ON THE DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
Whom Has How Much of What
by Jonathan Ephrain Underhill
If I had a desire to simultaneously befuddle, dismay, outrage, and bore my reader, I could not do better than to lay out this old nut about the distribution of wealth in America: a full half of our country’s assets are possessed by a mere 1% of its citizens. What a marvelous statistic. It is ever-so subtle, you have to think about it for a moment to realize how remarkable the fact is; not like those dull pure numbers, i.e. there are 8,000,000 Homo sapiens in New York City, or Heaven is ten zillion light-years away. That sort of thing just puts the mind to sleep.
No, the 1% wealth statistic has a long fuse to it, and when it finally goes off, the fellow who comprehends what he has just learned is left utterly paralyzed. Should he raise his fist in solidarity with the downtrodden masses? Or shrug his shoulders? In most cases he will do neither, but just let his offended sense of injustice resonate in the cavern of his mind for a while, until he has the opportunity to tell someone else that a full half of America’s wealth is possessed by just 1% of the population, and get the monkey off of his back.
Those of us who, when we hear this factoid, run out into the street and start agitating for the proletariat were, in all likelihood, indignant already we had probably even heard the stat before (it is hardly a rare observation). Those of us who are mute and don’t see the concern are, in most cases, too oppressed by the tribulation of living to actually think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other and we probably haven’t understood the numbers, either. (What was that? Half of the people in America are richer than me?) People’s minds are rarely changed.
But for all this, it is still such a fascinating item of numerism that we hear it with frequency, and it still holds enough power to make a wide range of folks shake their heads. The thought of all that wealth, hoarded by so few scoundrels; could this be, asks the burgeoning political conscience, the root of all our problems?
The Statistic has certainly been bandied about with such frequency during the reign of Mr. Bush, the Junior, that a neophyte liberal or a revolving libertarian might think this is exactly the case. Mr. Bush has done more than anybody since, well, his father, to exacerbate the monetary discrepancy between the lot of us and the 1%.
And as everyone begins campaigning for or against this lopsided distribution of worth, the Stat is beginning to seem terribly important. To its detractors, the Stat is an appalling statement on the condition of our society, a certain debunking of the myth of American opportunity. To those who don’t think there is anything so awful about a few people earning more money than most (who think, in fact, that this is the very essence of the myth of American opportunity), the Stat is merely rhetoric in an unseemly class war. “Half of the wealth in America is owned by one percent of the population.” Say it with some different emphases, and it is the introduction to a celebratory address at the Harvard Business School.
But say it either way, and it is likely that you are saying it as if it were news. The tycoon-friendly policies of Bush Jr. have given a lot of young, newly minted radicals the idea that he has personally created this cruel proportion. There is something new-feeling and urgent about the distribution of wealth problem as if the hares hadn’t so outsprinted the indigent tortoises since Rome, and that our society might be at the brink of a similar apocalypse. And in the sense that because there is more capital in the world today than there has been before, and thus the rich folks’ numerical worth is gaudier than ever before, the new urgency of the distribution-of-wealth alarmists is somewhat understandable. But the Stat is old; the hoarding of material wealth by a puny percentile, a veritable tradition.
As an example and by no means an exceptional one I find Charles Edward Russell, the nascent muck-raker, asking in 1892 why ‘1% of the population should own 55% of the wealth.’ This was in the run-up to the anti-trust spasm and the brief bloom of the Progressive movement, and at the close of the first generation of industrialism and tycoonery. There, amid Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, is the Statistic chiming its same querulous note as it does today, under Cheney, Lay, Kozlowski, and Gates.
And prior even to that, in post-Revolutionary France, we have Gracchus Babeuf in his unsuccessful courtroom defense claiming “it has now been long enough and too long that less than a million individuals have been disposing of that which belongs to more than twenty million of their kind.” And still earlier, Robin Hood had likely said something similar, though the exact wording has been lost to the woods.
The point is that the nondistribution of wealth in human society has been singled out as the fundamental source of all of civilization’s troubles, and not only since the nineteen eighties, when the shadow of Reaganomics was cast. Crime has been reasonably linked to the rift between rich and poor; disease has been demonstrated to fester among the insufficiently compensated; war is easily related to wealth and poverty. Karl Marx made science out of the explanation of everything in economic terms, and it is hard science to debunk. Certainly no one of any import in our own society does anything except by the impetus of money; and it really is indisputable that the distribution of that stuff is astronomically uneven the Statistic, whatever your opinion about it, is accurate. If coinage had the same effect on gravity that mass does, we could be sure that there would be a black hole in the vicinity of those few tycoons who have made it their life’s work to own everything, and all the other 6 billion of us would be sucked irretrievably into it.
The Statistic, as it is bandied about by the Humanists and Idealists who still remain among us, is used in a political argument that presumes that what the mass of people want and deserve is a share of that wealth. We rebuke George Bush’s woefully lopsided tax-program on the general premise that the rest of us ought to get a bit of that financial relief, if anyone does. This is an argument about economics; the question that is too infrequently put forth is, Is economics synonymous with society?
Perhaps the most insidious thing that has happened to us during our long governance by businessmen like Mr. Bush is that the whole dialogue of human society is couched in economic terms. We shouldn’t be saddened that the oligarchs have arranged society so that all of its output is funneled into their own coffers; but that they have so trained us to think of our well-being in monetary terms that all anyone wants anymore is to be more like the rich. This may be the most effective power-trap ever devised by the mind of man. By simply teaching the unendowed to want what they lack, the Businessman has guaranteed his immortality and his dominance for the whole of such a society is in orbit about business, his very raison d’être. It is a perpetual-motion machine of plutocracy. Even the apparently revolutionary rhetoric of the class-war proponents, the anti-capitalists, the utopians and idealists, works in the favor of the Businessman, because they are using his language. We have seen, as an example, Marxism take its course through the twentieth century, and by virtue of its reliance on economic primacy even this most divergent of social strategies has reverted into the dominance of the Businessman over the Humanist.
For it is this fundamental principle that seems to have been inexplicably forgotten, like a prime directive of such glaring simplicity that we seem reluctant to believe it: human society is made up, primarily, of humans. The health and robustness of such a society should be measured by that of the people who comprise it.
An economy, on the other hand, is an artificial by-product of our existence; it is the result of our presumed agreement to conduct exchanges with one another under certain terms. An economy may be a natural consequence of human civilization (or it may not); but it is the civilization that needs maintenance by its members, not civilization’s symptoms.
Under the delusion of the primacy of economics, we are unable to gauge our success and failure, as individuals and as nations, but for the indicators of our economy. Our real, human lives are obscured behind the veil of our transactions. En masse, we have no existence apart from that of our money. In the real, physical world, this is absurd; where we are bruised, made cold, given to sniff at aromas, to feel the temperature of the air, to conduct ourselves through space and to bide through time, the state of our bank-account is of utter insignificance. But in the world we have constructed within our own psyches, nothing is of greater significance. No success seems so large as financial success; and not even mortal illness scares us as much as its prospective cost. Economic thought has attached itself, parasitic and dominant, to humanity.
Aldous Huxley, essaying on a similar topic in the nineteen-twenties, established the metaphor of the thermometer, and I shall gladly borrow it here. In hot weather, the thermometer will indicate the condition; but if we apply an ice-cube to the thermometer, we may deceive the indicator without altering the actual condition. And the world may plead to its governors for some remedy to the problem of the heat, and if it has been persuaded, as we have, that the thermometer is the real world, then a mere ice-cube will satisfy us that good work has been done. Meanwhile we will swelter and perish, misunderstanding to the end what has done us in the real heat of the world.
We ought to confront the troubles of our civilization where they exist, like a fire at its base and not its smoke. We ought to begin to reject the vocabulary of the businessmen who have been governing for so long we cannot remember when they didn’t. The American nation, for one, would do well to wake to the businessman’s poor qualifications for governance. An MBA, alas, is hardly a degree in humanities. Mr. Bush, so endowed, is not qualified to do anything more than apply an ice-cube to the thermometer and he will not even do this if it isn’t in the interests of the 1% in power and in the money.
Economics is a secondary concern to human society, but we still holler primarily for a more even distribution of wealth. In doing so, we only serve the sensibility of those who have established this circumstance. Only Humanism can argue with Economics, because Humanism is, after all, the central concern of humanity. Without us, there is no money. Without our faith in ‘credit’ and ‘worth’ - concepts so abstract that not even the most intelligent of chimpanzees has any inkling of them, let alone the less able Homo sapiens there is no more Statistic to divide us. We will be left to discuss our relative health, our comfort, our happiness, our social stability, our prospects for raising a new generation and theirs. If we cease to clamor for our share of the pie, we will have voice left over to clamor for widespread human dignity. We might replace the line-graphs on the front page with an accounting of relative human misery and contentment. If we silence the noise over tax-breaks, and shush the accountants who eternally promise the solution to all our problems through finance, then we can raise a shout about the right of each of us to be educated, to be made useful in society, to live in stability and surety, and to be treated when we are hurt or ill. Once the talk of economics is stopped, there is only the condition of actual people to consider.