Monday, October 14, 2013

Why are Rich People so Bad?

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning.  But before I tell you what it was, first let me explain a little about my background so that you can understand how striking this flash of insight was to me.  I am a Christian. Many would call me a "fundamentalist."  I am one of those many.  (You might have to think about that one for a second.)  I have been in fundamentalist churches for so long now that I am fairly steeped in certain Christian doctrines, probably none more than the doctrine of the depravity of man.  Like a drumbeat, I've heard (and read) for the almost forty years of my Christian life that mankind is fallen. The most common proof text for this sad proposition is Isaiah 64:6.  But that's far from the only biblical text that focuses on mankind's shortcomings -- from the third chapter of the Bible (Genesis 3) on, it's pretty much all sin, all the time.

I may be a bit more tuned into mankind's sinfulness than most -- memorizing Paul's epistle to the Romans as a teenager was quite formative for me. That first part of the "Romans Road," that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," locked in pretty early with me.  Plus there's my personal experience.  I might just be more sinful than most.  That brings me to another point -- I didn't really need the Bible to tell me that people are less than perfect (to put it mildly).  Everything about my existence told me that people are bad. We lock our doors at night; as children, we're told not to talk to strangers; these days, we take extraordinary efforts to "safeguard our personal information" -- all of which is smart because people are indeed unreliable at best, and downright nasty at worst.  Of course, not all people are bad all the time, but some people are bad pretty much all the time, and all people are bad at least some of the time.

So it does not surprise me when people behave badly.  But here's the epiphany that struck me this morning: "Poor people are fallen, too."  Let that sink in for a second.  I don't even know how I thought of it.  The controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins had me reflecting on whether it was merely another faux controversy created by political correctness run amok, and somehow that line of thinking led me to political correctness in general, which got me thinking about certain groups of people whom we're not allowed to criticize, and suddenly I realized that poor people are one of those groups.  But this post isn't about political correctness.  It's about how I had to be surprised to find that poor people fit the universal definition of mankind that I have had drummed into my brain for decades.  After all, I've never had to remind myself that rich people are sinners. As I reflected on my own surprise at this realization that poor people aren't sinless saints, I remembered a time when I articulated my own bias against the rich.  I was a newly-minted lawyer, and my wife and I were buying our first modest house.    That is a dangerous combination.  I kept trying to amend the form contract documents, and the real estate agent with whom I was working finally boiled over with frustration and swore at me.  Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and I joked with her about how if it was this hard to sell a small house, I can't imagine how much trouble she must have when a million dollars are on the line.  Her unexpected answer:  "You'd be surprised how gracious rich people can be." And now that I think of it, that's been almost universally true in my own life, too.  Pretty much all the rich people I've known have been okay, no worse than the rest of the lot anyway.

So why did I, of all people, assume that rich people would be harder to work with than someone of modest means like myself?  Well, the idea that "rich = bad" is drummed into us by the popular culture.  In any movie we watch, particularly including Disney films, if a wealthy character pops up, we can pretty much mark him down as a "bad guy."  If a character's poverty is noteworthy, then that character will likely have some nobility about her.  This anti-wealth current has become so strong in our society, that one apparently effective way to run against a political candidate these days is to point out that he's rich.  And so in the last presidential election cycle, we had President Obama spending millions of Hollywood's money to convince us that Mitt Romney was rich, which we already knew.  And this message stuck even though everybody who actually knew Mr. Romney seemed convinced that he was exceptionally kind and generous, as far as people go. And I apparently bought it, too, as reflected by my response to the real estate agent more than twenty years ago.

So what's the point?  I think the point is that when we make public policy, we should do so keeping in mind that all people, including poor people, are fallen and will behave badly, especially if not properly incentivized. We adopt public policy today as though poor people have some kind of inherent nobility that prevents them from engaging in anti-social conduct, even when we make it exceptionally easy for them to fail.  For example, giving Obamacare subsidies without income verification.  Are you kidding me?

Anyway, this is a tough subject to write about, as you can tell from the title of this post.  I thought about an candid title like "Poor People are Fallen, Too," but I thought "who'd read that?"  So I titled this post as you can see.  Apologies for the "bait and switch" -- I'm not perfect, either.  This topic seemed so problematic to me that I had decided not to write about it, until I read this story about food stamp recipients stealing so much food that they cleaned out a Wal-mart in Louisiana when the EBT system temporarily went down.  Apparently the limits on those EBT cards are absolutely essential.  After my reflection today, I've decided to try to control within myself the societal bias against the rich.  I've also decided to remind myself that all of us, rich and poor alike, must be constrained by law to prevent us from taking advantage of our fellows.  Bummer.  We live in a fallen world, a universally fallen world.