The Rich Are Rich Because They Deserve It? Krugman Responds To Brooks

Is the affluence of the wealthiest Americans entirely earned, or is there a level of luck, timing, and in some cases, family inheritance involved? Or to ask it a different way, can people honestly make the case of one human being that is deserving of such massive wealth (like that of the .01%) on the merits of his or her productivity? Is there any single human being who deserves to be worth more than the combined wealth of millions of fellow citizens?

I’ve written about this topic many times on this blog, and I touched on it recently in my response to a David Brooks opinion piece in The New York Times. Paul Krugman also wrote a piece that clearly was a response to the Brooks article (even if he doesn’t directly mention it), and as we’ve come to expect, Krugman spells it out in concise language.

The Myth of the Deserving Rich – — Many influential people have a hard time thinking straight about inequality. Partly, of course, this is because of Upton Sinclair’s dictum: it’s hard for a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Part of it is because even acknowledging that inequality is a real problem implicitly opens the door to taking progressive policies seriously.

This should not be dismissed, and it applies to rich and poor alike. Take for example a low wage coal worker, who’s job security hinges on dismissal of the dire environmental impact and heath implications attached to his salary. But this job is all he knows, therefore any chance of intellectual curiosity is buried deeper than the coal he is extracting.

But there’s also a factor that, while not entirely independent of the other two, is somewhat distinct; I think of it as the urge to sociologize.

I’ve written about that urge in the context of poverty: many pundits and politicians clearly want to believe that poverty is all about dysfunctional families and all that, a view that’s at least 30 years out of date, overtaken by the raw fact of stagnant or declining wages for the bottom third of workers.

This urge was on full display in the David Brooks piece. It seems that Brooks believes political divisiveness is created not by intransigence on the Right, but by the liberals who want to address poverty head on, and that this is a bigger crime than people going hungry. After all, if they are going hungry, they must deserve it, so why all the fuss?

There is also a counterpart on the upside of the income distribution: an obvious desire to believe that rising incomes at the top are kind of the obverse of the alleged social problems at the bottom. According to this view, the affluent are affluent because they have done the right things: they’ve gotten college educations, they’ve gotten and stayed married, avoiding illegitimate births, they have a good work ethic, etc.. And implied in all this is that wealth is the reward for virtue, which makes it hard to argue for redistribution.

As if blaming poverty on social issues (another way of saying you’ve failed as a human being in the eyes of some rich white asshole) isn’t bad enough, people with this view go on to sing the praises of being rich, white, and well, an asshole. It’s the work ethic. It’s the elite education. Oh, that’s right, and it’s the fact that wealth creates more wealth. That is a nice perk, if you can get it.

These are the lies that the free market conservative must tell himself, otherwise the cruel reality of life would be unbearable. It’s much easier to dismiss the suffering at the bottom of the economic ladder when you can blame it on bad choices and social deterioration. They might feel bad for you if you are going hungry, but they aren’t about to believe they have any responsibility to help remedy that situation. It’s an all too convenient ideology if you ask me. That rich white asshole deserves every last penny, and fuck you for thinking of using any of it (in the form of higher taxes) to feed a fellow citizen.

Paul krugman

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