What is it about people who see value only in money that they don't get there is a wide range of more important, and more giving, values. The desire to worship wealth seems to arise out of a lack of generosity. This is paradoxical because the virtues, like patience, grace, love, wisdom and curiosity, inspire generosity. Does one have to be generous first to learn virtues or do the virtues precede our benevolent actions?
This is a central question, as President Donald Trump more than once mentioned restoring America's wealth in his inaugural address. It was odd to hear Trump talk about national "carnage" when the stock market is at new heights, unemployment is low and incomes are beginning to rise. Perhaps what Trump feels is the more precarious position of the über-wealthy, who hurt a little under Obama's plans for the middle class and poor. I guess these people didn't realize that, as Robert Reich points out in his documentary Inequality for All, when American citizens of all stripes do well, the economy does better over all.
Trump could have spent time talking about the very real challenges African-Americans and Latinos face in accumulating wealth. Their family wealth averages less than $15,000 a year. Trump could have talked about encouraging wage growth, which middle class and working poor families rely on much more than investments. Yet his word choice, "wealth," was a shibboleth that surely caught the attention of the nation's wealthy class. Despite all his boilerplate about manufacturing towns suffering due to globalization and the information age, Trump was announcing that this term is for the wealthy.
It Trump's administration's central policies go through, there will in fact be a large transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, who don't need the help. Not keeping (or expanding) the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature achievement, would enrich the wealthiest 400 households in America. Efforts to deregulate the markets would cost people in the eventual financial crisis that such a move would create. Going all in for oil and gas interests while not immediately stopping climate change would cost poor people the most.
The author of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith also wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, he writes, "A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them would be apt to imagine that pain must be more agonizing and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank than to those of meaner stations."
Why do we worship the rich like idols? I think it's because the worlds they rule make it hard for everyday people to speak up without fear of losing the favor--or the jobs--the rich control. Make no mistake: I'm not against money or letting people get reasonable compensation. I believe in floors (for income, basic security and the general welfare) more than I believe in ceilings. Yet for the person at the top to not understand the potential, both economic and personal, of every single American is a grave mistake. When we valorize wealth instead of valorizing contribution, ingenuity, hard work and gumption, we put the cart before the horse. We don't recognize that it is value-based work that provides us with all we need. We lose track of our values and can offer none in return.