The Undeserving Rich

George Bernard Shaw in his still very witty and relevant play of 1914, “Pygmalion”, has Eliza Doolittle’s father describe himself, very eloquently, as one of “the undeserving poor”. They also have their needs even if they don’t want to work hard and prefer a life of women and drink. That is a comeuppance to the bourgeois morality of Shaw’s audience who might find room in their hearts for the deserving poor, who are people who work hard to improve their condition, accept standard middle class moral values, but for reasons not their fault cannot make a go of it. We still feel more compassionate for those burdened by life than we do for people who accept their poverty as a way of life. We want to raise the poverty class into being a working class whether they like the idea or not. 

I would suggest that the distinction between the deserving and undeserving is even more important in our own time as a distinction to be made about the rich. There are the undeserving rich who, like Jeffrey Epstein, squander their money on sex and estates, while the deserving rich spend their honorably gained fortunes on philanthropy. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers qualify for this latter category. They buy honor from their peers and the public and perhaps justification for themselves through their money, their wealth being something they might otherwise have to live down. The rich sometimes feel guilty for being so much better off than other people, however cheap they may also be, sometimes bringing their lunches to the office in a brown paper bag because what they care about, as the Protestant Ethic thesis would suggest, is the making of it rather than the spending of it. The rich also have consciences and so, again following the Weber Thesis, they want to prove themselves spiritually worthy.

A basic principle of Conservative philosophy that stretches back to at least the Seventeenth Century English social philosopher James Harrington is that the wealthy, whereby he meant the land holding class, was likely to be more responsible in the handling of public affairs than would be the poor or the middling classes because the landholders had more of a stake in the nation. They wanted to protect their fortunes and so would govern the polity in terms of an enlightened self interest that would lead them to deal with all classes in a way that would create the social stability that would allow them to hold on to their wealth. The rich would be irresponsible, would be undeserving, if they acted in any other way. They were therefore the rightful guardians of society.

That is the approach taken by the bankers in the wake of the collapse of the mortgage market that led to the Great Recession of 2007. The bankers argued that they had been providing a necessary economic function: they were keeping the financial markets fluid by inventing new investment instrumentalities so that investors could decide how much risk they were willing to take with their money. Bankers put out securities backed by mortgages and mixed in higher or lower proportions of risky mortgages so that an investor could decide whether to go with a high or low risk version of the security. Indeed, bankers claimed that it would have been immoral for them to decide which ratio was too risky. That was the domain of the investor and, anyway, security ratings companies had decided that the investments were legitimate (and so doing what the people who paid them wanted them to do). The big bit of wisdom was that the market, in its wisdom, would decide which of these investments were worthwhile and which weren’t, and there is no fooling the market. What was left out was that the banks themselves would be left holding the bag when all of these instrumentalities collapsed because people couldn’t make payments on the mortgages they had taken out. Whether that was because they had been talked into taking out the mortgages for more than they could afford to pay back or whether they were greedy and so levering their mortgages, while they were in a rising housing market, into bigger mortgages from which they could take the difference between the new and the old mortgage doesn’t really matter. The banks got high and mighty and said that people who default should be foreclosed. That is the way economics works, they said. 

Well, the bankers got bailed out because they were, as the expression at the time went, “too big to fail”, and the people who defaulted on their mortgages were not bailed out by the government under the claim that no one knew how to evaluate how much underwater people were and whether “it was their fault” or not-- though I suggested at the time that FDR would have figured out a way to do so. Moreover, the bankers were never hauled into court and that was for the very good reason that they had told their investors of the risks involved and the securities they were offering were legal and so it was difficult to find the precise crime that had been committed even though the bankers had profited from their greed. So this recent episode in American economic history suggests, contrary to Harrington, that the rich do not pay much attention to their responsibility to society as a whole. They just do whatever gives them short term profit.

Not only Conservatives choose up sides on which social class is the one which carries with it the maintenance and the progress of society. The early sociologists thought that it was the technicians and engineers who were the backbone of the new industrial society, the people without whom it could not thrive, and so more important than kings and generals. We still think this is somehow true, for there is no lack of praise for scientists, technicians, engineers and medical personnel, while no one seems to worry whether there are enough historians out there to keep us civilized and aware of our cultural heritage. And, famously, Marx thought of the working class as the engine of history, the meek inheriting the Earth, and we have ever since characterized the working class as either deserving of that role because they are the hard working and dutiful people who built the railroads and factories, or else as the undeserving working class, who benefit from the jobs provided for them by the entrepreneurial class, and none too grateful at all, always insisting on raises in wages and easier work schedules. 

Now consider the present situation, where the pendulum has swung far enough to the left that the rich are considered undeserving. They make their money in casinos which profit from the lust of the working class who want to live for an evening like the idle rich rather than make investments in some more praiseworthy, long term project. People make money by inventing new aps. How many aps do we need? These people live for lust and luxury and have petty and vindictive moral values. This is the era of Donald Trump and the people who, like him, have no sense of social responsibility; those people just envy his advantages. And so it is no wonder that the critics of the undeserving rich take up that cause with much righteousness. They are going to put an end to the plutocracy, the world of the one-percenters, with taxes and programs to disenfranchise their control of the electoral system. 

There is similarly, in the present day, there is an argument about the social differences between the good nationalists and the bad nationalists. The bad nationalists are people who engage in violence or use words like “invasion” to gin up racial hatred, at least according to those who have no use for nationalism, while the good nationalists are people who simply want to keep our borders secure, which is something every nation has a right to do, and can’t understand why Liberals make such a fuss about that, notwithstanding the fact that some of the conditions in detention camps are pretty grim. Liberals say that nationalism is bad because it is racist; Conservatives want to say that nationalism is good because it is upholding American identity for people of all racial backgrounds. 

The social backgrounds of the two types of nationalists are different. Liberals want to treat nationalists as the class of deplorables Hillary referred to, resident in the South and the interior of the nation, while “good” nationalists are the people of the interior who just don’t like strangers and want to keep America for Americans. Nationalists, for their part,  want to treat Liberals as the coastal places where some people have unseemly wealth and at the same time are places harbor the many unwashed who recently came to this country or remain so even after long residence. So the class lines have become geographic lines: which is the true America? The real issue of immigration, however, is that it has always been with us, the southern border porous from before the Mexican War, and noone coming up with a good solution for how to let people in as guest workers without letting them become permanent residents and so, supposedly, changing the nature of America, however that is contrary to the fact that people who arrive here are inevitably assimilated when that is not what happens in other countries, like Indonesia. We will have to see whether Europe can absorb its immigrants from Syria and Africa.

I want to suggest that we go a step beyond Shaw’s wisdom. Don’t, in the first place, get involved in finding the social group that is at fault for the condition of a nation or a social system because that will inevitably draw you into distinguishing between what are the good and bad parts of that group, the deserving and the undeserving. So forget about the difference between the two kinds of rich people, as well as the difference between the two versions of whether the working class or the geographical castes serve the American interest. Politicians have as their responsibility choosing between what they characterize as the good guys and the bad guys, but policy analysts cannot afford themselves the luxury of anthropomorphizing social situations. They don’t chose between exploitive manufacturers and riotous workers; they look at how to create a stable and non-exploited workforce. Today, they do not choose between treating those who cross the border as victims or aggressors; they look at how to manage immigration.The real issue is the problem itself and whether that is subject to remediation. In the case of the two kinds of rich, the problem is that the economic system, whether it is highly influenced by the deserving or the undeserving rich, needs regulation by government for the simple reason that it is not self-regulating, however much Alan Greenspan once thought so and changed his mind when the Great Recession began. Also forget the difference between the rich and the poor as somehow one more responsible than the other for the welfare of the entire society. As citizens, we all are.