The Wretchedness of Wretched Excess

We're already well past the season of annual reports and proxy statements disclosing eye-popping executive compensation. Apart from the predictable ritual scolding by some on the Left and a few hypocrites in Congress, such reports barely make a dent in public consciousness any more. The SEC under Christopher Cox is quietly backing away from even the tepid set of reforms his predecessor had proposed. Any effort to push back seriously against concentrated wealth runs up against a big problem, which is that today's Americans equate wealth with virtue as never before.

This, of course, was not always the case. Good old Tocqueville discovered a lot of hustling for geld on his American visit, but he also took note of small-r republican doubts about where all this money-grubbing would take the new nation. Two decades later vast unearned wealth and the corruption that goes with it were strongly associated with the "Slave Power" then being attacked by Abolitionists. The decades following the Civil War witnessed yet more intense debate about moral challenges posed to a democratic culture by the emergence and growing strength of the plutocrat class. William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner so magnificently portrayed in Michael Kazin's new biography, spoke for many millions and galvanized millions more with his "cross of gold" speech. It goes without saying that serious thinkers and critics in those days worried about great wealth's effects upon the spiritual health of the plutocrats themselves and not just about the public immorality involved in grinding the faces of the poor.

Our culture today doesn't lack for moralists of the Bill Bennett/Ann Coulter variety, but nobody seems willing to call for serious moral education and moral discernment around the perils of wealth. Half the Christian preachers now preach a bogus "prosperity gospel" and actually boast of their own personal wealth; our senior pundits and our college presidents make much too much themselves to speak credibly on this subject; our "electeds" are all terribly beholden to the plutocrats for their mother's milk.

I'm a relative nobody, but let me try to make a brief case for treating unbridled cupidity and unlimited accumulation as a serious problem.

Neoliberal economists like to dispute this, but observation and common sense strongly suggest that when a national community's wealth grows more and more concentrated at the top, that concentration makes for less available wealth lower down in the food chain. Wealth is still a form of theft, and it robs not just the contemporaries of the very wealthy but it also robs their children and grandchildren of the good things of life they might otherwise enjoy. The fact that so many in this society are seriously indebted -- that many workers owe more than a year's earnings in credit card debt alone -- shows that the massive theft committed by the wealthy is no victimless crime: rather, it extracts a cruel toll on those whose "standard of living" can be maintained only through habitual and dangerous borrowing.

Well-ordered societies find ways to build up the middle ground of earnings and enjoyment; they connect the health of democratic government with continuous renewal of the social contract. Disordered societies turn a blind eye to plutocracy; some are foolish enough to celebrate it and even cultivate popular habits of deference to the idle rich. We can laugh all we want at the periwigged gents who set the American experiment in motion, but they disdained all forms of what they called "servility," and they knew in their bones that republican virtue could not co-exist with the irresponsible possession of great wealth. They themselves were wealthy, but most lived modestly and accepted their responsibility to serve the polis in various ways. Today's fat cats look instead for creative new ways to make the polis subsidize them and serve their private interests.

I am old enough to remember the time when many Americans used the term "Brazilianization" to refer to what should never happen here: we didn't want idle rich people sucking the marrow out of society while showing no accountability toward an increasingly anxious and desperate mass of ordinary folks. Nobody worries about Brazilianization now, possibly because we have already managed to become a more unequal society than Brazil itself.

What we face is much more than an economic and political problem. At its core, this is a spiritual problem. A body politic with too much concentrated wealth is spiritually constipated; part of it is already dead, with the rest growing more deadened day by day. Freud, Marcuse and others were quite right to think of hidden-away wealth as a form of buried shit and also as an expression of thanatos -- the death instinct. They (like Jesus and like Buddha long before them) understood that people who live for their wealth cease to possess it, that it increasingly possesses them instead.

In the healthiest of all societies -- in those so-called "primitive" cultures that still engage in potlatch or the gift economy -- holding on to private wealth is regarded as less than fully human behavior, even as a kind of pathology. Leaders in these cultures are those who give away what they have with the greatest abandon, trusting that keeping goods in circulation is good for everyone and good for them personally.

Our children and young people in 21st-century America are being carefully taught the exact opposite lesson; they are being inculcated into a deadly culture in which full personhood and the possession of much wealth are tied closely together. Can we truly describe any course of education as "liberal" that does not at least call into question this automatic equation of maximum well-being with maximum property? I doubt it.

The late John Kenneth Galbraith once said that "wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive." Inasmuch as by "wealth" Galbraith was referring to reasonable comfort, he was entirely right; but stupendous wealth is another matter. Certainly, the moral case against wretched excess is one that all but makes itself.