The video below claims to depict the “facts” representing wealth inequality in America. When I originally saw it, a little over a week ago, the video only had around 50,000 views; I didn’t think much of it since it was four months old.
Six days ago Mashable described the video as “viral” which prompted over half a million people to share the video from its site which I have to believe significantly contributed to the video now having 3.6 million hits on YouTube. But all that is not really at the heart of this post.
My first thought after watching the video is: “This is extremely well done.” The graphics, the music, the voice over…the entire production is excellent. As for representing the “facts,” well, I am not so sure. I will say that everything in it at least sounds convincing.
Here are a few of my problems with the video. First and foremost, wealth is not distributed. This is a fundamental flaw people who believe wealth needs to be re-distributed make (e.g. President Obama). The notion assumes wealth is a fixed number, $54 trillion according to this video, and that $54T needs to be spread more evenly across the five groups of people depicted in the video.
Now people can, and do, play with the words a bit. For example, some will argue wealth is earned not distributed. Others will counter with the idea that income is earned and wealth is just the size of a person’s income that they chose to retain. Frankly, this type of argumentation is not as significant to me as the premise that undergirds all of them: a person’s (or family’s) financial status is not determined by unfair distribution of a pre-determined amount of money. The infamous 1%, so often spoken of by the OWS crowd and mentioned in this video, did not get an extra portion given to them at the expense of the lowest 20%.
My second problem with the video (and it’s premise) is that it stokes the fires of greed in people. I won’t say that it creates greed in people since everyone has that flaw as part of their sinful nature, but media with this type of content pours gasoline on the greedy fire that burns in all of us.
My third problem is best expressed as a question: what, exactly, prevents people from moving to the right on the scale and earning more income / creating more wealth for themselves (and their family)? Are there laws that prevent it? Are there regulations dictating who can be wealthy and who can’t? Obviously not. In extremely rare cases, the only thing a person needs in this country to move from the lowest 1% to the top 1% is to correctly guess the winning PowerBall numbers.
Just so we’re clear: there are no rules, laws, or regulations governing who can have money in this country or how much they can have. So then what is it that prevents people from moving from one economic stratum to the next? Why is it so many people believe government needs to enter into the fray in order to level the playing field and redistribute wealth on behalf of the lowest income earners?
My fourth, and final, problem is the obvious disregard of “relative wealth.” What I mean by this has been expressed in the maxim: “money can’t buy happiness.” The unspoken premise in this video is rich people are somehow better or happier and if a poor person had more money they would be “better.” Not only are these terms nebulous, but the premise is flawed. There are happy rich people and happy poor people, the same as there are depressed rich people and depressed poor people. I’d be willing to guess that in most cases bank account size is not the root cause of either group’s happiness or depression.
My father and his three siblings grew up in the Bronx in the 50′s with only their mother, my grandmother, taking care of them while she simultaneously held down multiple jobs. Each of the kids had to get jobs as soon as they were able, usually around 9-10 years old delivering newspapers or groceries, to contribute to the household income. Sounds pretty dismal to me. I had jobs in high school, but I was able to play with my money. But to hear him and my mother, who grew up in the same neighborhood, talk about their childhood, you would think they had the very best of everything. While growing up they were economically poor, they were very rich in terms of their relative wealth.
Our country has a history of recognizing, even celebrating, the achievements of some of its citizens. People who came from humble (maybe even impoverished) beginnings and have ascended to positions of prestige, power, and/or wealth are almost universally held in high regard. For example, my wife and I watched a really good 20/20 article on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor a few weeks ago. The interviewer walked with her through her childhood neighborhood in the Bronx; it looked pretty rough. While she concedes her admission to Princeton and Yale Law may have been helped by affirmative action, she still had to work hard to even be considered for those schools and even harder once she got in. I don’t mind “the system” giving someone a helping hand who shows promise of making good use of it. I certainly don’t think Sotomayor received any kind of “free lunch” certainly not one that took her from the streets of New York to the highest court in the country. She, along with many others whose lives and accomplishments we recognize as significant when compared with their humble beginnings, invested more in “sweat equity” than any program did to ensure her eventual success.
All of us must carefully consider what it is we truly need in this life to be happy. Chances are high that our desires are inordinately proportioned to favor material wealth when compared with relative wealth. In closing, I’d like to offer you the words of St Thomas Aquinas on wealth (i.e. “riches”):
“…concupiscence* of the means is not infinite, because the concupiscence of the means is in suitable proportion to the end. Consequently those who place their end in riches have an infinite concupiscence of riches; whereas those who desire riches, on account of the necessities of life, desire a finite measure of riches, sufficient for the necessities of life….” (I-II, Q. 30, Art 4)
*concupiscence = strong desire