Republicans in the House of Representatives send an “up yours” message to the middle class, while explaining that “job creators” must be protected.
Rick Santorum is quoted as saying that today’s massive inequality is a reflection of the fact that some people work harder than others.
These are just a couple of the the more recent expressions of a persistent sub-text in American life, a perversion of early Calvinism that leads people to justify privilege by diminishing the value of those who have less. The poor, they believe, are poor because they are somehow morally flawed. They don’t put it quite that way, of course–instead, there is talk of “work ethic” and “middle class values” that “those people” lack.
I am a believer in the market. If everyone is playing by the rules, some people will do better than others. Society will value the contribution of some people over others. When markets are properly regulated–when no one can game the system–we all benefit from the efforts of the guy who invents a better widget, the artist whose work adds beauty to our lives, even (she says through gritted teeth) the athlete whose prowess we admire.
When the system is broken, when rewards are distributed on the basis of cronyism and influence-peddling, when those rewards are wildly disproportionate to the social or other value of the work involved (to investment bankers who invent credit default swaps, for example), I suppose it is understandable that the recipients would want to justify their good fortune by claiming that they really have earned their millions. When that self-justification takes the form of dismissing the value of those who’ve been less fortunate, however, is when it becomes truly obscene.
I’ve been haunted by a segment that aired on 60 Minutes last Sunday. The report focused upon the foreclosure crisis, and in particular, on the 11+ million homeowners who–despite being “underwater” on their mortgages–stubbornly continue to make their payments. There were people who had lost jobs, people living paycheck to paycheck, who refused to walk away from mortgages on which they owed twice what their homes are currently worth. In one interview, a woman who was barely eking out a living was asked why she continued to pay when others were abandoning their properties. Her response? “I signed the contract. I’m not the sort of person who fails to live up to my obligations.”
It may come as a shock to the bankers and assorted plutocrats whose gated communities and social circles protect them from interaction with the American middle and lower classes, but most people–including poor people–work forty or more hours a week.(That’s why we call them the working poor.) They try to pay their bills, help their neighbors, and educate their children. A thousand dollars doesn’t represent a really fancy meal; it makes an enormous difference in their lives.
It’s bad enough when elected officials pursue policies that protect their cronies and contributors at the expense of their constituents. It’s unforgivable when they dismiss those constituents as unworthy of their concern.