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American Exceptionalism, Luxury Division

I've been told all dotCommonweal bloggers are expected to post something about Ken Langone's recent remarks on the "hurdle" to fundraising Pope Francis may have unwittingly created by admonishing the rich. I have little to add to what others—especially Mollie and Peter Nixon—have already written, but I do want to highlight one part of Langone's widely criticized comments that still hasn't received enough criticism: his suggestion that the pope's words about wealth (and, presumably, the gospel's) don't really apply to wealthy Americans.

"You want to be careful about generalities," Langone said. "Rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country." Taken literally, this observation is unexceptionable. Generally speaking, we would all probably agree that one should "be careful" about generalities, as long as that doesn't just mean forbidding them. (Generalities are among the things one should avoid generalizing about.) But then, who said Pope Francis wasn't being careful? Not Langone—or not exactly. Here's something else you should be careful about: passive-agressive vagueness.

Again, taken literally, it's generally (and obviously) true that rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country, it being even more generally true that people in one country, rich or poor, don't act the same as people in another. That hardly seems worth pointing out. Langone must have meant more than that. He may have meant that rich people in this country are generally more virtuous than rich people in other countries—or at least more virtuous than rich people in the country the pope comes from, Argentina. It has been suggested by other critics of the pope's exhortation that he doesn't understand how rich people come by their money here in the United States, that he associates wealth with corruption only because he comes from what they consider to be a backward Latin American country.

In fact, the pope says relatively little about corruption in Evangelii Gaudium, whereas he has quite a bit to say about exploiting workers. The pope's critics may disagree with his definition of "exploitation," but it would be hard for anyone to disagree that there's at least as much of what Pope Francis means by exploitation here in the U.S. as there is in Argentina. Here, as much as there, people maximize profits by paying workers as little as the labor market or minimum-wage laws will allow, whether or not that's enough to meet the workers' material needs.

But maybe Langone was only trying to say that rich people in this country are more generous with their money than rich people in other countries. And maybe there's some evidence for that claim. If so, I'd like to see it. Does the average millionaire in the United States give away more of his or her money than the average Italian or Argentinean millionaire? It's quite possible, just as it's quite possible that the average lower-middle-class American gives more money to charity than the average lower-middle-class Italian or Argentinean does. If so, this could have something to do with a national culture that values personal generosity more than most cultures do, or it could have something to do with the fact that in this country the state promises less material security than it does in many other countries. Where public welfare programs are less robust, there will be a greater need—and opportunity—for private charity. It may be true that rich Americans donate a greater portion of their wealth than the rich in, say, France; it is certainly true that they're taxed less.

If I may offer one final generalization: Successful businessmen often have trouble imagining that other people don't admire them as much as they admire themselves. Confronted with this baffling phenomenon, they usually fall back on one of two explanations: either the insufficiently admiring are simply jealous, or they haven't really gotten to know successful businessmen personally. It would be hard to accuse Pope Francis of jealousy. That leaves ignorance. Let him go to the next Davos Forum or meet a few Acton Institute donors. He'll be surprised at what nice people he finds—not at all like the vile misers Christ was always castigating. Anyway, he and other churchmen had bettter like the rich, because being liked is one of the things many successful people seem to expect in exchange for their generosity. So please, Your Holiness, more honey, less vinegar, and no generalities. If you read carefully, you will notice that Dives wasn't an American.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Perhaps only people who have been to both the Langone Medical Center and Saint Patrick's Cathedral should comment.

Matt -- I guess I won't be needing to post anything after this bravura performance.  Especially the last paragraph, which only reinforces my contention that we have the touchiest, whiniest ruling class in history.  

Jesus said; "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then for a rich man...". Let the rich argue it out. Unlike Jacob Marley, the American rich don't forge out  chains, link by link.  So they don't need a camel to carry it.  We make our wealth fulfilling wonderfully good needs.  Never mind that we don't pay our workers more then minimum wage.

Jesus said; "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then for a rich man...". Let the rich argue it out. Unlike Jacob Marley, the American rich don't forge out  chains, link by link.  So they don't need a camel to carry it.  We make our wealth fulfilling wonderfully good needs.  Never mind that we don't pay our workers more then minimum wage.

If I may offer one final generalization: successful businessmen often have trouble imagining that other people don't admire them as much as they admire themselves...


What is your basis for that contention?   People you know well personally?

Boudway's armchair sociology should not be narrowly focused: "Successful businessmen often have trouble imagining that other people don't admire them as much as they admire themselves;" it can be usefully extended: "Intellectuals often have trouble imagining that other people don't admire them as much as they admire themselves."


And comparisons between the ethics of businessmen and intellectuals are revealing.  "Competition in scholarship is in some ways more violent than in business: the law sets limits on the disparagement of a rival’s product, unless it is done in a book review in a learned journal." 

George Stigler, Intellectuals and the Marketplace


Examples on request.


Matthew seems to displaying humor. Poor wealthy. Bill Maher, former Catholic turned atheist and anti-all religion, noted that what Francis is preaching is all over the Bible. Basically what we are looking at is a history of false preaching and catering to the rich. Catholic bishops have historically not only courted  and flattered the wealthy, they have competed with each other over them. Augustine and his fellow bishops did it and the bishops continued the tradition. Apostolic succession? Thus Cardinal Hayes clearly resented the auxiliary Spellman who was competing with Hayes for the favor of the rich. I did not need to specifically hear about Langone to know that the very wealthy were giving the money to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Middle Class Catholics neither have the means nor the motivation to support that endeavor. Nor should they when people are going without and not making a living wage.

Francis in directing us to the true Gospel message is having this difficulty because the bishops forgot the poor. Sure it is in the literature. But not on the priority (preferential?) list.  Bishops and other leaders in the church measure their success by what they have built rather 'having compassion on the multitude. "

In Catholic chanceries as well as Catholic universities, the rich are wined and dined. And "the poor go away empty." Too many local parishes talk charity but their aid goes mainly to the upkeep of the church and the schools. Most who can't afford Catholic schools are left to go to Public schools. One example of many. A woman approached  a parish priest asking for help feeding and sheltering her family. The priest answered. "If I had any money I would help my family in Italy before I would help you." This is where many are. They will give mainly to their families even if there is no need over needy people. (Who was his neighbor?) Is this what the faith teaches?

If we look closely enough we should see that Francis is talking to the clergy and ao called practiicing Catholics. We have to re-examine our priorities and get back to the mission of Jesus. 

"Too many parishes talk charity but their aid goes mainly to the upkeep of the Church and the school".

I agree, I have been part of a couple of middle class parishes at different times where that has been my experience.  Those parishes saw themselves as struggling and I  imagine they were, but if middle class parishes are that unstable and can't do much to help the poor as a parish comunity, I think there is something wrong with the parish system and maybe we really should see more consolidations.

Whether its a parish church or a cathedral, why are we putting all of our money into buildings to the neglect of people?  God would hear us just as well if we worship together in a simple meeting place rather than a costly church, even  if that church was built to his glory and honor. I'm thinkng He would understand.


A few years ago there was an analysis of giving int he US. As I recall, the poor generally gave a higher percentage of their wealth. But what was even more revealing was that the rich give generally more to causes that support their type of people than the poor. They generally gave to symphonies, prestigious universities, etc. This may have changed recently with some of the rich in the US who have decided to make a difference for the poor. But whose agenda is being served by their donations.

Now, I am generalizing but I have visited Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

I was under the impression that Americans were particularly charitable compared to other nationals, but had a couple of interesting experiences in the last few years. I lived in a wealthy town.

Once I went to the local charity to donate some old clothes and toys. I gave them my bag, they took a receipt out and said: "How much should we write?" - I replied: "Oh, nothing, I don't need those any more." -"But it's for tax deductions. How much would you say it's worth?" -"Oh, let's say, $30 for example." -"Really?... well, it's up to you." I realized then that one can actually make a profit by donating old stuff and declaring that they are valuable enough to get a significant tax rebate.

Another time, I was moving and was looking to get rid of my piano. The first coupe of places I called told me that they already had what they needed. The third one - a retirement community - answered: "Oh, we'd love to have a piano, but we can't because, you see, you're not recognizes as a charity." To which I answered: "It doesn't matter. I have a piano that I no longer need, you need a piano that you don't have: why don't you take my piano." -"But then you won't be able to claim a tax deduction." -"It doesn't matter." -"Really??? Well, in that case, yes, of course we'll take it. It's very generous of you!" And the piano was given away. I learned then that the rich do not give *unless* they get something out of it, in the form of tax deductions.

I suspect that  some unknown number of rich people end up making a profit from "donations" that are well compensated by tax deductions.


Hi, Clare, people can declare what they want for their donations, but the IRS requires a good faith effort to give its value.  I use my tax prep software or the going rates online or at Goodwill to make an estimate.  If people take a tax deduction, then people can donate more.

Soon after the Council there was a monthly (I think) Catholic magazine that occasionally printed cartoons illustrating various post-conciliar or general Catholic aspects of life. (I remember one printed when there was talk about popular election of bishops.  It showed a priest at the altar, facing the people, and behind him on the wall a large banner that read: "Vote for Fr. Fred!")  

Another was of a stained-glass window donated to the church by a very wealthy donor.  It showed a camel leaping gaily and easily through the eye of a needle.

In a January 6 New Yorker cartoon, a businessman muses, "We need either bigger needles or smaller camels."

"Another was of a stained-glass window donated to the church by a very wealthy donor.  It showed a camel leaping gaily and easily through the eye of a needle."

Whether that statement depicts fact or fiction does not matter, it is hilarious.  I'm reminded of Flip Wilson's Rev LeRoy.  When asked why he appeared to be personally well off while preaching the joys of the simple life the Rev. responded with something like "Well, clearly you've never had any of this stuff!"

Fine post, and some great comments.

Matthew - since we're generalizing and supposing, here is my supposition: I suppose that Langone and confreres believe there is this difference between the economic systems of the US and Argentina: that Argentina's is riven with injustice and corruption, for which the rich and powerful of that country are morally culpable; but that the US's is fundamentally just and fair.  I'm sure Langone would say, if anyone asked him (hey, journalists, have any of you asked him?) that his fortune was amassed by playing by the rules, and the rules are fundamentally fair; and that Langone didn't do anything corrupt to make his money.

Please note that I'm not claiming that Langone is right about this.  Beyond the possibility that Langone is cynically lying about these things, It's also quite possible that there are all sorts of systemic and structural injustices and corruptions that allow him to rise to the top, to which he and his ilk are blind.   I'm describing what I would take his point of view to be in all this.  I think it's one that many 'self-made' or self-improved success stories in the US would share.




The invaluable Conversable Economist cites a recent report on charitable giving across nations.


"I am congenitally suspicious of surveys in which people are asked about whether they have acted in charitable ways. But nonetheless, the World Giving Index 2013, which is published by the Charities Aid Foundation based on survey data collected around the world by Gallup, offers all sorts of room for rumination."


The U.S. ranks as # 1, Argentina # 78 (out of 135 countries).  There are no breakdowns by income or wealth level.


The full report here:

Jim P -- Yours is the best comment so far.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for journalists to ask him about structural injustices.

Just to embellish and expand the point -- along with many other "self-made" and "successful" people, Langone appears to think of himself as "doing well by" his workers.  (Many have remarked on the various benefits that Home Depot workers receive.)  This is the contemporary form of paternalism, in which capitalists justify their position, in part, by contending that they "provide" jobs, benefits, training, etc., for their employees that otherwise wouldn't exist.  The epitome (or the nadir) of this paternalist ideology is a show such as "Undercover Boss," where the CEO -- who apparently had no idea that his employees had it this hard, etc., ad nauseum -- deigns to mingle with the help and Get His Hands Dirty.  (Smiles, tears, and handshakes all around at the conclusion.  Cue the studio orchestra.) 

Post-industrial paternalism is so pervasive and deeply embedded that when Langone and other CEOs encounter even the most tepid criticism, they take great umbrage at what they consider impertinence and ingratitude.  Jane Addams explained it quite well when she wrote about the Pullman strike of 1894 in "A Modern Lear." These lines might be worth pondering:

The president of the Pullman company doubtless began to build his town from an honest desire to give his employes the best surroundings. As it developed it became a source of pride and an exponent of power, that he cared most for when it gave him a glow of benevolence. Gradually, what the outside world thought of it became of importance to him and he ceased to measure its usefulness by the standard of the men's needs. The theater was complete in equipment and beautiful in design, but too costly for a troupe who depended upon the patronage of mechanics, as the church was too expensive to be rented continuously. We can imagine the founder of the town slowly darkening his glints of memory and forgetting the common stock of experience which he held with his men. He cultivated the great and noble impulses of the benefactor, until the power of attaining a simple human relationship with his employes, that of frank equality with them, was gone from him. He, too, lost the faculty of affectionate interpretation, and demanded a sign. He and his employes had no mutual interest in a common cause.

Was not the grotesque situation of the royal father and the philanthropic employer to perform so many good deeds that they lost the power of recognizing good in beneficiaries? Were not both so absorbed in carrying out a personal plan of improvement that they failed to catch the great moral lesson which their times offered them?


Surely there must be some kind of third way between capitalism and state control or socialism. And shouldn't the Church contribute to a kind of via media.

Langone and the neo-cons are right about one thing. There really is an entrepeneurial spirit that can and does elevate the community in terms of prosperity. I know of one aboriginal man who had a forestry business. Eventually, he ran and became chief of his community and wanted to bring some of that entrepeneuiral spirit to the community. Yet. aboriginal people have been so systematically opressed, not by capitalists, but by a racist, colonially inspired government that has them so dependent that they cannot even yet break the yoke of the Indian Act. It was really hard to transfer that business acumen to a community accustomed to unhealthy dependency on a federal government that really does not care for their interests in the first place.

And when you compare the aboriginal people from say northern communities with the aboriginal people of say BC, the difference is like third world and New York City, all shiny and bustling.

I have seen forestry jobs and paper mills close and the impact of the community is nothing short of devestating. Desponent, hopleless, and broken. Yet, some people have drive to create and build businesses, and while I am not in the business world I admire the grit and determination it takes to get there. And I can appreciate the challenges they face with government regulation, delays in even small things like building permits, zoning changes, and they myriad of other things that they require to prosper.

I listen to the exchanges and it just seems rather cartoonish to frame people like Langone and what he represents as being necessarily oppressive. I am sure that the system is not as pure as he claims nor is it as corrupt as others suggest.

In fact, we have one of his franchises here and while it is an American company, it is pretty popular. I just hope they purchase Canadian lumber. And it would be good if somehow there was an arrangement where the plywood would have to be purchased locally, where possible. It would support local industry and plywood mills that have been shut down. But I don't think that happens and I am not sure where they get their lumber from but these are important questions that we should be asking.

I'm not sure what McCarraher thinks is a viable alternative to the system we have. I take it he objects to the Walton family having such wealth from Walmart. OK, I could imagine a wealth tax or something like that.

But in attacking the very notion of capitalism and "owning the means of production," whatever that means, what is McCarraher suggesting? When Sam Walton took a huge risk by starting his very first store in Arkansas in 1962, does McCarraher think he should have been blocked from owning even that one small store and having even one employee (who might be, gasp, paid some wages)? 

George - I couldn't agree more with your buy-local instincts.  If we could figure out a way to motivate consumers on a massive scale to buy locally, large multi-national retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart would respond by stocking those items.  

FWIW, one of my own quixotic little personal things is to buy local, and to support local small businesses for things like dining out and purchasing hardware supplies.  Our local family-owned hardware store isn't quite as cheap as Home Depot, but it's not so darned big that I have to wander through it for 15 or 20 minutes looking for the one item I need, and for little necessary things like making keys it's far better.

Surely there must be some kind of third way between capitalism and state control or socialism. And shouldn't the Church contribute to a kind of via media.

George I agree.  What I think is best would not please the purity inspectors from either side of the ideology spectrum: free-market enterprise that is prudently regulated and taxed.

I don't think the church authorities like the pope or a bishop's conference would (or, arguably, should) propose a specific alternative.  It's their place to critique the excesses and abuses that are in place, as the church has done both to capitalism and communism during our lifetimes.  At the same time, perhaps it is up to the church - meaning the people of God as a whole - to figure out how to evolve something better  than what we have now.  

Also, it certainly is the part of the church to help form the Ken Langones of the world to be individually virtuous when they go out into the marketplace.  Just because the marketplace and the culture countenances rapacious exploitation doesn't mean that each of us must engage in deplorable behavior.



Another incident I was involved with in the US: a conversation with the pastor when he said that they "paid particular attention" to generous donors and "listened" to them. As, by exception, I happened to be a generous donor on that particular day, I could not very well complain, but I was unpleasantly surprised. A Franciscan priest, to boot!

Money buys "attention", i.e. power and influence, even in the church.

I once read that 1 to 2% of charitable donations in the US are anonymous. For the rest, the generous donors already have their reward in the influence they gain from their donations.

In a way it's not that different from other ways to use money. The super-rich cannot use their money just on themselves, so once they're done acquiring mansions, race horses, and other sailboats, they use the rest for power and influence on society. Charitable donations is one venue to gain influence, like any other. Whats the difference, really? Why is it morally good to give money to a hospital whose attitude you like and not morally good to provide seed monay to a start-up whose ideas you think may be promising? What's so special about charitable giving?

Why is it morally good to give money to a hospital whose attitude you like and not morally good to provide seed monay to a start-up whose ideas you think may be promising? What's so special about charitable giving?

It's more of a gift, in a way, to give the money to the hospital, as control of the money is relinquished when the gift is made.  As you note, the free-gift aspect can be attenuated in several ways (at least): the donor does get a tax deduction that somewhat offsets the amount given; and the donor may 'leverage' the donation to exert influence over the hospital's operation (e.g. it may earn her a nomination to join the board of directors) and so the gift may become more of a trade; and if a wing of the hospital is named for the donor, or a shiny plaque is put up in the lobby to commemorate his gift, then he earns fame and public goodwill.  Despite all these possibilities, it is still, on the whole, a gift.  I'd think that most donors don't do it from a primary motivation of profiting in some way.

Seed money to a startup is usually an investment.  It may fail (most startups do within a few years) but if it succeeds, the investor is expected to profit.

I'm suggesting that gifts are less self-interested than investments.  I suppose that it's possible to make a gift to a cause that isn't universally regarded as virtuous (e.g. folks who support same sex marriage may not approve of a gift to the Family Research Council).  But it seems difficult to criticize a gift to a hospital on moral grounds.


@ Wasting Time

Have you heard of Sam Walton's granddaughter, the academic fraud?

The founding fathers wrote into the Constitution a ban on inherited titles.  They should have outlawed inherited fortunes as well, because I think they'd be shocked at fortunes so large that trust-fund babies could pay someone else to earn college degrees for them instead of attending college themselves.  

Where's all that braying about "the dignity of work"?  You know, the pieties we heard when Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and so many Tea Partiers announced that the poor need to work for their food stamps--and no age limit; ten-year-olds should be required to sweep floors before they can eat.  

Yes, Sam Walton took a risk when he opened his first store.  But he worked for his success.  I think he'd be appalled at his granddaughter and his other descendants who pour more and more money into trust funds instead of paying Walmart employees enough so they don't need food stamps and Medicaid.



I just mentioned this in a comment on my own post, but it's relevant here too -- I liked Michael Hiltzik's take on all this for the L.A. Times today. He reminds readers that this isn't the first time Langone has expressed his bafflement, and hurt feelings, at not being universally admired (and deferred to) on account of his wealth. He concludes:

Cardinal Dolan told CNBC that he'll strive to mollify his reluctant donor by assuring him that the pope didn't mean to be nasty. "The pope loves poor people, he also loves rich people--he loves people, all right?" If these honeyed words get that donor and others to unbelt for St. Patrick's, fine. But do they really need honeyed words so much? After all, they already have almost all the money.

Alas, more bitterness and envy.   It permeates their being.

Btw, while we're thinking about responsible consumer behavior and worker exploitation: during the holiday shopping season, my wife mentioned to me that a retailer of women's fashions, H&M, whose stores seem to pop up in shopping malls in my area, has made a commitment to pay workers a living wage.  Here is a Wall Street Journal article that gives details: apparently it isn't the H&M retail workers themselves, but the garment workers in Asia who make the clothing that is sold in the stores.  There are a number of details in this article that are ripe for consideration from a Catholic social justice point of view.

Here's my point of view: while this commitment falls short of perfection, it seems a noteworthy step in the right direction.  I'm going to tell my daughters that I will support / subsidize their shopping at H&M.  



In a thread on "Exceptionalism", I am surprised no one has referred to Jesus' parable about the two men who went up to the temple to pray (Luke18:10-14).


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