The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Friday, July 20, 2012

The rich are different from you and me, and also from each other, and we are also different from each other
Tom Smith

Paul Krugman really has a thing about the very rich. Or probably one should say the very, very rich as he is himself by any normal measure very rich, if he has managed his money in any reasonably prudent way. There was his Nobel Prize money (a million or so), his Enron consulting fees (undisclosed as far as I know), numerous speaking engagements, and so on. The description I read somewhere of his crib in Princeton made it sound like a multi-million dollar affair. So, I gather he means, even richer than he is himself -- those are the people who are really bad.

Some things to get out of the way first. Anybody in academia knows that nothing irriates academics more than people who are richer than they are, which includes a lot of people. Nobody cares more about status than academics either or about free booze. There is no place more dangerous in the world than between academics and an open bar, especially if it is serving snob-grade booze (Glenlivet, wines you've heard of, etc.). Part of what is going on with Krugman is doubtless the usual, and tedious, resentment of the academic who thinks he is one of the smartest people in the world for those who are among the richest people in the world.  It seems so unfair.  We are invited to have a good boohoo over the injustice of Krugman not being even richer than he is. He deserves a crib even bigger than Thomas Friedman's, smarter than whom he is, let alone Mitt Romney. But let us turn our eyes from the unattractive spectacle of Krugman the bleating troll chagrined that he is not even richer and more influential than he is. Were he more so, it would be that much more of a problem for our theodicists.  Let's leave that to them.

Instead, let us address the question Krugman poses and provides his glib but not very insightful seeming answers to -- are the very rich so very different from you and me, and are they that bad? Krugman avers with F. Scott Fitzgerald that they really are different from you and me.  I lean toward Hemingway's alleged answer: "Yes [the rich are different]. They have more money." Papa's implication being, of course, that the difference is ultimately trivial, that the difference is evident but hardly essential.

Krugman says more or less and with no more subtlety than this, that the rich are big, whiny, entitled babies who think that their privileged position of ease, luxury and power are their birthright and resist vociferously the most reasonable efforts, such as those of our young president, to get them to pay more of money they don't need. For someone who holds himself out as being not just an economist of rare power, but an overall far-seeing observer of human affairs generally, this strikes one as a remarkably purile observation. Some large percentage of modern literature, since the nineteenth century at least, is about the inner lives, habits, trials, disappointments, follies, accomplishments and so on of the rich, and that's the best Krugman can come up with? Didn't he take any English classes in college? Just saying this sort of thing ("Rich people really suck. It's OK to take their money.") lowers the average tone of public discourse by injecting into it a particularly crude and hateful note. Whatever a columnist for the New York Times should do, he should not make his readers stupider, but that is exactly what this sort of thing does. I can well imagine that "rich people" would want to avoid the company of Krugman if his personality in person is anything like what he evinces in print, but it's hard to believe he would hazard such a generalization if he knew very many of them. He should probably get out more, but I imagine in his case that could be a challenge.

Some rich people do indeed want to be treated like VIPs because they have so much money (and frequently spend a lot of it just so they can get that treatment, which does give them a contractual claim on it, actually) and that's annoying. And yet, you too can be treated like a rich person if you are willing to pay for it. But Krugman more even than most academics wants the world to follow his policy oracles even when they fly conspicuously in the face of common sense and I gather the views of many or perhaps most economists who actually are experts in the matters he opines on. The latter is much worse, in fact, both in terms of the arrogance expressed and the danger posed to the common weal. The rich want special parking spots and the best seats in the house. Krugman wants to rule the world. I know which scares me more. And rich do actually pay for their jets and yachts. Krugman wants to rule by virtue of his dazzling genius alone.  My view is that if Krugman wants to rule a planet, he should buy one. Someone should send him a copy of SimCity.

A lot of the caterwalling of the rich lately seems to be in response to sentiments expressed by our young president to the effect that they don't need or really even deserve all of the their money and so he is going to come and get some of it. The main complaint I hear lately from the rich is that their money belongs to them because they earned it. This may not make them the secular saint Obama pretends to be or the man with all the answers Krugman pretends to be, but it's a pretty defensible position. It strengthens their position too I think that money taken from them would not be used to feed starving babies but rather handed out to public sector unions, boondoggle projects, political cronies and various others whose claim on the money of the rich is a lot weaker than those who happen to created the wealth (or their children). You don't have to M.R. Hare or the like to figure out, moreover and obviously, that it's just not relevant whether you like somebody, think they are spoiled, offend you in some way or another, or have unpleasant, entitled personalities, if the question is, is the state entitled to take their money. But that seems to be the essence of Krugman's case:  The really rich are disgusting; let's take their money. The argument in logical form is the same as Jews are disgusting; let's kill them. Or insert any social group you want to stir up hatred against for political reasons, and characteristic of political extremists and elements of the American Left and Far Right. It is politics of the very lowest kind. It's why it's called class warfare. Krugman needs some sort of remedial class in ethical thinking and public discourse. He is not a well educated man, whatever his technical skills may be and his influence of the tone of public discourse is unfortunate.

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"And rich do actually pay for their jets and yachts." Except when the shareholders pay, obviously.

Posted by: dearieme | Jul 20, 2012 2:05:33 PM

Snark alert; who paid for John Kerry's yacht? Do tell "deariene".

Posted by: A fellow who does not begrudge the odd yacht or two--but who would rather flunk a Wasserman test than read a Krugman Column | Jul 20, 2012 9:46:02 PM

Good post, on a wonderfully entertaining Krugman column. The best part:

"many of the very rich expect a level of deference that the rest of us never experience and are deeply distressed when they don’t get the special treatment they consider their birthright; their wealth “makes them soft where we are hard.” "

As you say, Krugman himself is rich by any reasonable standard. Someone whose household earns over $250,000 is in the top 1% of the population, that group that pays so much of our taxes. . That's about the lowest-income person who can afford to buy a house in Princeton New Jersey, though, so maybe he's the poorest person he knows except for students and junior faculty, who don't count as people. And of course he *is* much smarter than almost all of the media and business people he meets.

"By the way, while we don’t know what Mr. Romney is hiding in earlier returns, the fact that he is still stonewalling despite calls by Republicans as well as Democrats to come clean suggests that it could be something seriously damaging."

He has explained it in his column: the tax return would reveal Mr. Romney to be rich, or even *very* rich, which would per se expose him to attacks from people like Krugman.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Jul 24, 2012 5:08:33 PM

" who paid for John Kerry's yacht?" I don't know. Mrs Kerry? The US taxpayer? Political lobbyists?

Posted by: dearieme | Jul 26, 2012 3:52:11 PM