American Exceptionalism, Luxury Division
Matthew Boudway January 2, 2014 - 6:16pm
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 Argetinean 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.