Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Rich Really Are Different

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
I Timothy 6:17-19

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, from a short story called “Rich Boy”

There is an apocryphal story in which Fitzgerald is quoted as telling Ernest Hemingway, that “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway responds, “Yes, they have more money.”

In truth, Fitzgerald seems to have a much more critical view of the rich. If his criticism never reached the pointed judgments of the Hebrew prophets or the Gospels, or Timothy or James, it was far from the fawning deference often attributed to him.

Last week, when Robert Rubin and Chuck Prince testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission we learned that one way in which at least some of the rich are different from the rest of us is that apparently they don’t have to do any real work in order to get paid vast sums of money. And they don’t share in the risks of failure.

Prince is the former CEO of Citigroup and Rubin, who was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, chaired the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors.

Prince began his testimony by departing from his prepared remarks to offer this apology: “I’m sorry the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact for our country. I’m sorry about the millions of people, average Americans, who lost their homes. And I’m sorry that our management teams, starting with me, like so many others could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us.” He did not really accept any of the blame, but at least he was sorry for the result.

Mr. Rubin’s position was remarkable in that he seemed to deny having anything to do with the situation. He was sorry, of course, but he had not been in a position to do anything about it. He said that although he chaired the Executive Committee of the Board, they met infrequently and (apparently) didn’t do much. In spite of the fact that he was paid $15,000,000 per year for his service, he said that his contract specifically stated that he had no day to day responsibilities.

So it’s not his fault. They paid him $15 million per year to do nothing. People have lost their homes and their jobs in the worst economic crisis since the great depression, and the people who led us over the cliff are well protected from the effects of our fall.

The rich really are different from you and me.

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