I watched a documentary on TV recently that left me feeling sorry for the rich. It traced the sad saga of the Rockefellers, one of history’s most successful families – in terms of money. It was a depressing tale of misunderstood morality and ruthless acquisitiveness. Not only did their money not bring happiness, it apparently brought them self-deprivation, self-doubt, self-pity and an array of physical and mental afflictions. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling they brought it on themselves.
Obviously, not all of the super-rich suffer under the burden of their wealth. The booming sales of luxury cars and other obscenely expensive toys testifies to that. But on the other side of the ledger is the apparently irresistible need to give their fortunes away. Some, like the Rockefellers – and more recently Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – seek out worthy causes; others like the Koch brothers, use their bounty to make political mischief.
One thought that never crossed my mind was that I owe the rich a debt of gratitude for their success.
Yet this is an increasingly popular concept among Republicans.
Only a Republican could walk you through the logic, but I gather there’s some notion that by being successful, the super-rich show the rest of us the path to success. Or it could be the idea that they give the rest of us hope that we might follow their example? I honestly don’t know what the thinking is. But it keeps cropping up with increasing frequency.
I read a news story on Yahoo this morning that quotes a man named Harry Binswanger as arguing that “the community should give back to the wealth-creators” and the world should be indebted to the rich and powerful for “their enormous contributions to our standard of living.”
This former college professor, who is now a member of the Ayn Rand Institute, showcases his views in this month’s Forbes Magazine.
Binswanger argues that anyone who earns more than $1 million a year deserves an exemption from paying taxes. He insists that “great achievers” like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs “lifted us out of the cave and gave us our standard of living.” And he suggests that the highest earner of the year – maybe an investment banker, hedge fund manager or CEO – be given a Congressional Medal of Honor in return for their contribution to society’s prosperity.
If I can cite the Rockefellers as typical of the super-rich, the means of obtaining their riches were anything but exemplary. Their Standard Oil empire used deception and other underhanded – even illegal – methods in crushing their competition, and in at least one instance massacred a group of strikers. Yet apparently they considered themselves devoutly Christian, contributing generously to their church and funding humanitarian causes worldwide.
Still, compared with today’s robber barons – the vulture capitalists and financial finaglers of Wall Street, for example – the Rockefellers were models of morality.
To suggest that society owes them anything – except a prison sentence – for their “success” would be laughable if it weren’t so depressingly cynical.