people are pillars of the community, not robber barons. They’re not wicked men with crooked mustaches robbing from poor children to fund their yacht parties!
But wait, I thought to myself. He’s doing exactly what he warns the audience not to do. Judging these people based on their income. Because while I might agree that having a high income doesn’t make you immoral, neither does having a high income make you inherently moral.
Breaking down a couple of the host’s statements throws the whole argument on its ear.
While it’s true that $300,000 isn’t that much money (in the sense that it’s not building your own rocket to Mars ala Jeff Bezos money), it’s still more than 99% of people living in the US made! Ask a family with two working adults and a household income of $60,000 whether $300K sounds like a lot. Ask parents struggling to pay for childcare, or a factory worker nearing retirement who just learned that his pension has folded.
The simple fact is that life is better when you’re rich. You may or may not be happier. But research shows you’re less likely to be victimized by crime or die early from disease. Your income is even one of the leading indicators of your children’s eventual wealth.
The podcast goes on to explain that wealthy people have worked hard for what they have and that the entry-level 1%’s are the most likely to have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
Do you mean to say that the people barely scraping aren’t also working hard every day?! I know plenty of teachers, social workers, and nurses who’d beg to differ. I know dads breaking their backs on a factory line or sweating on a construction site who go home happy that their kid is going to bed with a roof over their head. These people would love to take access to healthcare, childcare or education for granted, but they don’t get to.
Let’s take an extreme case to drive the point home. The day after I heard the podcast, I saw this article in the NY Times.
It details how Jeffrey Epstein, famous pedophile and conman, met and drew close to the billionaire owner of Victoria Secret. Epstein somehow managed to leapfrog from dropping out of college to teaching match to going to work as an investment banker. Puffing up his own reputation, he attaches himself to a Billionaire and slowly accumulates money, assets, and influence.
It seems the more you read about Epstein (and I caution anyone about going down that rabbit hole), the more you uncover the story of a deeply unscrupulous man. Before the accusations of sex trafficking, Epstein was embroiled in shady business practices and being sued for fraud.
He may only be a paltry multimillionaire, instead of the billionaire as sometimes claimed, but that still puts him squarely in the 1%. And once again, life is pretty sweet up there. His multiple brushes with the law landed him one of the most lenient prison sentences you’ve ever heard of. And it’s only now, after multiple civil suits and public accusations that the charges seem to have stuck.
The simple fact that Epstein was rich made a huge difference in the application of justice. It didn’t matter that some or much of his money may have been ill-gotten, nor did it matter that his morality was rotten to the core. He was treated differently by the people around him and the justice system because of his wealth. Which isn’t that unusual, unfortunately.
So while I don’t think we should be taking pitchforks and torches up to Beverly Hills, I do think we should stop idolizing wealth. The rich aren’t inherently evil, but they’re certainly not inherently moral either. Most people are doing what they can to get by. Some of us who got the breaks or the headstart are getting by a little better than the rest. And some of us are struggling against the world every day and still barely past the starting line.
I’m angry as hell about Jefferey Epstein. And disappointed that prominent people feel that they need to stick up for the 1% (because they’re not really that rich).
We’re in this thing together. And wealthy or not, access to a healthy life, an eventual retirement and a future for your kids shouldn’t be outside of anyone’s grasp. We shouldn’t blame the 1% or any group of people for all the world’s problems. But we should all (1% included) be asking what we can do to make it easier for all the people coming up behind us.