Defining the Rich

During the Saddleback Forum, Rich Warren asked candidates McCain and Obama to define what it means to be rich. Obama gave a very sober, responsible, straightforward answer:

I haven’t sold 25 million books, but I’ve been selling some books lately. (Laughter.) So I write a pretty big check to Uncle Sam. Nobody likes it. What I can say is is that under the approach I’m taking, if you make $150,000 or less, you will see a tax cut. If you’re making $250,000 a year or more, you’re going to see a modest increase.

Obama deserves points for specificity, and for making a frank case for a more steeply progressive income tax code.

But as an aspiring postmaterialist (that is, as one who aspires to a Buddhist-like detachment from the obsession with status and consumption), I was actually very impressed by McCain’s response — a response that has been ridiculed, but that I think contains a centrally important truth.

Some of the richest people I’ve ever known in my life are the most unhappy. I think that rich should be defined by a home, a good job, an education, and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited.

One of my favorite recent books is China’s New Confucianism by Daniel A. Bell. I know very little about Confucianism, but I was struck by the emphasis on relationships — how a dense web supportive, nurturing relationships is central to human flourishing, and how the inequality that matters most is the inequality in the quality and the simple quantity of relationships in which we’re embedded. Like most people in my family, I have a depressive streak. But, by and large, we Salams are also pretty gregarious. Every time I’ve been at a low ebb, when I’ve alienated a lot of the people closest to me, I’ve always had at least one comrade who’d lend me an ear. I’m thinking of one night in Porter Square in 1999, when a friend dragged me out of the fetal position underneath my desk and made me walk with him to a Dunkin’ Donuts at 2 AM. Then there were the evenings spent, post-breakup or other miscellaneous minor trauma, belting out the song “Ante Up.” The image is cringe-inducing now, but boy, it sure did help at the time. Some think of this kind of thing as trivial: it’s not the serious stuff of politics, it’s sentimental pap, etc.

Yet it should be obvious how this impacts our ability to achieve our goals. Consider the intergenerational transfer of wealth. Some years ago, I recall reading an article — in the NYT or New York — about parents of young children who found that other parents were spending beyond their apparent means (on, for example, private schools), and discovering that the mysterious largesse was coming from the fortunate parents’ grandparents. Slap on the inheritance tax, you might say! Well, that’s one thing to do. Leaving aside that straightforward policy lever — and by the way, inheritance taxes are easily dodged — this reflects on the power of the extended family. Or who can find a babysitter on short notice, to work that extra shift? This logic extends to those struggling at the bottom rungs of the labor market to those at the top.

So you have to wonder: are our social welfare institutions designed to encourage sociability, or to insulate individuals from the costs of a lack of sociability? In The Homeless, Christopher Jencks argued that though the choices faced by the chronically homeless are very constrained, there are often choices: a resistance to the dictates of immediate family members, to curb appetites, etc., often accounts for reliance on The System. This is oversimplified, obviously. And any reasonable conception of social citizenship rights aims to protect individuals from some of the petty tyrannies of family life and the small Winesburg-like town. But when we think how the welfare state works, I hope we can keep in mind that we want it to cultivate rather than undermine the qualities — empathy, modesty, generosity — that lend themselves to stable, peaceful societies.

Perhaps McCain was making a banal point about envy. If you have “a home, a good job, an education,” you’re doing pretty well and you should hardly complain about other people having bigger homes, etc. Being a sentimental sort, I actually don’t find this banal at all. But I’d go further, to counsel people who are primarily oriented towards primitive accumulation, shall we say, to reevaluate. I suppose that’s not the job of a president. At the same time, when do we ever have these wide-ranging public conversations across boundaries of denomination or sensibility outside of the spectacle of presidential elections?

McCain continued:

I don’t want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich. (Laughter.) I don’t believe in class warfare or redistribution of wealth. But I can tell you, for example, there are small businessmen and women who are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, that some people would classify as, quote, “rich,” my friends, and want to raise their taxes and want to raise their payroll taxes.

There’s something here. The so-called “middle-class millionaires” are in many respects a very appealing class, and they help drive economic progress. I suppose I’m not totally averse to raising their taxes if there is a good reason. Still, I think McCain handled himself pretty well.