The Morality Of Money, And Whether It Matters

ok josh lyman still might not get paid OT but I would watch a West Wing episode about thisYesterday I had the privilege of getting yelled at a little bit by Randy Cohen, who you may remember was the original and best Ethicist at the New York Times Magazine. (Though I do also enjoy the column’s current iteration as an Ethics Supreme Court.) Things started off well! I told him I loved reading him; he beamed. But then I accidentally made him feel old a couple times, and then he thought that I was defending our current economic system, and he went off on a tear about how immoral and broken American capitalism is. He even accused me of the knowing the names of all the Kardashians, though in the moment the only one I could think of was Kim.

In vain did I protest that I too object to the cold, market-driven forces that run our lives. He was not hearing it. At last I raised the specter of Bernie Sanders and he snorted. “Bernie Sanders is to the right of me!” he said.

Which made me laugh, remembering how my father used to say fondly that Bernie Sanders was to the left of God.

Sanders, that brave and stalwart senator from Vermont, has been in the news a lot lately because, as you may have heard, he has decided to run for President. It is tempting to say he couldn’t get elected to a student council anywhere except his home state, but that’s hardly the point. He has a very important message that he wants to get across, and making himself a 2016 candidate is an unparalleled way to do that. 

He wants big Wall Street banks broken up. He’s willing to accept slower economic growth in return for what he’d consider a more equitable distribution of income.

“The issue we’re dealing with is actually the struggle to rebuild American democracy,” Sanders said in an interview at a Capitol Hill bistro. “Economically, over the last 40 years, we’ve seen a middle class in this country disappearing.

“Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. The top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think this is the kind of economy we should have. Do we think it’s moral?”

“Moral.” See, this is why I like Bernie. No one but a fringe-y old man with nothing to lose would introduce an abstract concept like morality into a contemporary conversation about money. Sure, politicians will often say something is “immoral,” if it’s something they disagree with, or find icky for some reason, and they will often back up their distaste with a quote from the Bible. If it comes to that, though, there are plenty of quotes in the Bible about how to handle wealth in an ethical fashion; those are conveniently ignored.

The real bright line in America these days is not between church and state but between church and capitalism. Take everything in the Bible seriously! Except when it comes to Jesus’s disdain for the rich and instructions on how to treat the poor.

Perhaps what we need is a kind of secular morality. After all, plenty of countries that treat their less fortunate well are less religious than we are. They are guided by a set of agreed-upon principles related to fairness. Sanders, it seems, would like us to adopt some version of those principles. Is it possible that we could begin to think of money in America not in a vacuum but as something to which ethical rules should apply?

Jonathan Allen at Vox says maybe:

the political pendulum has swung toward the Vermonter’s view of the world, and, while he’s one heck of a longshot to even make waves in the Democratic presidential primary, everything he talked about in his official announcement is well within the foul lines of American politics.

Allen points out that Sanders is not as far out of the mainstream as he could be. He wants a $15 minimum wage; LA just implemented one. He believes wealth should be more fairly distributed; 63% of Americans, in the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, agree. Even some Republicans have broached the subject:

“If you’re born poor today, you’re more likely to stay poor,” Republican Jeb Bush said last month. “We need to deal with this.”

I can imagine an unimpressed Randy Cohen saying, “Hmph.” He’s probably right: Hillary will be the 2016 Democratic nominee, and whether she wins or not very little will change. But even if merely in the short term, isn’t this conversation about money and morality an important one to have?

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