Why Treat the Rich Poorly?

I regret the omission. Caught up in the arguments over taxes and the drift of social values, I forgot to say something. And by my not saying it, some people have presumed.

As one frequent pen pal put it, “I sense you really dislike the wealthy.”

An unsigned e-mail asked, “Why do you hate the rich?”

Another concluded, “You must really envy the rich.”

As passions rise about class warfare, we’re obliged to choose sides. Time to lay it on the line, and not just me but all of us, it seems.

So: Rich is good.

Without the rich, we would be impoverished. A cliche? I was taught in school that drive and daring made the U.S.A.

As happened, much of what I’ve seen since has confirmed it. Wealth is one of the rewards.

A few years back, I went on an expedition with a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He’s been searching the world’s oceans for biochemicals to fight cancer. It is painstaking work in the field and laboratory. He’s invested his life in the quest and inspired dozens of other scientists.

Nothing would please me more than to see professor Bill Fenical succeed and be showered in riches. We’d all thank him, and I’d be the first to name-drop about the time he barbecued a grouper for me on his research boat. Go Bill.

I have lived in Africa, where those kinds of dreams are seldom pursued. That’s because wealth and opportunity have been perverted. Tyrants grabbed it all. Like many things, wealth can be poisonous too. But that’s a matter for another day.

Greed, arrogance and the other signs of social decay are more noticeable when seen on the smiles of the rich. But the wealthy hold no monopoly on these things. A teacher told me about a parent who dug up a school planter and carried off the only sprigs of green on an inner-city block. Confronted and asked why, the parent huffed: “This is a public school, these are public plants, and I’m the public.”

The reigning theory of economics tells us that the rich create riches. Personally, I think we’re too single-minded about it. But let’s agree that it sometimes works that way.

There’s a different kind of wealth. The wealth of luck: lottery winners and trust-funders and those who find a Rembrandt in the attic. Should we begrudge them? No way. I think it’s misguided to finance schools on the dealer’s cut of the lottery, but the gambling is a timeless dare. Life would be too dull for me without chance.

To the point:

A big part of the problem as we debate tax cuts is that the wealthiest half of the country accounts for 96% of income taxes. Yes, the other half still pays sales tax and payroll levies for Social Security and Medicare. But they don’t have much of a stake in the argument about this foremost tax, except as beneficiaries. In fact, the lowest-paid 40% of households wind up with a net gain from the income tax system.

That was a mistake that liberals made -- not as a matter of fairness, but as a matter of investment. Everyone who works should contribute. Better that liberals should work to raise wages than provide tax shelter. It will never be smooth traveling when half pay for the whole ride.

By many measures, I’m rich. I’m richer in material things than the people for whom my house was built 50 years ago. Just look how small the closets were back then. I’m rich enough to indulge my interests. And I’m not alone in feeling prosperous.

In a Time magazine poll in 2000, 19% of the respondents believed that they were among the 1% top earners in the U.S., and 20% more expected to be someday. The New York Times recently did a more down-to-earth survey and still found that 13% of the country considered itself wealthy or high income, while 59% considered themselves in the middle.

There are disturbing trends about wealth and its distribution in U.S. society, but they should not crowd out evidence of how we feel about ourselves.

We’re far healthier believing that we’re doing well than trying to make the rich feel poorly.

I recently wrote that this talk of class warfare was a dangerous trend. It’s true from all vantages.

The rich are and always have been patrons of the things we love, like architecture, music, art and fine craftsmanship. They add dimensions to life, and tenderness too. Without them, we wouldn’t have things like humane societies or dinky liberal arts colleges where young people study poetry, Latin and dance. You think that stuff would pass muster on the floor of the House of Representatives?

By their foibles, the rich also give us things to gossip about. Every time we read about another dynasty tearing itself apart over its inheritance, we are reminded about the other things that matter. And there is no joy in tsk-tsking bad taste or coarse manners unless someone is rich enough to do better.

But it’s also bad manners not to express gratitude for the support the rich provide to government.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, households earning more than $200,000 pay more than 45% of all income taxes. I empathize with those who feel that there’s too little thanks for the obligation these days.

The rich? They’re strong and have plenty of friends. They don’t need the likes of me to defend them. But maybe the idea of being rich still does. Then we can argue about how to shape our collective future.