Friday, November 4, 2011
Not Everybody Wants to Be Rich
In the ideology of economic individualism, which seems to have body-snatched the entire Republican Party, a core belief is that anybody can be rich, so it’s your fault if you’re not. I have a couple of problems with that.
To begin with, the idea that anybody can get rich is one of those conceptual underpinnings of a democratic society that shouldn’t be mistaken for reality. Anybody can get hit by a meteor, too, but it isn’t going to happen to most of us. The possibility of riches is an example of what I call the Alaska syndrome. It’s great to know all that wilderness is out there, but I’m probably never going to visit it.
One of my high school teachers used to say that any idiot could make a million dollars (this was back in the days when a million was real money) as long as the only thing that mattered to him was making the million. As soon as anything else became important, he said, the chances of getting rich dropped dramatically. This gets more to the heart of the matter.
Leaving aside the question of how many people have the temperament to take the risks that lead to wealth, there’s the larger question of how many think the effort is worth it. There’s a cost to making money, and not everyone wants to pay it.
If you decide to go for wealth, you have to put up your own money or round it up from other people; spend sleepless nights wondering if things will work out; realize that something utterly unforeseen could blow up your plans; and know that bankruptcy is around the corner if you make a mistake or just get a bad break at the wrong time. All this pretty much wipes out the rest of your life, making it hard to take a vacation, spend time with family and so on.
If, by contrast, you could work a 40-hour-a-week job that paid a decent middle-class salary, allowed you to have dinner with the family most nights, watch football on the weekend, and take a vacation every summer, wouldn’t that be the more sensible way to go? A lot of us would agree, although finding that kind of job is getting tougher and tougher.
That second path opens a lot of doors for society as well. If you get rich, you generally give money, because that’s what people ask you for. If you’re making a living, you give of yourself because that’s what you have to offer. The people who make a living are typically the ones who run the PTA, lead the church choir and coach youth sports. I’ve known a lot of people like that over the years, and they play a huge part in making a community vibrant.
When your work is your life, it can become easy to assume that everyone else feels that way, too. For most people, work is an important part of their life, but only part. An advanced civilization is one that cultivates a policy that encourages the creation of jobs that enable people to make a decent living without consuming their entire life.
And that civilization needs to have support mechanisms to allow people the freedom to give of themselves to the community. A senior center can give an aging mother a safe place to go and free up her daughter to run the PTA or coach a soccer team. Medicaid covers nursing home costs so a son doesn’t have to take a second job and can continue coaching Little League or running the choir. When those enabling jobs and programs vanish, civil society frays at the ends and becomes, in some degree, less civil.