Here there be monsters (socratic) wrote,
Here there be monsters
socratic

I'm reading (or to be accurate have just finished reading) Barbara Erehnreich (I probably mangled her name, but frankly all authors should be forced to change their name to easily spelled things like Smith, Jones, or Scott anyway) Nickel and Dimed, about America's working poor. While it's not a great book, far too leightweight both in page count and writing style, it is useful in understanding just how shitty the American poor have it.

Tied to this is my constant wondering about why the rich need to be so...rich. Now don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the idea of rich people per se. I can see why someone might want $10,000,000 to live in luxury on, that makes sense to me. In truth I don't even begrudge these people their wealth. Quentin Tarantino makes movies that I enjoy a lot. He also has a beautiful house. This doesn't really bother me. Freddie Prinz Jr. makes movies that make me physically ill and/or homicidal. He is also the owner of a BEAUTIFUL home. It grates on me but I accept it. Apparently there are a lot of losers out there who are willing to pay for Freddie Prinz Jr. movies. All this makes sense to me.

On the other hand, there are the people who are REALLY rich. The people for whom Quentin Tarantino's house is just a cabin. The people with hundreds of millions or even billions or in some cases TENS of billions of dollars. I don't get it. The arguments for them having this much money just ring false to me. Let's go through them together shall we?

Argument #1) We need to pay them these outlandish sums of money so that they will make the world better with the products they create. That seems to make some kind of sense from a certain perspective. I mean if Thomas Edison hadn't created the phonograph or Henry Ford hadn't come up with the production line we'd have a lot less neat stuff. They probably should be rewarded for their actions, and making them rich seems like a good reward. On the other hand what kind of idiotic logic is it that they need to be FILTHY rich in order to be properly rewarded (not that Edison became filthy rich, but by this logic he should have.) Look at Rupert Murdoch. What has he done to improve our society. He financed 24, The Simpsons, and Married with Children. That's pretty good, I like that. He also started the decline of the media into a sensationalist corporate owned pile of shit. Points off for that. He has a virtual monopoly on newspapers in some markets and is a powerful voice for...nothing in China where he runs one of the only commercial television outlets and bends to the will of the government there. Meanwhile he preaches to the lowest common patriotic denominator over here. We need to give him billions to provide incentive for that? Furthermore I've seen no proof that giving someone a billion dollars is more motivating than giving him ten million. We just assume that because ten thousand dollars is more motivating than one thousand that this holds true for larger sums but I can't imagine that the law of diminishing returns kicks in at some point. Once you have more money than you could ever hope to spend in ten lifetimes how much harder will you work to have more than you could ever hope to spend in twenty? In fact I think a good deal of it may be that people WANT to work (since a life of leisure does get boring and predictable) and they want to be paid outrageous sums in order to justify it. Justifying Bill Gates showing up at the office seems like a waste of billions of dollars. Also it should be noted that money DOESN'T buy happiness. Many rich people are quite miserable. Therefore these billions that are supposed to be going to inspire a single solitary person to do some work (almost nobody, not even Einstein, is worth a billion bucks) aren't even making them happy. What purpose are they serving (and yes I realize that most of the money is tied up in job making business ventures, but that money isn't inherently doing more than if it were under the posession of poorer people who could borrow against it, or even spend it, which also creates jobs and opportunities)

Argument #2 People should be allowed to keep what they earn. This argument makes sense to a degree. It's the Lockian one and I understand it. If you till the soil, and you plant the seeds, and you drive away the deer shouldn't you be the one who gets to harvest? That's fine. On the other hand most of the super rich these days GOT super rich by tricking other people into doing their work for them, or leveraging some work into rulership over others. Sam Walton's big idea was to run a store that sells everything and pays its workers and suppliers (and thus THEIR workers) nothing. I don't know if that deserves billionaire status. The Enron guys figured out how to trick electricity customers into paying out the ass....okay. That's not exactly a tremendous accomplishment in terms of social value. A lot of what is "earned" these days is earned by tricking other people into working for low wages, buying something they don't really want but have seen in advertisements, or otherwise manipulating and/or cheating people out of their money. Heck much of the time it isn't even done under the thin moral guidence of the law. Observe Enron accounting or the fun that Wal-Mart has with not paying overtime and/or requiring salespeople to work off the clock. Yes there is a good argument for being able to keep what you produce, but not when "what you produce" is so far removed from any actual labor/production. Creative accounting is not the moral equivalent of farming or building a boat.

Argument #3) There is no better system. This is finally the one that has actual merit. If we can agree that wealth has been unfairly and unequally distributed then we should be able to agree on a solution. Except there is no good one. Communism is nice in theory but central distribution of wealth leads to MASSIVE corruption and does end up killing the economy, not by failing to pay the rich humongous sums of money but by failing to motivate the working and middle class, where earning $75k vs $85k based on performance does make a real and notable difference. The fact of the matter is that while socialism (I.E. in Europe) does work for awhile it soon starts not to work. Witness the EU and its authoritarian rules regarding various things (It's illegal to insult homosexuals as a group. That's something that the law really shouldn't be screwing with.) The argument could be that if you concentrate economic and political power into the same entity of COURSE you'll end up with autocracy or it could be more subtle than that but there is a very important point here about the lack of alternatives. This last argument ends up swaying the day...but only to a point. Just because we don't KNOW of a better system doesn't mean that one won't some day exist (for example computerized distribution may eliminate the human corruption factor) and it certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it. The system is horribly broken and getting worse, not better. Those who claim it's the best system conceivable are idiots. The fact of the matter is that we all know nobody should be as rich as the richest people in our society or as poor as the poorest (heck nobody should be as poor as the bottom 50%, at least not without more affordable housing which chews up way too much of the income of the lower class) and the only viable question is how we can solve that issue without fucking everything else up.
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