Remember that old Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king!”? Ya, well as we can see from the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on rich and poor, he ain’t lyin’.
“Many Americans are fighting over toilet paper and other home essentials, worrying about paying the rent and bills after losing their jobs and are worn out from trying to work from home, while also providing home schooling for their house-bound children.”
“Meanwhile, the uber-wealthy have taken to their yachts and private jets. Music and film titan David Geffen, who is worth $7.7 billion according to Forbes, exemplifies how the rich literally sail away from their problems. Geffen, on his now-deleted Instagram account, wrote, ‘Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.’”
So claims Jack Kelly of Forbes. He is undoubtedly correct.
Y’know, I bet that Geffen didn’t mean anything haughty or supercilious by his much-maligned comment. I have had some exposure to what it feels like to live a wealthy lifestyle, and I have had exposure to what it is like to cut coupons and decline social events due to finances. I can imagine that he really was looking at the sunset, worried about his next project being sidelined, maybe fighting with his wife or girlfriend (or both); perhaps his first mate came down with the virus and it made for a little crisis aboard the ship Marie Antoinette (or whatever his $590,000,000 boat is named). Point is, rich people have problems like the lower and middle social classes do. Many nights I have stayed up worried not about food or shelter or medical costs, but some real estate project I was working on, or my stock broker’s decision-making process. I get it.
But come on, David Geffen! Good, normal people are dying alone in hospitals, virtually choking on their own blood, writhing in agony, slipping away into the eternal night and you’re chilling in the Grenadines eating fresh-caught swordfish and reading an engrossing novel as the sun sets??
That is one thing that I think should keep the rich awake at night. Call it “liberal guilt”, call it “a Christian mentality”, whatever you wish. Those people who are dying – which has now, as of this writing, topped the number of Americans killed in the entire Vietnam War – are not morally inferior people. They aren’t all obese smokers. They didn’t have unprotected sex and they didn’t contract it from i.v. drug use. You know who they were? They were doctors, teachers, grocers, voters, paramedics, restaurant workers, and meat packers. What it is I hope the well-heeled keep in mind every day of their lives is that those who are dying while they golf and watch big-screen televisions and play blackjack in Vegas (and many other much more significant and worthy activities, I should add) are not inferior. They didn’t probably “bring it on themselves.”
This is where the libertarian credo that I am doing well because I work hard and make good, responsible decisions and you are not because of the lack of the aforementioned virtue breaks down in practice.
Do I really expect David Geffen to behave like a mensch? Should he, like Bill Gates, be spending time, energy, and money combatting disease, hunger, and the digital divide? Are all the well-to-do supposed to imitate Christ? Actually, though I was thinking of a Bono or an Oprah or a Buffett, I don’t think that a rich person who behaved like Jesus taught or who had the heart of a Gandhi would stay rich for very long.
But there are gradations of a wealthy person’s moral behavior, and never is it more evident what these folks are made of than in times of stress and tumult such as a pandemic.
Take this example: according to The Week (citing the Wall Street Journal), “though some companies are cutting executive salaries, stock awards have kept flowing. Last month, 95 companies in the S&P 500 made awards to 615 executives, backed by $2.2 billion in shares. More than half of companies raised the value of 2020 awards by at least 20 percent.”
Let them eat cake!
Do you know the origin of that story (perhaps somewhat apocryphal)? As the story goes, during times of social stress and personal privation on a massive scale, French monarch in the lead-up to the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, was told by an underling that many in the kingdom were starving, evidenced by a paucity of bread. She assumedly took a bite of some scrumptious French delicacy made just for her and her pretentious guests, exclaiming: “Let them eat cake, then!” Hardy harr harr, your Highness.
That tone-deafness to the suffering of others, moral abnegation, and outright entitlement led to her losing her head.
Indeed, Nick Hanauer warns his fellow plutocrats that “pitchforks are coming” in this video. The proud capitalist who sold a company to Microsoft and invested early in Amazon says “I have been rewarded obscenely with a life that most of ya’ll can’t even imagine – multiple homes, a yacht, my own plane, and on and on. But let’s be honest: I am not the smartest person you’ve ever met; I’m not the hardest-working; I was a mediocre student; I’m not technical at all, I can’t write a word of code. Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck – of birth, of circumstance, of timing.”
Hanauer not saying that everything fell in his lap while he was getting a massage. That’s not how money works. As I have come to realize, there are always persons, schemes, governments, and pitfalls prowling to relieve one of their money. Perhaps the wealthy have certain virtues, not the least of which is simply skill at not losing money.
Unfortunately, that skill of “holding on to money” often seems like greed, tight-fistedness, selfishness, and entitlement to the neutral observer.
Mr. Hanauer’s point is that the wealthy should be more willing to share their gains with those around them and yes, with the government, that distributor of social good on high. Why? Not just because he believes he is worthier in the moral sense of the word, but because the pitchforks are coming. That is his way of illustrating the fact that the rich are not safe and they are not permanently privileged.
The coronavirus has shown many wealthy individuals that though they can buy much, they cannot prevent the pandemic from greatly affecting them, too. This is often to their astonishment and chagrin.
Hanauer says, noting the fate of Antoinette and other aristocrats of the late 18th century: “I have a message for my fellow plutocrats, zillionaires, and anyone who lives in a gated, bubble-world: wake up!”
He continues: “It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us.”
Now, I tend to think that the wealthy, political-type Republicans (such as Mitch McConnell and Jack Abramoff) will continue their decades-long attempt at shifting the focus away from themselves onto Hollywood liberals, various elites, professors, 2nd Amendment moderates, and the like. But, they too may have to face a reckoning if America faces stress and strain of the caliber that the pandemic has wrought in the future.
We are a country that has many fissures and vulnerabilities and inadequacies. The rich are playing for time, trying to enjoy one more bottle of wine, one more manicure, one more trip to Mexico in December. They aim to make hay while the sun shines.
Many do some worthy things with their money, but many do not.
And the pandemic has made clear that the wealthy are doing pretty well compared to, say, a New York fire-fighter who contracted coronavirus on the job and then died a slow and agonizing death. A loss of 25% in one’s stock portfolio, or having to wear a mask, or not having access to one’s homeopathic practitioner, or not being able to travel to play the Augusta, GA golf circuit, or not being able to have your BMW come straight from the factory in Munich, or not having access to your housecleaner, or not being able to eat at your favorite Michelin 2-star restaurant don’t really count as much of a sacrifice at all, now do they?
I get bored quite a bit, and my latest idea for education, work, or volunteering is now on-ice. That feels disappointing to me. Do you know what feels worse? Not having any income and having to take care of my children full-time and having a mother in a rest home five hundred miles away.
If you ask Noam Chomsky about the country, he will tell you “We have more wealth and income inequality today than we’ve had since the 1920s. We have all of these enormous issues. And what big money can do is put an unbelievable amount of TV and radio ads out there to deflect attention from the real issues facing the American people.”
If you ask Chomsky about America’s moral health, he will tell you “The United States is a very free society. It is also a very rich society. Of course, the United States is a scandal from the point of view of its wealth. I mean, given the natural advantages that the United States has in terms of resources, lack of enemies and so on, the United States should have a level of health and welfare that is in order of magnitude beyond anybody else in the world; we don’t. The United States is last among 20 industrialized societies in terms of infant mortality and that’s a scandal in American capitalism.”
If you ask Chomsky about America’s social organization, he will tell you “We have not developed the cultural and moral resources— or the democratic forms of social organization— that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power.”
Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps America’s Marie Antoinette, was satirized by Forbes‘ Jack Kelly thusly:
“[She] starred in the virus-outbreak movie Contagion. While on a jet, Paltrow posted a selfie on Instagram showing her face mask (at the time, regular people were advised that masks were not necessary). She wrote, ‘En route to Paris. Paranoid? Prudent? Panicked? Placid? Pandemic? Propaganda? Paltrow’s just going to go ahead and sleep with this thing on the plane.’ She advised her Instagram followers, ‘Stay safe. Don’t shake hands. Wash hands frequently,’ reminding them, ‘I’ve already been in this movie.’”
Kelly really has the goods on the rich when he writes this paragraph:
“The rich are also hunkering down in their bunkers. These are not your average basements of doomsday preppers. These bunkers are state of the art, fully equipped with special air-filtration systems and fortified to withstand any violence due to a breakdown in society. A year’s worth of food and supplies can be stored in bunkers that are as large as some homes and are sold for prices in the millions of dollars.”
Ever with his finger on the pulse of the working class, Bernie Sanders was speaking of the pandemic when he stated: “Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. We’ve got people who are struggling working two or three jobs to put food on the table. What is going to happen to them? As a result of the coronavirus, what we have got to do is understand the fragility of the economy and how unjust and unfair it is that so few have so much and so many have so little.”
Wendell Potter used to work for Cigna, and now he is telling the truth about the nature of America’s healthcare system, and its inequities and inadequacies: “We hear politicians say all the time that we have the best health-care system in the world; we have fabulous doctors and health-care facilities, but they’re off-limits to a lot of people because of the cost.”
In this Atlantic article, Adam Harris replies: “But what is off-limits to some is readily available to others—namely the wealthy, powerful, and connected—through a combination of front, side, and back doors. There are the obvious reasons: Wealthy people tend to have better health-care plans and are more able to pay out-of-pocket expenses than poor people are. And then there are the ethically dubious reasons: The powerful—such as politicians—can leverage their position of influence, and the wealthy can donate their way into faster treatment.”
If I had to arrive at a main point, it would be: (1) admittedly, the rich do not have it “easy” (since life pretty much sucks, more or less, for everyone – rich or poor, tall or short, ugly or pretty, white or black, straight or lesbian; no one gets out of here alive, as it were). There are many things money cannot buy, and never is that clearer than in a pandemic. (2) However, many wealthy individuals are coming off as very tone-deaf and elitist and privileged while the vast majority suffer and even die. Think of those in nursing homes! Imagine being a doctor who lives in a motel so you don’t infect your family! What must it be like to lose a mom to the coronavirus!? (3) The rich should be doing more and sacrificing more – even if the politicians are much less economically progressive than they were in, say, the midst of the Great Depression, or businesses just don’t get it like they did in 1942, when war was on. (4) Being rich doesn’t make you better than everyone else, and if you’re a patriotic American, get in the game. Donate time and money. If you have a $590,000,000 yacht, like Geffen does, sell the goddamned thing tonight and donate the $300,000,000 to those in need. (5) You can’t take it with you when you go, and your character and your honor depend much upon how you chose to be in the midst of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.
Often tone-deaf, my non-rich-but-very-capitalistic friend said this: “You do know that under every single socialist state owned health care system in the world there is a secondary health care system for the wealthy and politically connected working right alongside it in the shadows, right?”
My reply was: Yes, the wealthy want to be seen NOW by WHOMEVER THEY CHOOSE to get WHATEVER done they wish. It’s called privilege.
One wealthy individual I know smarted when he went to find out why his special integrative medicine doctor was not answering his call. He needed his glutathione infusion or his anti-aging serum or his certification that his grandkids were special needs and couldn’t take vaccines. Well, unfortunately, the doc has an autoimmune issue and put up the CLOSED sign and fled the city. Too bad, so sad. I’m imagining he was standing outside the locked door, mouth agape, muttering: “I hope my masseuse and my holistic yoga practitioner and my herbalist aren’t gone, too! WOE!”
This is the kind of thing that Mark Twain would satirize because it is the least virtuous impulse that America has to offer.
Indeed, taking a private jet alone to some business meeting used to be, how should I say, overlooked? Spending $500 on a bottle of wine seems so gauche now while America sews old t-shirts together to make masks, and the President mumbles on about perhaps using injections of Lysol to combat coronavirus.
Friends, we are in the midst of a pandemic, facing the worst outcomes of almost anywhere in the world, being led by an idiot, with our best players around the back of the stadium drinking during half-time. What is wrong with this picture?
When so many rich flock from New York City to the Hamptons that the place is overrun with Range Rovers and botoxed glitterati that the locals express umbrage, or when the wealthy try to buy ventilators for their personal use, or when the left coast liberal elite talk about not being willing to take a coronavirus pandemic even when one becomes available, I think we’re talking about two different Americas: one for the privileged elite, and one for the other 99% of people. This is unsustainable; it’s morally wrong; it’s a horrible way to combat a pandemic.
We are supposed to be “the best” country in the world. We used to build one B-52 “Flying Fortress” every ten minutes in 1945, and now we don’t have enough ventilators or coronavirus tests three months into the crisis? This is turning out to be a catastrophe here, and there is no rapid return to normalcy in a country where only 4% of Americans have been tested. Even Germany is realizing that the return to normalcy is fraught with risk and difficulty, and they are leagues ahead of us in the success of their pandemic response.
We need everyone who can help to be helpful, not to be selfish, stupid, or solipsistic. There is a difference between socially isolated and coming across like a privileged, elitist schmuck. No offense, Ms. Paltrow.
How repugnant can one man be? Jonathan Chait tells us:
“Yesterday, President Trump stood at the lectern in the White House press room and, while the cameras rolled, asked his science advisers to test whether they could treat coronavirus patients by injecting ultraviolet light or disinfectant into their bodies. Today he explained to reporters that he had just been joking. ‘I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you,’ he said, ‘just to see what would happen.’”
I couldn’t write a better summation of the point I’m trying to make than Sarah Jones in The New Yorker:
“A pandemic demands public acts of solidarity. We alter our lifestyles with the well-being of our neighbors in mind. We stay home as much as we can, we sew masks for health professionals who need them, we set up mutual-aid groups to assist our sick and elderly neighbors. In some people, though, the novel coronavirus inspires more selfish sentiments. The crisis exposes social fissures that have existed for a long time. Workers at a General Electric facility in Massachusetts just staged a protest to try to force the company to make ventilators in unused factories; meanwhile, rich people are trying to buy the life-saving machines for their personal use. Coronavirus isn’t the only threat to public health. Greed, and the means to act on it, also threaten our collective well-being. We can’t all be like billionaire David Geffen and watch the horror unfold from the vantage of our super-yacht.”
Look at the elegance of this paragraph, written by Noam Scheiber, Nelson D. Schwartz and
“For about $80,000, an individual can purchase a six-month plan with Private Health Management, which helps people with serious medical issues navigate the health care system. Such a plan proved to be a literal lifesaver as the coronavirus pandemic descended. The firm has helped clients arrange tests in Los Angeles for the coronavirus and obtained oxygen concentrators for high-risk patients. ‘We know the top lab people and the doctors and nurses and can make the process efficient,’ said Leslie Michelson, the firm’s executive chairman. In some respects, the pandemic is an equalizer: It can afflict princes and paupers alike, and no one who hopes to stay healthy is exempt from the strictures of social distancing. But the American response to the virus is laying bare class divides that are often camouflaged — in access to health care, child care, education, living space, even internet bandwidth.” (LINK)
HERE is another source to learn more about Nick Hanauer’s ideas.
Here is a point of view diametrically opposed to the one about which I wrote.
Below are a few other quotes that back up my position:
“Given the decline in the middle class, given the increase in poverty, and given the fact that the wealthy and large corporations have never had it so good, Americans may find it strange that the Republicans in Washington would use this opportunity to make savage cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education, nutrition assistance, and other lifesaving programs, while pushing for even more tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations. Unfortunately, it is not strange. It is part of their ideology.”
“The wealthy can afford to fly over the congestion and pollution in their private jets and helicopters, live in the most luxurious and secure communities, work in penthouse suites in grand office towers, enjoy the finest designer clothing and gourmet foods, and vacation in the most pristine of the world’s remaining wilderness areas. In their eyes, life for the human species surely has never been so good. They are well paid to be blind to the real consequences of their money-world service and suffer no consequences of the depletion of real wealth.”
“With more tests, there will be more confirmed cases. It’s not a question of if, but how many. What happens after that—whether or not families are able to afford treatment—is less clear. The coronavirus has not so much exposed America’s health-care disparities as put them in bold lettering, Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at NYU told me. ‘We have a broken health-care system,’ he said, ‘and the virus delights in that fact.’” ~ Adam Harris
“We learned long ago that power and privilege never give up anything without a struggle. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty.”
“The topic of economic inequality has been inescapable in recent years. It’s become a talking point for everyone from famed economists to President Obama. And with good reason: The gap between the nation’s wealthiest and everyone else has been growing. And in the wake of an economic crisis that left scores of Americans unemployed and vastly devalued their largest assets, the rapid recovery of the wealthy as so many continue to struggle can feel painfully unfair.”
“It is sometimes difficult for progressives to understand just how inherently threatening our message can be to those whose sense of identity depends on clinging to their position in the collapsing hierarchy of power and privilege.”
“…a kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.” ~ Noam Scheiber, Nelson D. Schwartz and Tiffany Hsu
“From the democratic point of view, insisting upon the equal status of citizenship, any privileged class represents an injustice. To restrict citizenship to those who have certain advantages of birth, who have certain advantages of wealth, or to those who have the accidents of sex or race or creed, all these accidental qualifications, according to the democratic view, would amount to unjust discrimination, an unjust giving of privileges to those who have not deserved these privileges.”
“Democracy must believe in freedom, but that freedom in my terminology is something different from what freedom has come to mean in this country in the age of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Clarence Thomas and David Duke. Freedom now means, unfortunately, the freedom of corporations to raise prices, the wealthy to evade taxes, or the freedom of the unemployed to dwell at the edge of starvation and desperation.”
“The private jet market is doing a brisk business whisking the elite out of New York and other major cities. Jerod Davis, the owner of private charter jet company, said in an interview with Slate, ‘There are only 1,800 private jet operators, to my knowledge, in the United States. So believe it or not, sometimes you actually run out of private jets over the holidays. And that’s kind of what’s going on right now: There’s so much demand that they’re actually running out.’ Meanwhile, the average American is told to stay indoors under self-quarantine.” ~ Jack Kelly
“Condemning the extent to which the prevailing economic order privileged corporate profits over all else, John Kenneth Galbraith urged Democrats to chart a new path. ‘No longer,’ he argued, ‘could those negatively affected by soaring income inequality and stagnant wages be told that the system works.’ Instead, ‘The Democratic Party must henceforth use the word socialism. It describes what is needed.’ But Democrats ultimately chose to sprint in precisely the opposite direction: Far from embracing socialism, they doubled down on capitalism.”
“Ventilators aren’t the only items the wealthy are trying to stockpile. One local doctor recently told the New York Post that he’s had to inform his more privileged patients that they cannot actually build ICUs in their homes. Others have contacted their doctors to ask if they can skip the line for an eventual vaccine. They’re even buying up luxury masks, the New York Times reports, along with the N95 respirators that medical professionals need for hospital use.” ~ Sarah Jones
“A report issued by the American Political Science Association in 2004, entitled, ‘American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,’ noted ‘Skewed participation among citizens and the targeting of government resources to partisans and the well-organized ensure that government officials disproportionately respond to business, the wealthy.’ Indeed, a study by Princeton’s Larry Bartels of the Senate’s voting record between 1989 and 1994 — when, we should note, Democrats were in control — found the people’s representatives highly responsive to the demands of the top third of the income spectrum, rather less responsive to the middle third, and altogether uninterested in those put forth by the poorest third.”
“If ‘the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’, as the now-defrocked Kevin Spacey said in The Usual Suspects, then the greatest trick the wealthy ever pulled was convincing the lower social classes that the true nature of their woes is each other. It’s the age-old ploy: pit brother against brother and they will not notice you bribing politicians, making a $25,000,000 salary, and preventing real reform of the health care system in America. Not very Christian, I must say.”
“In New York, well-off city dwellers have abandoned cramped apartments for spacious second homes. In Texas, the rich are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to build safe rooms and bunkers. And across the country, there is a creeping consciousness that despite talk of national unity, not everyone is equal in times of emergency. ‘This is a white-collar quarantine,’ said Howard Barbanel, a Miami-based entrepreneur who owns a wine company.” ~ Noam Scheiber, Nelson D. Schwartzand Tiffany Hsu
“America invented progressive taxation, and there was a time when leading American politicians were proud to proclaim their willingness to tax the wealthy – not just raise revenue – but to limit excessive concentration of economic power.”