Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gandhi's "Seven Blunders" - Wealth Without Work

This past Labor Day, Michael Lind wrote, with tongue wedged like a wad of chewing tobacco in cheek, "We should abolish Labor Day and replace it with Capital Day - a festive time when we, the majority of parasitic wealth destroyers whose income comes from wages rather than investments, can give our collective thanks to the small number of people who have most of the money."

Mohandas Gandhi probably would have appreciated Lind's salon.com column, given that he considered "wealth without work" to be a form of the "passive violence" in society that fuels crime, violence, and war. I'd like to think the Mahatma would have found it as worthy of chuckles as of despair, but I don't know how humorous your outlook on life can be when you spend much of it wearing a yellow diaper and John Lennon glasses. Come to think of it, Lind can be pretty dour himself sometimes. Since I try to find something to laugh about wherever I go, I guess I'm either more enlightened or more shallow than either of them. And no, I'm not soliciting opinions on which, but thanks anyway.

But back to the concept of wealth without work. It's an idea that seemingly goes against the very Protestant work ethic on which America pretends to have been founded. Even the old joke that "I made my fortune the old-fashioned way - I inherited it" implies that some patriotic and virtuous ancestor worked his ass off in the name of thrift, zeal, and capitalism. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed." Wealth and work historically have gone hand in hand. It's the fault of neither Lincoln nor capitalism itself that for as long as there have been fortunes amassed in this country, there have been fortunes passed down through increasingly feckless generations of the idle rich, who today direct and support the capitalist economy mostly through heavy investment in elective surgery and designer shoes. I'm thinking specifically of the Hiltons here, but I'm sure the principle applies to dozens of American families who have things named after them.

On the other hand, thank Providence for the wealthy. They hold the most important job there is: being wealthy. If they didn't do it, after all, who would? Not you or me, that's for sure. Wealthy people produce additional wealth, consistently and almost subconsciously, because they don't have anything better to do. They don't have to figure out how to make both the mortgage payment and the car payment, or stretch a limited grocery budget, or juggle the utilities without having to cancel HBO again. All people like you or me ever do is spend, buy, consume, pay for things. If we're lucky we get to throw a few pennies into the retirement account at the end of the month. We certainly don't have time or energy for things like investing in infrastructure or capitalizing technology startups or hiring people to do those things with our money while we vacation in Belize. But the wealthy do.

While Gandhi himself sought a simple, even ascetic, existence, he wasn't opposed to wealth per se. After all, one of his first acts of civil disobedience was refusing to relinquish his seat in the
first-class coach of a train. But he was a believer in balance. "We could work 'til doomsday to achieve peace," he said, "and would get nowhere as long as we ignore passive violence in our world." Wealth without work, one of the "seven blunders" he drecried, creates a moral disparity in society, an imbalance of power between ruling and working classes that inevitably creates friction and unrest.

And work without wealth? That sucks, too. And if it will help bring peace to humankind, I for one would be willing to give it up.

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