Monday, June 09, 2008

Rich man, poor man

A friend of mine, a person of considerable means, keeps urging on me the “plight” of a mutual friend, also a person of wealth. Individual number two has recently lost a fair amount of money, owing to a poor business model maintained by a major corporation in which he has invested. However, this man has other sources of income, which together add up to a tidy sum. In all probability he is a multimillionaire. His three children are fully grown and able to earn their own living, which they are doing. The person who has suffered this ostensibly grievous loss has homes in Manhattan, Oxford, and Berlin. He has never stinted on visits to the opera, the ballet, and expensive French restaurants.

Having retired a number of years ago, individual number two now has some serious medical problems, but his excellent coverage is taking care of the expenses. Unfortunately, the grim reaper comes for all of us. I trust that friend number two will be able to stave off this eventuality as long as possible. At all events, he will have no money worries, despite the hand wringing of friend number one.

It is a sad fact about the rich that no matter how much money they have they want more. That hankering is called greed, a very human failing, and can be excused. What I do not accept, though, is the demand that we must feel compassion for their relatively minor monetary setbacks.

Always a commodity in short supply, compassion has worthier objects. Another friend, also retired, must live in a Southern city on an income of about $500 a month. This impecunious man has found himself in this situation because he devoted most of his adult life volunteering in the service of a foundation that has little money. Thanks in large measure to my Southern friend’s efforts, that foundation has real accomplishments to show, accomplishments that have benefited all of us. Now all the man has as a reward for decades of work is his house and his Social Security income. I feel great concern for this man’s financial plight--and none at all for the bon vivant with homes in New York, Oxford, and Berlin.

Republicans and Libertarians keep telling us that we must tolerate economic inequality in this country. It is the price of progress under capitalism. Maybe so, but those who dwell in the lap of privilege should not gloat over their good fortune. This insensitivity is one of the factors that led to the French Revolution.

In the face of this outrageousness, sometimes I allow myself the thought that my old friends of the radical persuasion were right. We need a revolution in which those who have too long fed at the trough are lined up and shot.

We haven’t come that far yet. But I refuse to mourn for the minor financial setbacks of those who have never had anything serious in life to complain of. Plenty of others have grave problems. These are the ones who deserve out pity and concern--and if possible our assistance.

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