Richard Friedlander says our obsession with wealth is impoverishing us.
Funny… I used to think that to earn something meant to deserve it. That worth was synonymous with quality. That to be compensated was to make up for a loss. That equity had something to do with justice. That welfare was synonymous with well-being. How wrong I was.
“The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge, and our language confirms this. Whenever you hear the words, worth, earn, compensate, equity, and even welfare, odds-on the subject is money.
These changes in meaning soft pedal our loss. To read that three Americans own as much wealth as the bottom half of the country's population tells us nothing about any of them as people. The amassing of wealth is a quantity: a marker for one’s status among peers.
Elections often go not to the most qualified candidate, but the biggest war-chest. The tax on unearned income is usually less than that earned by human effort. Universities say they must compete with corporations to retain teachers, because the lure isn’t the chance to better society, but comparable pay. It’s not surprising, then, that the goal of many liberal arts colleges is to churn out entrepreneurs.
Money’s amoral attraction can turn reprehensible deeds into a blockbuster movie. The fiction that corporations are people enables them to get away with crimes that would land a human on death row. We tolerate wealthy politicians who ridicule human values and monopolies that dominate our lives. Where wealth is the only measuring stick, welfare is another word for loser.
And yet, for all its dehumanizing baggage, wealth beyond actual need is a national aspiration. When other paths to the pot of gold don’t pan out, millions take a fly at a power-ball jackpot, the ultimate recognition that the means of getting wealth and so-called worth are irrelevant.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Samuel Johnson, creator of the first English dictionary, observed that money cures only one evil: poverty. But, he might have added, not poverty of spirit.
With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.
Richard Friedlander is an actor and mediator. He lives in the East Bay.