In 1921, that halcyon flapper year to which the current GOP would like us to return, famed songwriter Gus Kahn penned this line: “The rich get rich and the poor get children . . . ain’t we got fun?”
Could there be any more evocative tune for 2012, when women’s rights are under attack yet banks and hedge funds — run almost entirely by men — ride high?
The rich get rich(er), yes, generally not through effort or creativity of their own – there are few like J. K. Rowling whose ingenuity built an empire – but because they know how to move money and take advantage of other people’s ignorance.
On the other hand, abortion, birth control, and even family planning counseling is threatened by people who mostly have not been and will never become pregnant, practically ensuring that “the poor get children”, about whom few will care once they reach the air. It’s not the child that’s important, you see, just the pregnancy. Once those nine months are over, baby, you and your mom are on your own!
That’s why many so-called “pro-life” people are really anti-choice. They don’t care about life. Just about control, about wresting it from the hands of women who might make decisions about their own bodies which the anti-choicers don’t like.
Yet for mind-boggling mental confusion, it’s hard to surpass the wealthiest one percent.
That’s right, confusion. Perhaps even mental illness. Years from now, when next May’s DSM-5 has morphed into its tenth edition, we might see a notation on excessive wealth and how the urge to acquire it is indicative of incoherent thinking.
Dollar bills are what lawyers call “fungible”. Every dollar is worth the same as every other dollar. If you have 10,000 of them, then you have 10K pieces of power. Granted, a single dollar doesn’t purchase much these days, but you get the idea. If instead of 10K, you have 10M, or 100M dollars, you have a hefty number of pieces of power.
Studies have shown, though, that beyond a certain level, the acquisition of more wealth doesn’t bring more happiness or contentment. It just brings more dollars, as though the acquirer were trying to fill an emotional void while having no idea what the void means.
Let’s make this clearer.
What if, instead of dollars, you collected, oh, claw hammers? You know, the kind with the V-shape on the head to pry unwanted nails from a wall. Say you really had a yen for claw hammers, and so you collected them, but – the kicker – the ones you collected had to be new, and they had to be all the same make and model.
Those hammers, every one identical, would be as fungible as dollars.
How many hammers would it take to form a really impressive collection? A few dozen? Ten thousand? A million? A hundred million?
Imagine that, 100M claw hammers, every single one identical to every single other one.
Imagine what would have to be going through the mind of someone who actually thought it was a good idea to collect 100M claw hammers. Think how bizarre and weird that person would seem.
If listed on Match.com – “I like to collect claw hammers, and I have 100M of them!” – how many email responses would that person accrue?
Wouldn’t you tend to shy away from someone who was so obsessed, who had no idea of healthy limits, who saw nothing wrong in continually amassing more claw hammers than one person could ever need?
Why do we cringe at the idea of someone collecting 100M hammers yet applaud the person who collects 100M dollars?
In the 2005 film version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (Deborah Moggach its screenwriter), Elizabeth Bennet travels with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Lunching under a tree, the Gardiners note that they have journeyed close to Pemberley, the stately home of Fitzwilliam Darcy, who once proposed to Elizabeth. She rejected him. Ignorant of this, Mr. Gardiner innocently notes he would like to see Pemberley.
Elizabeth: “Oh, no, let’s not! Well, he’s so . . . I’d rather not, he’s so . . . he’s so . . .”
Aunt Gardiner: “So what?”
Elizabeth: “He’s so rich!”
Uncle Gardiner: “By heavens, Lizzie, what a snob you are. Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth? The poor man can’t help it.”
“The poor man can’t help it.” He can’t help it?
Ah, but he can! That’s what I thought the first time I heard that line, and in my mind the notion – yes, he can! – still rings when I hear it.
Of course Mr. Darcy can help being wealthy. All he has to do is make sure many of his hammers – sorry, dollars or pounds or euros or yen – go to someone else. He doesn’t have to be a collector of excess, an amasser far beyond his needs and those of his family. He can do some clear thinking, recognize his error, and do otherwise. Instead of accumulation, dispersal. Instead of a hoard, scattering.
There are too many human needs (clean water, freedom from slavery, the demolition of landmines, etcetera) to make the collection of excess a right and just thing.
After all, how many claw hammers does one person need?