“The rich have no obligation to give to the poor, but as a practical matter, they would be wise to do so. In any community, a wide disparity in standard of living leads to discontent, and poverty leads to crime; the rich dwell in the same communities, and you would think they would want them to be nicer overall. Moreover, in a democratic society, the government, being of and for all the people, has an obligation to tax the rich in order to keep communities clean and safe, and to give everyone education and opportunity. History has proven repeatedly that the rich do NOT give sufficiently of their own free will; Alexander Hamilton recognized this, and said, ‘the reason we need laws is because mankind is greedy and selfish.’” -Natalie Roberts
I was taught that talking about a surfeit or shortage of money was crass and not meant for polite conversation. I am about to fall from grace. I know I read too much and think too much and share too much, but it was hard to miss the economic trifecta that made headlines this week. The first came from World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The group released a study showing the wealth of the world’s 26 richest individuals reached $1.4 trillion last year — the same amount as the total wealth of the 3.8 billion poorest people. That was followed by data from the Federal Reserve Board that found that 78 percent of Americans lived a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle and 44 percent of all American households did not have sufficient funds to cover a $400 emergency expense. The scales of justice may be balanced, but those that measure distribution of wealth are out of whack. The numbers, startling as they were, didn’t address the 39.7 million Americans the U.S. Census Bureau reported to be living below the poverty line. Even a cursory glance at the data highlights the growing gap between rich and poor. It also raises the question of what, if anything, the rich owe to the poor. Is there a moral responsibility to wealth?
This past week we have seen trust fund babies and millionaires well-placed within the administration brush aside the pain of government employees who have gone one month without a paycheck. They are blind and tone deaf to the concerns of working Americans, and, if they can brush aside money legitimately owed to government employees and scold them for complaining, what must they think of the poor and any assistance they receive. Those numbers from Davos are unsettling, as is the number of Americans living below the poverty line.
Wealth brings with it a responsibility that is hard to define. Our views of its accumulation and disposal are formed by our environment and religious beliefs. They are also defined by how our wealth is taxed. Because these are subjective measures, each of us has to define and live with our own version of responsibility. There are tools to guide us.
Fortunately, we can turn to the Bible and Andrew Carnegie for some help with this. Christian thought has heavily influenced Western views on the morality of wealth and philanthropy. The view from a Biblical perspective, promotes a modest accumulation of wealth in order to provide for necessities, but hoarding excess wealth is seen as a burden and even a sin. Is there such a thing as too much money?
Enter Andrew Carnegie. He made an enormous fortune predominantly in the steel industry, and became one of the wealthiest US businessmen of the 19th century. In his essay The Gospel of Wealth, he claimed to “solve the problem of the rich and the poor.” He believed the only creditable option for those with surplus wealth is to use it during their lifetimes for the common good, and that to do otherwise is a disgrace. He also believed “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” At the time of his death he had given away 95% of his fortune, none of it to heirs. He and an increasing number of wealthy individuals, among them Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, donated and administered large fortunes for charitable purposes. But do these individuals have a responsibility to donate to charity? In my opinion, yes. Should the burden of charitable giving fall more heavily on them because they have more to give? Again, in my opinion, yes.
Here is my take. If you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime, then you have too much money. There are, however, other important truths. How you make your money is as important as the amount you accumulate and give away. Your workers deserve a living wage sufficient to cover their housing, schooling and medical care. There is also a responsibility to generate wealth without damaging the environment. And in light of what has transpired with this government shutdown, you should never, never use your employees as pawns to further your political agenda.