All our wealth: Share or snare?

On the day before the election, this letter to the editor was published in my local newspaper under the headline “Share the wealth:”

“All this talk of redistribution of the wealth reminds me of the story of Huey Long running for governor of Louisiana years ago. A man shining shoes in the barbershop was asked whom he was going to vote for.

“‘Mr. Huey P. Long’ was his reply. When asked why, he said, ‘Cause Mr. Huey is going to take money from the rich and give it to all the poor folks.’

“When told that by the following Monday, the rich would probably have it all back, he replied, ‘Yes sir, but Mr. Huey is going to do that every Saturday night!'”

I’m skeptical about the authenticity of this anecdote; it sounds more like an urban legend than a real event. And its smug racism should probably make us a little uneasy, as well.

But a story like this achieves traction among some middle-class readers because of their tendency to identify with the “rich,” who in this tale aren’t necessarily characterized by their wealth as much as by their diligence, productivity, and financial prudence.

These qualities are distinguished from those of the bootblack, who lives in shiftless expectation of government-mandated handouts at the expense of the industrious. In the story, nobody is surprised when the money flows back to the “rich” as reliably as water flows downhill.

This is the carefully cultivated terrain in which president-elect Barack Obama’s notion of “spreading the wealth around” is challenged to take root. Even though a wide income disparity is an unhealthy economic indicator in any society, we’ve tolerated an increasing income gap while encouraging the illusion that everyone can achieve the greatest good in our society — to become rich — by hard work, parsimony, and entrepreneurship.

In fact, even the impatient and lazy are encouraged to believe that they have a shot at the new American dream, either by winning a game show like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” or by playing one of our 41 state lotteries.

But the frequent companion of this pervasive aspiration toward wealth is the nagging concern that some of our money will be taken away and given to the less deserving, a concern that often sets in long before any real wealth is achieved — Joe the Plumber is a good example.

So are my students, many of who maintain only a fragile grasp on middle-class status and some of who struggle heroically semester-by-semester to pay my institution’s discounted tuition while maintaining their modest room and board. Even though welfare accounts for only a tiny fraction of the federal budget, their resentment of freeloaders who might be gaming the system never lies far beneath the surface.

None of these attitudes cultivates the idea that a society can be more than a collection of individuals who are competing for the greatest wealth. A society can also be rich or poor as a whole, and its economic health depends on its attitude toward the wealth that it holds in common, that is, its natural resources and the labor and ingenuity of ordinary people. Without these –plus the willingness of ordinary people to fight the stabilizing wars that defend us and make economic growth possible –no one in our culture could be rich.

The racist and classist attitude in the aforementioned joke probably doesn’t have much connection to reality, but, taken seriously, it overstates the size of the indolent segment of our society, and undermines attempts to allocate our great natural wealth in ways that enhance everyone’s wellbeing: better schools, better healthcare, better transportation, safer communities, and so on.

In fact, we’re quick to call these efforts “socialistic,” without considering whether that’s automatically a bad thing.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)