We need to talk about money. That’s the way I ended my last column. Few of the people with whom I associate talk about money. People with a great deal of money talk about money, but it makes most people uncomfortable. It’s like sex used to be — if not a dirty subject, then at least impolite to mention in company. Yet, like sex, money pervades our lives.
Liberals especially are morally confused about money. This is unfortunate. It’s precisely because wealth now controls our politics more than any time since the Gilded Age of the later 19th century that we need to talk about it.
I’m going to speak in generalizations. You’ll think of many exceptions to them. Still, you may find them helpful.
Very wealthy people experience money differently than people who live on their paychecks. For the latter, money has direct relationships with daily life. As income, it’s directly related to effort expended in near time. As outlays, it’s directly related to imminent obligations — paying for groceries, the medical bills, the rent or mortgage. For rich people, money is abstract. How grounded in daily reality can money be if every 24 hours your net worth fluctuates by multiples of the U.S. median annual income, up or down depending on the market value of your company’s stock options or your investment portfolio?
The rich spend at least as much time as ordinary people thinking about money, some even worrying about it. But they think about it and worry about it differently, more abstractly. Ordinary people think about whether they can afford a new car or whether they’re saving enough for their kids’ college educations or their own retirements. Many of them have shorter-term concerns: paying their monthly bills or catching up on their credit cards (a 2014 study by the Urban Institute found that 35 percent of Americans have debts in collection). Wealthy people think about how an investment is faring, how to shelter their income from taxes, the size of their estates.
Just as their money doesn’t connect the rich to daily reality, so it insulates them from most daily vexations. The dirt in their homes vanishes. Their own convenience dictates meeting times. They don’t have to search for parking spots or wait in lines to board airplanes. They send their kids to private schools or to public schools in wealthy suburbs. They travel above, not through, run-down neighborhoods in their cities, and when they go abroad to even the poorest nations, they stay in luxury accommodations remote from where the staff lives. They don’t get busted for their drug use. Police are respectful. Employees, servants and clerks, if not deferential, are rarely counter-assertive.
The Koch Brothers are the public faces of the oligarchs who shape our public policies. Understandably. Their overriding political goal is to protect and expand their own vast wealth. But I don’t think they are representative of the very wealthy. The main problem of the political hegemony of wealth isn’t that rich people are more selfish than others. For every Richard Scaife there are two or three Michael Bloombergs. The case I’ve been making is that rich people experience much of life differently than most people experience it. Whether they fund Republicans or Democrats, their sense of which aspects of our shared life need attending to is likely to be quite different than that of a mother of three working at The Olive Garden. We must break their hold on both parties.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.