I was deeply puzzled as to what was supposed to be incriminating about the Goldman Sachs emails released over the weekend, and I’m pleased to see that Paul Krugman, Felix Salmon, and Dean Baker all see things my way, making me confident that I’m not just misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, I listened to the introductory lecture for Robert Shiller’s class on financial markets and something he said reminded me of what the real moral outrage is here — the people are just too damn rich. It’s greedy, absurd, and morally indefensible for talented people born in favorable circumstances to be dedicating their lives to accumulating huge sums of money in order to engage in lavish consumption. In part, I’ve advocated higher taxes as the solution to this problem. But obviously it’s always possible for a person whose path in life just happens to have led him to acquire a vast fortune working in financial services to donate a huge sum of money to charity. Of course, this is a critique that many of us in America can be subjected to. But I don’t think that’s a reason not to make it. Actually, I think the possibility of hypocrisy highlights the need to make it. While I was writing this post, I took a break from waxing indignant about multi-millionaires buying their third houses to donate some money to UNICEF. And hopefully if you’re reading this, you’ll do the same even if you’re not a rich financier. But if you are a rich financier, hopefully you’ll give a lot since after all, you’re really rich and lots of people around the world die of treatable illness or lack access to clean water. And if a friend or loved one is a rich banker, hopefully you’ll give him or her a hard time about it. And if you’re a professor at a fancy college teaching teenagers who are likely to be rich bankers 10 years from now, maybe you’ll subject them to some preachy moralizing and encourage them to read Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die.
I normally try to talk about policy ideas, but there’s more to life than policy. The world would be a better place if Americans were less polite about the obscenity of super-wealth in terms of individual morality. Rich people who don’t want to have their funds taxed away ought to be shamed into showing they’re able to use individual ethical action to help ameliorate serious local and global problems. All of us who could spare more than we do should strive to do better, but we also shouldn’t hesitate to point out the fact that the ethical dilemma is that much more acute for people who are even richer and whose work life is dedicated purely to the accumulation of money.