Monday, June 15, 2015

The Wealthy Really Are Different From The Rest Of Us



Despite the over-generalization of my title, it is clear to me that many of rich really are different from the rest of us, not just in terms of their material status, but in the way they relate to the world around them. Yet they fail to recognize their spiritual aridity.

In Matthew, 19:24, Jesus says: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Now, while some interpret that strictly to mean entering heaven, progressive theologians such as Marcus Borg suggest that it has a very real application in the here and now. The kingdom of God involves communion with our fellow human beings and the world in which we live, a world thirsting for social, economic and environmental justice. When we pursue those goals, say people like Borg, we are entering the Kingdom of God. The wealthy have a harder time of it, probably, because their wealth serves to isolate them from that communion.

And so the rich folk of California have quite a journey ahead of them. According to The Washington Post, despite the terrible drought that pervades the state, they don't think that the state-imposed water restrictions should apply to them:
Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.
The attitude expressed above seems like a clear challenge to Michael J. Sandel's thesis in his book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, wherein he asks if there are indeed moral and social limits to what wealth should give a person access to.

Thus far, many of the 3100 residents have ignored the water restrictions, but as of July 1, more substantial financial penalties, and even restricted or terminated access to water, will be imposed. This is leaving them feeling most aggrieved:
“I think we’re being overly penalized, and we’re certainly being overly scrutinized by the world,” said Gay Butler, an interior designer out for a trail ride on her show horse, Bear. She said her water bill averages about $800 a month.

“It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture,” Butler said. “What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?”
Other wealthy communities are feeling similar outrage:
“I call it the war on suburbia,” said Brett Barbre, who lives in the Orange County community of Yorba Linda, another exceptionally wealthy Zip code

“California used to be the land of opportunity and freedom,” Barbre said. “It’s slowly becoming the land of one group telling everybody else how they think everybody should live their lives.”
Jurgen Gramckow, a sod farmer north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, agrees. He likens the freedom to buy water to the freedom to buy gasoline.

“Some people have a Prius; others have a Suburban,” Gramckow said. “Once the water goes through the meter, it’s yours.”
Clearly, the concept of shared sacrifice for the collective good is an alien one to some people. But to be fair, of course, that is an attitude not limited to one part of the socio-economic strata, is it?

4 comments:

  1. Interestingly, this appears to not be the case if said wealthy person is a member of Canada's Royal Family. As they have your "communion with our fellow human beings and the world in which we live, a world thirsting for social, economic and environmental justice." This makes sense when you consider the royals are trained to behave that way.

    On a larger scale I wonder if you did a direct comparison between members of the old nobility, hereditary landed wealth, and the new nobility, capitalist financial/industrial wealth, whether you would find differences in behavior.

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    1. You pose a very interesting question here, Kisaragi. While I have nothing empirical upon which to base this, my guess would be that those who fall under the category of new wealth, without the traditions of noblesse oblige, would fare the worse in the comparison.

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  2. I expect, Lorne, we'll be seeing a lot of this conflict in coming years as we're compelled to recognize that we've run into walls and shift from growth based to some form of allocation based economies. These people you reference simply can't grasp that free market capitalism doesn't work when there are permanent shortages, not of luxuries but of necessaries of life. In wartime the reality of shortages is resolved by rationing. When there's not enough to go around the public expects a degree of egalitarian regulation and it's obvious certain people are unfamiliar with the concept of "no."

    "Spiritual aridity" indeed.

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    1. One thing that I think burns strongly in people, Mound, is a desire for fairness. When people, by virtual of their economic positions, feel they should be exempted from that notion, the rest of us become quite understandably outraged. Given the proliferation of the illiberal democracies that you frequently write about, there is certainly no sources of outrage today.

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