T he rich are different from you and me,” Scott Fitzgerald once said to Ernest Hemingway. “Yes,” Ernest replied, “they have more money.”
Scott was preternaturally conditioned to see rich people through a veil of romance. Hemingway viewed them simply as members of the bourgeoisie (not artists, as he was) if of the haute variety.
Both were shortsighted. The rich are different from you and me, not just because they have more money, but because they have more power — and in a democracy like ours, that’s very dangerous.
During the recent presidential campaign, Republicans slammed Obama for his “socialist” promise to redistribute the wealth in America. But wealth redistribution is precisely what we need right now if we are to preserve our democracy, based as it is on one person, one vote. What happens if one of those person’s votes counts more than another’s? Or if votes can be purchased? Or even elections?
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg won a third term by spending $100 million. His opponent, William Thompson Jr., spent $10 million. Both amounts are obscene and show how difficult it is for you and me to even dream of running for high office.
But really, in today’s version of capitalism, redistributing the wealth is pretty normal. It happened recently during the financial meltdown. Those at the top got out of the market while those of us at the bottom — blithely ignorant of what bankers had been doing behind the scenes these many years — stayed in. And redistributing the wealth began long before that. From 1979 to 2004, the top one per cent (in terms of wealth) increased their income by 176 per cent, while the middle 60 per cent of us earned only about 22 per cent more. Today the top one per cent own 72 per cent of our wealth, the bottom 90 per cent have only 28 per cent of it. You can see the results all around you here on the Vineyard.
Wall Street bankers and money manipulators continue to award themselves bonuses while the statistics of unemployment continue to rise. Some economists think the statistics will never come down due to outsourcing of jobs abroad and increased use of robots in assembly lines. If so, the redistribution of wealth — and power — to the elite one per cent will be permanent.
The rich are not only different from you and me — they differ from each other. Some have a social conscience. In Germany, for example, a group of wealthy individuals has suggested they pay higher taxes. “The group says they have more money than they need,” reports the BBC, “and the extra revenue could fund economic and social programmes to aid Germany’s economic recovery.” Good for them. I don’t think that our rich will follow suit, however.
It may be too much to ask of our president — busy as he is with fighting a war — to pay attention to his campaign pledge of liberating our democracy from those who would buy positions of power. But what good will it do to install democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq and lose it at home?
Sam Low, a writer and photographer, lives in Oak Bluffs and is a frequent contributor to the Gazette. His Web site is at samlow.com.