Monday, October 15, 2012

The Poor will always be fodder....

Joel Osteen has, rather remarkably, simply vanished from the public square.  I'm sure he's still publishing books and flashing his giant white teeth at gatherings of people who fly in for the privilege of being told how much God loves them that they can afford to fly to Houston to hear Mr. Osteen in person (God doesn't love me that much; I'd have to drive to see him, a short trip, but a waste of gasoline, IMHO).  I'm sure he has another book on the bestseller list, and that he's still on cable somewhere at least once a week hawking his wares; but since I switched to satellite TeeVee I don't even stumble across him.  There are whole acres of channels I avoid, and I've no doubt I'd find him there if I looked long enough, or at the right hours.

But by and large he seems to have made his splash and disappeared.  I had one random and all but chance encounter with his church when I was in active ministry and his church was near a public housing unit the local UCC churches own and operate here in Houston.  Mr. Osteen's church, under his father, had been regular donors of turkeys at Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas?) to the residents of the units.  Sometime after Mr. Osteen took over for his deceased father the church decided the residents should drive to the church to get the turkeys, rather than await delivery.  This most couldn't do, as they didn't have cars or were working when the church was willing to hand out the birds; so the local UCC churches had to take up the slack.  It wasn't long after that Mr. Osteen moved operations to downtown Houston, and all hope of turkey charity from Mr. Osteen's congregation for the residents of the housing unit stopped together, as the poet put it.

The move to an old basketball arena downtown aroused a lot of local and then national interest, and Texas Monthly crowned Mr. Osteen the most effective (or powerful, or something) preacher in the country.  He was almost literally unavoidable in the public square, unless you avoided the public square altogether.  All fame, as the last words of "Patton" remind us, is fleeting, alas; and now if Mr. Osteen is getting any public attention, I'm unaware of it.

Just as well.

I mention this because Mr. Osteen is the single person alive in America today who is most representative of, who is the best exemplar of, the Gospel of Wealth:  the idea that if you are right with God, God will make you rich.  It's that "gospel,  more than anything else, that prompted Matt Taibbi to describe Mr. Osteen this way: 

Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
Leave out the reference to McCain and the 2008 election, and the description still holds true today.  Except in the wake of the collapse of the world economy, both Mr. Osteen and Rick Warren, the other public religious/political figure from 4 years ago, seem to have gone to ground.  Of course, Pastor Warren pretty much buried himself last year with an unfortunate tweet that revealed him to be more akin to Mitt Romney than to Jesus of Nazareth, and his purpose driven life to be more a matter of material than spiritual attainment.

One is inclined to conclude 'twas ever thus.

But was it?  NPR ran an interesting story this morning about the plutocrats who hate Obama.  The feeling is, as Chrystia Freeland says,"a profound emotional thing." And why?  It's a simple, yet profound, answer:

"In America," she says, "we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account."
 It wasn't always this way; or at least, always this sharply defined.  But then, times have changed:

"One of the things which is really astonishing is how much bigger the gap is than it was before," she says. "In the 1950s, America was relatively egalitarian, much more so than compared to now." CEOs earn exponentially more now, compared with their workers, than they did 60 years ago.

"The other difference is that now the super-rich are global. And that's not sort of a cultural choice of theirs, that is something which is imposed on them by the nature of the world economy," says Freeland. "Increasingly, I think you are actually seeing what, ironically, was the dream of Marxists, right? You are seeing the emergence of an international class."

While Marx almost certainly wasn't dreaming of global billionaires, Freeland says he might have recognized what's going on right now. "This notion that borders wouldn't matter, that we would have commonality of interests around the world. Well, guess who got there first? The plutocrats."
 And, of course, what adds to the profoundly emotional reaction, is a conviction that the poor are actually taken care of:

“We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.”
Thus spake Mitt Romney.  But as Paul Krugman (among others) points out, we do have such people in America.  Indeed:

...hospitals are required by law to treat people in dire need, whether or not they can pay. But that care isn’t free — on the contrary, if you go to an emergency room you will be billed, and the size of that bill can be shockingly high. Some people can’t or won’t pay, but fear of huge bills can deter the uninsured from visiting the emergency room even when they should. And sometimes they die as a result.
Remarkable how that simple fact escapes the discussion.  Perhaps we can quibble over how many die rather than go to the ER because they don't go to the doctor because they don't have insurance, but can anyone deny the hospital doesn't treat people in the ER out of a charitable impulse, or write off that care as a cost of doing business, or get a tax break or a direct government subsidy for non-paying ER patients?  I'm sure there are people who believe it is true, but those people are not hospital administrators; or people who are uninsured and poor.  One group finds the money somewhere, and we praise them for doing so; the other is invisible and dies off as part of the surplus population.  Or, at least, they don't frequent the congregations of Mr. Osteen's or Mr. Warren's churches; not in large numbers, anyway.

Is there a sea change in America, a sense that virtue is not tied to your pocket book?  Maybe.  Ms. Freeland doesn't quite seem to think so, although she understands the apparent connection between money and virtue:

"People don't just want to be rich and successful, they want to be good. And I think it's really threatening to feel like, 'Wow, you mean I'm not as full of virtue and goodness as I thought I was?' "
 Aye, there's the rub.  To be rich, but not to be immoral, that is the problem!  Andrew Carnegie struggled with it, and he decided the problem was a moral one:  that too many people or institutions were not equipped to deal with the large sums of cash amassed by people like him (which rather awkwardly makes him fit to be rich, but not other people).  His problem was with inheritance, not wealth, but he still made some salient points:

"By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction."
"The selfish millionaire's unworthy life" has more than a whiff of Ebenezer Scrooge before that fateful Christmas Eve about it.  Scrooge sees his death:  unmourned, his fortune dispersed in ways unexplained but of no use to him, his life reduced to rag pickers haggling over what they could steal.  His redemption is, as Carnegie did, in giving it away in charitable purposes before his death.  He was never as good as he thought not because he didn't think he was good, but because he limited his field of "good" too narrowly.  That's the lesson of Jacob Marley: those who don't go out among their fellow men in life, must do so in death.  The most frightening image in the entire story is the ghost pointing and shrieking in anguish at a mother and her children, huddled in the freezing cold on the street outside Scrooge's window.  The shade can do nothing now but regret his failure to act in life.  He has found out too late that he was not as full of virtue and goodness as he thought he was.  And yet, nearly 170 years after Dickens wrote those words, we still hear them every year; but do we listen to them?

Ms. Freedland says "No," and also says why:
"It is a sense of, you know, 'I deserve this,' " she says. "I do think that there is both a very powerful sense of entitlement and a kind of bubble of wealth which makes it hard for the people at the very top to understand the travails of the middle class."

One standout moment Freeland recalls is a conversation with a billionaire who spoke with great sympathy about some friends who'd come to him for investment advice. "And he said to me, 'You know what? They only had $10 million saved. How are they going to live on that?' I kid you not, he was really worried about them."
 These sound like the characters I encounter in stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Dorothy Parker, people I had once thought as exotic and extinct as my own daughter thinks of the racists I grew up with, in a world of segregated schools, buses, restrooms, and water fountains.  Some of that is not coming back, but some of the racist attitudes have clearly not gone away, and while my wife and I hear the racist code in allegations that the President is "lazy and detached" because of a debate performance,  my daughter misses the dog whistle because she misses the historical context of what was once such common racism we barely called it "prejudice."   I would have thought the world of the plutocrats, except for the Rockefeller level of financiers, was gone forever, and yet I can read stories less than 100 years old which give me insight into the people I'm reading about in the news today.

So I don't so much see a significant change, as I see a curious circumstance:  the plutocrats no longer feel warmed by the love of the people who literally put them there.  Sheldon Adelson didn't make his fortune by himself; he did it by people coming to his casinos.  Jack Welch didn't make his fortune by starting GE; he made it by running GE, but without customers (including, significantly, the Defense Department), GE would never have existed.  David Siegel made his fortune selling vacation time shares, which somebody had to buy in order for him to start building a 90,000 square foot house.  In fact, if you read Ms. Freeland's article at The New Yorker, few of these plutocrats (none, I dare say) started out poor and raised themselves by their own bootstraps. The article focuses on Leon Cooperman, a man who started his career at as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, which is not exactly the same thing as starting your career on the loading dock of Wal-Mart. Indeed, it is Cooperman she's talking about in the quote above:

When Cooperman told me the story of his lucky escape from dental school, he concluded, “I probably make more than a thousand dentists, summed up.” (A thousand dentists would need to work for a decade—and pay no taxes or living expenses—to collectively earn Cooperman’s net worth.) During another conversation, Cooperman mentioned that over the weekend an acquaintance had come by to get some friendly advice on managing his personal finances. He was a seventy-two-year-old world-renowned cardiologist; his wife was one of the country’s experts in women’s medicine. Together, they had a net worth of around ten million dollars. “It was shocking how tight he was going to be in retirement,” Cooperman said. “He needed four hundred thousand dollars a year to live on. He had a home in Florida, a home in New Jersey. He had certain habits he wanted to continue to pursue.
We really should have more sympathy for the retirement problems of people who need $400,000 a year just to keep up.

Carnegie "preached that ostentatious living and amassing private treasures was wrong."Today's super rich are convinced that it's not only right, but that those who don't emulate them, have only themselves to blame.
Those at the very top, Freeland says, have told her that American workers are the most overpaid in the world, and that they need to be more productive if they want to have better lives.

There is little separation between that attitude and Scrooge's cruel indifference to the fate of the "surplus population."It's a pity we don't have a ghost to repeat those words to "those at the very top" and shame them into some recognition of at least their common humanity.

Seeing as how we've done so much to make them rich, maybe we could all chip in and start a charitable fund for them, too.  As well.  Also.
There is little separation between that attitude and Scrooge's cruel indifference to the fate of the "surplus population." It's a pity we don't have a ghost to repeat those words to "those at the very top" and shame them into some recognition of at least their common humanity.

Andrew Carnegie's gospel of wealth didn't win many converts, and the phrase was soon appropriated to become the opposite of what he intended.  What he intended, of course, was far too threatening:  "By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction."  Selfishness surely marks an unworthy life; who among us wants to be remembered as the real-life counterpart to Ebenezer Scrooge?  But how to disabuse them of the notion that wealth is not the same as virtue, that being rich is not a sign of blessing?  Maybe return to some sense of morality that isn't based on politics, social position, wealth, or prestige?  Maybe give some thought to the idea morality needs to be transcendent, to be a morality at all?

After all, Aristotle's ethics were all about finding the most successful man in the community, and then emulating him.  I'm not sure that's such good advice anymore.


  1. Well, Rmj, I was thinking about blogging and linking to Paul Krugman's column and the article in The New Yorker, but I see you stole my thunder. Anything I write would be redundant, and my commentary would not be a quarter as good, but you are not to worry, though, for I may never have got around to writing the post.

    As I read Freeland's article I was jaw-droppingly amazed that the billionaires feel persecuted and under siege, because more people, nay all people don't admire and respect them for being billionaires.

    I wonder if some of them had grown up poor, they would feel less of a sense of entitlement for their billions and more empathy with those who have little. I grew up poor, and were it not for extended family nearby, we may have sunk into abject poverty. I will never forget, and I have no illusions that I reached the position of being relatively well off without help, that I built my life, such as it is, all on my own.

  2. Sherri4:54 PM

    Those poor doctors that Cooperman was worried about? Also in the 1%. The 1% threshold for net worth is about $8.6 million. Just goes to show how incredibly out of touch Cooperman is.

    I read the New Yorker article, and I'm really annoyed by the idea of finance types as makers and creators. They move money from place to place, and skim some off the top as they do so. At least Carnegie created something.

    Of course Andrew Carnegie's great philanthropy doesn't obscure his horrendous union breaking tactics at Homestead.

  3. Sherri--Carnegie had (has) a lot to atone for, which is one reason he gave away his money.

    He also didn't say he didn't deserve it, which is a whole other level of criticism of the system that makes some rich by making so many poor.

    Mimi--I know. I heard the report on NPR this morning, and I really couldn't believe it.

  4. Sherri10:06 PM

    There's a marvelous book about Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, who was running Carnegie's company at the time of the Homestead strike. Frick felt that Carnegie, already trying to rehabilitate his reputation by then, hung him out to dry, and they had a massive falling out. Carnegie tried to reconcile late in life. "Meet You in Hell" was Frick's rejoinder, and the name of the book by Les Standiford. It's a very good piece of history from the first Gilded Age.

  5. Still, the incredible lack of recognition that not everyone makes $200,000 a year is hard to believe.

    And those who don't are barely worth acknowledgement as human.

    Paul Ryan presents a great example of this; "crashing" a St. Vincent de Paul run soup kitchen to wash some already clean pots for the cameras, and chat with three "customers", albeit off camera and off the record, to prove that charity works (or rather, as Bush I put it: "Message: I care."). And the upshot is he put the charity in danger with its donors, for using them as a campaign opportunity.

    Sherri--thanks, I'll look for that book.