What is “obscene” wealth?

According to a friend at a Christmas party, “obscene” wealth is the kind that’s unneeded. His example was a 100-foot yacht. “Nobody needs a 100-foot yacht,” he intoned.

I agreed that nobody needs a 100-foot yacht. But nobody needs a glass of expensive chardonnay either. I kindly offered to relieve him of the one he was holding.

The only things that are truly needed by humans are food, shelter, simple clothing and occasional medical treatment. Everything beyond that is unneeded and, therefore, under my friend’s definition, obscene.

So “obscene” wealth must mean something other than the unneeded kind. But what?

For guidance in defining obscenity, let’s look at sex – the field where obscenity really made its name. (Rock and roll and drugs will be covered in a separate column.) Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a pornography case back in 1964, when porn was less ubiquitous, that he couldn’t define pornography but “I know it when I see it.”

In that particular case, Stewart judged the material at issue not pornographic. Stewart’s opinion was a mere concurrence. The opinion for the court with which he concurred held that material is pornographic only if “to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.”

In my opinion, Stewart’s test is more catchy and no less vague than the Court’s opinion with which he concurred. The bottom line is that “obscenity” in sexual depictions is incapable of objective definition.

It’s the same for obscenity in wealth. All that can be said is that a given person knows it when he sees it – or thinks he does.

So why do some people see obscenity in a 100-foot yacht while some don’t see it until the yacht grows to 300-feet? Why do some see it in a Mercedes Benz while others don’t see it until the Mercedes is traded in for a Bentley?

The only principled answer lies in an unprincipled human trait: Envy. A display of wealth is obscene in the eye of the beholder when the wallet of the beholder lacks the green to make the same display.

We see this same envy in people’s views of the tax laws. Most people think “rich” people should pay more in taxes. When you press them to quantify the subjective term “rich” their definition correlates to their own wealth, plus a little more. In other words, a “rich” person who should have his taxes raised because he’s not currently paying his “fair share” is basically someone who makes more than the person speaking.

But the top 1% in America already pay 40% of federal taxes and the top 10% pay 90%, while the bottom 50% pay only 3%. To get statistical about it, the top 1% are paying 40-times their proportionate share while the bottom 50% are paying about one sixteenth their proportionate share. As proportionate shares go, the top 1% pay about 700-times more than the bottom 50%.

Given that, the notion that the rich don’t pay their fair share cannot be defended on any basis other than pure unadulterated envy.

Another aspect of this envy is in the lament that “wealth inequality” is rising. That means that the difference between the rich people and the not rich (in America, it’s hard to say anyone is “poor”) is growing.

To which I say, so what? Why does it bug people who are growing richer that others are growing richer faster? The answer can only be that their increasing enjoyment of their increasing wealth is more than offset by their envy that someone else is getting even more such enjoyment faster. That’s the ugly destination to which sinful envy takes a person.

OK, I’ll offer a different definition of obscene wealth, one that is not founded on envy.

Obscene wealth is the kind that is both unearned and unneeded. (I’ll stipulate that wealth needed for food, shelter, clothes and medical treatment is not obscene even if it hasn’t been earned.)

For example, Elon Musk is worth about a quarter trillion dollars. But he earned it. And this year he’ll pay some $11 billion in taxes. To me, his earned wealth is not obscene. It’s the $11 billion he’s being taxed that’s obscene. On what metric can it be said that Musk consumed $11 billion in government services this year? And if $11 billion is still less than his fair share, then what, pray tell, is his fair share?

Unearned wealth is another matter. The fortunes of the Kennedy family all spring from the money made by the family patriarch during and after Prohibition. Forget the unproven rumor that the money was made in bootlegging, and forget that he was a Nazi sympathizer. The obscenity lies in the fact that his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have spent themselves silly with money they had no hand in making.

It’s almost enough to make me want to raise estate taxes. Almost, but not quite. Because as obscene as it is to see people spend unearned wealth like drunken sailors, it’s even more obscene to see politicians do the same in purchasing votes to propagate their power.  

44 thoughts on “What is “obscene” wealth?

  1. You forgot to mention that US taxpayers funded Elon Musk’s endeavors (Musk defends receiving $4.9 billion in government support for Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX) so did he really earn his money since he hasn’t paid us back? Or is he getting rich off of taxpayers’ backs? He did have money from the sale of his first company but nowhere near what he has now thanks to the Obama administration.

    If you build a business, pay your taxes and then pass your wealth onto their children should those assets be taxed again just because the beneficiaries didn’t ‘earn’ it?

    Normally, I’m nodding my head when I read your column but not today.

    • If Musk received $4.9 billion in government support, but this year alone is paying $11 Billion in taxes, I’d say he’s more than paying back that support. Not to mention all of the jobs he has created. He’s more than earned his money.

      • Agree, Musk has advanced space and rocket technologies, as examples, while creating thousands of jobs and is be pilloried by the leftist pygmies who build nothing?

    • Ok, let’s be fair. Obama gave $400 million to a single solar energy company that quickly filed for bankruptcy. I don’t recall seeing any of that money being returned to the U.S. Treasury

  2. The former Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has stated on FB he desires a 10% flat income tax. Perhaps he should run the numbers.

    • That 10% is often based on what, In the bible, is called a tithe. This tithe was paid on your increase or profit. (Now I have upset the people who claim Jesus is a socialist.) The Old Testament describes this tithe, but there is also a second tithe that you save up and use during the festivals, especially the eight-day festival of Succoth. Since Israels government was a theocracy that is like saving for political events and causes. So now we are up to 20%! But wait, the ecocnomy was based on a seven-year cycle and after the 7th cycle is the Jubilee year. The 3rd year (“the year of tithing”) there is another tithe that is set aside locally for the poor, widows, and orphans. 10% is not enough to cover everything.

  3. How about defining obscene wealth by the uses to which it is put?

    For example, $314 million Zuckerbucks used to help Democrats win an election that they should not have won (if, in fact, they really won it)? On the other hand, Zuckerbucks used to buy up real estate on Kauai doesn’t seem so bad, since they are helping to preserve the land from even more obscene development.

    And then there are George Soros bucks, and perhaps Bill Gates bucks, that are being used to bury America beneath the globalist avalanche. Should anyone have enough money to make the world over in their image?

  4. I lived in suburban Illinois for two years in high school. Completely different experience than in California, where people didn’t seem to care. My uncle said people in Illinois can be weird because they spend so much time inside during the year breathing recirculated air. I don’t know, but an interesting thought.

    I remember kids that I got along with OK that would suddenly turn on me when my dad pulled up in a Cadillac. “You think you’re so hot because your dad has a Cadillac” I would hear. Heaven forbid they new that my mom had one too. Or, that we lived in the more prestigious neighborhood with one of the most gorgeous homes.

    I got into fights over it! For heavens sake, I thought, was is wrong with people? I could care less if another kid showed up in his Ferrari. I would be excited to see the Ferrari, not mad at the kid! It imprinted on my that there are levels of sociopathy out there that we don’t even know about.

    Never mind that my dad bought both Cadillacs fresh of 2 year leases and got awesome deals. Never mind that my dad bought the fancy house in the nice neighborhood at a crazy discount because it was the last in the tract because they could not sell it….the yard was graded wrong so it collected water, it had no lawn and the driveway was cracked. So he bought it.

    He had the rear yard re-graded, and the entire family sodded it by hand. Then we fixed the driveway. Then my dad installed a sprinkler system–by himself. Then he redid the driveway–by himself. Then I built a deck with him. We turned it into a dream home by hard work and determination. The neighbors, weirdly, were stunned and would drive by and stare, and not in a friendly fashion.

    Envy and it’s evil sibling jealousy are truly awful things, and horrible to witness as a kid.

  5. Jimmy Carter tried to tax the wealthy and he destroyed entire industries and put tens of thousands of people out of work

    yacht building ‘
    sail making
    furs & Jewelry

    those are just a few

  6. Jesus road into Jerusalem for the most important mission known to humanity, riding on a donkey. Nobody was wishing they were in His place! His mission satisfied the debt owed by those who envied.

      • The eternal law of justice was the creditor. Mercy cannot rob justice. The price must be paid. Our Savior, the only sinless human being, paid the price and redeemed all mankind from the Fall which separated us from our Father in Heaven.

      • When largely American and British forces liberated France in 1944 at great expense, who was the creditor? To whom was something owed and repaid? Certainly not France, especially when considering the then-popular view that Nature favors the most aggressive, cunning, adaptable, and resourceful members of a given ecosystem. The French were losers. Certainly not Great Britain, which in any event got nothing for its pains besides its liberty. Certainly not America, so generally perceived as unduly blessed in the first place.

        Was the creditor the larger civilization, generally denoted as “Christendom”? Plenty of people felt compelled to fight for it, so in that sense they felt they owed something to it. But otherwise?

        I don’t think words like “debt” and “creditor” apply very much to warfare and its aftermath. And the appearance of the Christ is best understood as C.S. Lewis understood it — as a military act of aggression (with Christ as a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines to aid the Resistance fighters) whereby The Creator begins to take back His Creation, which had been sabotaged and usurped by The Evil One.

        So, yes, I suppose you could say that Jesus is paradoxically a form of reparation to God, “paid for” by the same kind sacrifice and loss experience by the Allied Forces at Normandy and beyond. God pays dearly in order to “repay” Himself for the wounds inflicted by His own Creation. That doesn’t make him a creditor, as I understand the term.

      • Substitutionary atonement is a pernicious theory. Its existential / emotional roots coincide with those of SJWs and their mob actions. God takes on the pains and sorrows of existence in order to prepare man’s heart for Love, not to pay any debt. How can God owe anything to Himself? Substitutionary atonement theory is malarkey, as evidenced also by their steely rhetoric. The heart of God is softer than melted butter.

      • There is / was no creditor. God does not incur or pay debts to Himself. Substitution atonement is nonsense.

  7. Whether wealth is earned or needed is irrelevant. Wealth that is given or inherited is unearned but not obscene, for example, and anything received out of need is charity. The only wealth that’s obscene is that (even a penny) which is taken from someone else wrongfully and against their will.

    • Obscene wealth would be slave ownership, profits from crime, profits from moral turpitude including profits from exploiting human weaknesses such as pimping, selling liquor to alcoholics, etc.

  8. I think it is important to remind those who find the wealth of others obscene to consider the goods and services that said wealth produces. Yachts require highly paid, skilled workers and designers to produce the “obscene” product. Great estates employ tens to hundreds of people to care and maintain it. Private aircraft provide thousand of jobs globally simply because of the “obscene” wealth of those who own them.

    Envy is a terrible thing. My dad once chastised me when I bragged about what another person had that was, in my mind, of great value. He said, “Why do you care? It isn’t yours.” That has stuck with me my entire life. It is fine to admire the success or good fortune of others. But do not lower yourself to envy and hatred. It makes for a miserable life.

  9. @CB

    You need to be more specific where Musk “received gov’t support”?

    This is one of the biggest lies perpetrated by communist/socialist envy crowd.

    The tax credit is received by buyers of Tesla vehicles, i.e. the buyer PAYMENT to government is reduced. Tesla benefits only by increased demand for their vehicles.

    Carbon credits market is the government invention (Al Gore) and thousands of companies are taking advantage of that market. Musk would be stupid not to participate.

    Musk never received ANY gov’t subsidy, unlike Big Oil or Big3!

  10. Wealth gotten by means of voluntary exchanges between uncoerced individuals can not be deemed “obscene,” regardless of the amounts involved. Wealth that is taken involuntarily by one person from another against that person’s free will is always “obscene,” regardless of the amount. That is why, in an ideal society, we criminalize theft, but do not criminalize profit. At least, that is how things used to work. As the commenter above posited, it is the use to which wealth is put that can be deemed “obscene,” if it harms another individual or society at large. In that respect, money is no different than firearms, or drugs, or any tangible thing. Even poison has its legitimate uses, although using it to dispose of another human being is not usually among them. Taxation is another area where the transaction can easily become “obscene.” The theory is that we citizens agree to forfeit an amount of our wealth to the betterment of society. However, once the agreement no longer exists, then it is only the coercive power of government that compels the disgorgement of wealth, at which point it becomes “obscene.” Again, from a purely theoretical viewpoint, a society in which the citizens vote for their government is one in which they can, if the taxation becomes onerous, remove that government and replace it with another one. As we now see, this has become rather more difficult, since government got involved in the redistribution of wealth. As has been pointed out many times, once a majority of citizens decides to vote themselves rich by electing a government that takes from a certain segment of society and gives that wealth to another segment thereof, things rapidly deteriorate and it becomes a matter of two wolves and one sheep voting on what to eat for supper. This has become all the more evident in our contemporary politics, in which the issue is no longer whether to take from the productive citizens, but only a matter of how much to take. I recall a quip attributed to Churchill along those lines, regarding whether a certain lady would sleep with him for five pounds or five million. He concluded that she had defined herself and it was thus only a matter of the price. Government today is clearly oppressive, bordering on tyrannical, and there seems to be little interest among those in power to scale it back. Its only interest is to continue to amass wealth via taxation and borrowing, and pay it to those whose votes the politicians seek. We are doomed.

  11. According to the Bible, it is harder for a rich person to get to heaven than it would be for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. So what the rich person does with his money determines where he will end up in eternity. So it would behoove him to be seriously involved in the welfare of the poor and infirm. Of course that would require him to believe in God and heaven…

    • Ay, there’s the rub. For Bill and Melinda Gates, “the welfare of the poor and infirm” is well served by sterilizing them, just as for Democrats in general it is well served by aborting their children. It appears that there’s a lot of obscene “religion” in the world. Moloch must be fed.

  12. If you look at what people spend money on at the top and bottom, it becomes difficult to make an argument for redistribution. Yes some of the wealthy use their money to buy excessively priced real estate (i.e. multiple mansions and penthouse apartments), transportation (i.e. private jets, yachts, luxury cars), and fancy clothing, jewelry, art, etc., but the vast majority of their money goes to taxes and investments (entrepreneurial startups, stocks, bonds, real estate) that create jobs and fund government services. In contrast, the poor tend to be the biggest buyers and consumers of cigarettes, booze, illegal drugs, junk food (the poor are the most obese), tattoos, designer sneakers, lottery tickets, and if governments and charities give them more money they will tend to buy even more junk. In fact, food stamps and public housing were designed to keep poor people from blowing their welfare checks on vice and consequently not having enough left to buy food and pay rent. Society does not have an equity problem with its “poor” are fat, high on drugs, and covered in tattoos and fashion label clothing, but instead such “poor” signal that society is subsidizing the lifestyles of stupid deadbeats, and when you subsidize things you get more of it.

  13. Obscene wealth … at least by my definition, is whenever new members of Congress or the US Senate enter with modest net worths, then retire, sometimes only 6, 8 or 10 years later as multimillionaires or more.

    “Dingy Harry,” aka the ex-senator Harry Reid of Nevada, in particular comes to mind although there are lots of other Congresscritters who trade on insider info and are offered other get rich quick kickbacks, bribes and schemes that are unavailable and illegal to the public.

    There needs to be an ETF indexed to mirror all of the investments of every member of Congress so average Americans can invest and become as rich as their Congressmen and Senators.

    This ETF could be called the Capitol 535 Index Fund …




  14. Obscene wealth … at least by my definition, is whenever new members of Congress or the US Senate enter with modest net worths, then retire, sometimes only 6, 8 or 10 years later as multimillionaires or more.

    “Dingy Harry,” aka the ex-senator Harry Reid of Nevada, in particular comes to mind although there are lots of other Congresscritters who trade on insider info and are offered other get rich quick kickbacks, bribes and schemes that are unavailable and illegal to the public.

    There needs to be an ETF indexed to mirror all of the investments of every member of Congress so average Americans can invest and become as rich as their Congressmen and Senators.

    This ETF could be called the Capitol 535 Index Fund …




  15. the issue isn’t that some wealth is obscene. the issue that’s obscene is how the rules don’t apply to thaoe with wealth.
    the super wealthy don’t need to take off shoes and belts for tsa at airports. they get whisked around in secret passages. jails have special celebrity cells complete.with phones, etc. our system isn’t blind. it caters to the rich at the expense of everyone else. the fbi investigating the theft of a diary. its abuse of power.
    it’s not ok when our govt And our laws create tiered systems of what’s ok, what’s prosecuted, and how some laws just don’t matter if you rich or only matter if you are rich.

    that’s what is obscene.

  16. “But the top 1% in America already pay 40% of federal taxes and the top 10% pay 90%, while the bottom 50% pay only 3%. To get statistical about it, the top 1% are paying 40-times their proportionate share while the bottom 50% are paying about one sixteenth their proportionate share. As proportionate shares go, the top 1% pay about 700-times more than the bottom 50%.”

    I agree with Glenn’s general point, but what he wrote in those several sentences won’t do. Those in the “top 1%” receive 18% of U.S. income, according to the Congressional Budget office. So if they pay 40% of federal taxes, they’re paying about 2.2 times their proportionate share.

    • You’ve defined “proportionate” in relation to income. Your premise is that tax is or should be in proportion to income. In other words, it would be a “flat tax.” It would be 10% or 20%, or whatever it takes, of income.

      I’ve defined “proportionate” on a per capita basis. My working premise is that everyone could pay the same amount of tax. $10,000 or $20,000 or whatever it takes.

      After all, when you buy a dishwasher or go to the movies or pay to enter a National Park, the price is the same for everyone, right? When you ask “What’s the price” nobody says “How much you got?”

      • The capitation tax is one possibility. But I don’t think the retail-purchases analogy is a good one.

        The argument that taxes should depend at least somewhat upon income (or wealth) is that government services — specifically the enforcement of contracts and keeping civil peace — matter more to those with higher income (or wealth). Such services can be vastly more valuable — in direct financial terms — to the tycoon than to the person who has little.

    • That’s not irrational, Paul, but I’m not sure it’s persuasive. Keeping the civil peace is often as important or more so for low income people because they live in high crime areas and can’t afford personal security. As for enforcement of contracts, well, the judicial system accounts for very little of the cost of government.

      What accounts for a huge share of government are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and other entitlements. Rich people benefit from those no more than poor people do.

      It’s worth noting, too that the skew is extreme. A person making, say, a million a year will pay about $10-15 million in income taxes over 30 years. A person making $50,000 a year will pay practically zero.

  17. Since the subject of taxes has come up, I want to say something that I think is of great importance. The income tax is not the only tax there is. Sales tax, property tax, excises and other hidden taxes built into the cost of products, for example motor fuel and booze, and recurring fees are tax too.

    Maybe a lot of people want to treat these like they are just there, kind of like clouds and the squirrels in the park, but they’re not. They’re taxes too.

    The state of Washington is a medium sized state with an advanced metropolitan economy and a strong agricultural economy too. Washington has no income tax. According to numerous sources, low-income hourly workers in Washington pay about 16 percent of their income in composite state and local taxes and fees. People who don’t work at all probably pay about the same. High income individuals and couple pay about four percent of their income in composite state and local taxes and fee.

    The constantly repeated assertion that top one percent “pay 40 percent of the taxes” is absolute rot. They may pay 40 percent of the federal income tax but they do not pay 40 percent of the sum of all taxes. Outside of the income tax, the tax system in America otherwise is tendentiously regressive. In the American tax system, the income tax is no more than the great equalizer between the wealthy and the high income earners and everyone else from the middle class on down.

    Having said all of this, I don’t think that setting up confiscatory federal tax rates and then giving the wealthy the means to avoid paying these rates is much of a solution to the problem of the possible inequity of our tax system. I have long been an advocate of you-pay-you-play taxation. It’s the world the poor, the working people, even the middle and upper middle classes live in. So do high-income business owners and professionals who have to put in long hours and don’t have time to play the tax game.

    What we need to do is set reasonable tax rates but then make people actually pay. You play, you pay. If someone is so fortunate as to make $10 million a year, if their tax rate is 30 percent and they actually have to pay it, that $3 million in taxes is an astounding amount of money.

    Obviously someone who makes millions per year or even an income in the hundreds of thousands is going to pay more taxes than some who earns at or near the minimum wage or even a middle income. But that’s not the point. The point is, the percentage would be in the same ballpark. In fact, except for those people who make a life of avoiding taxes, the percentages already are in the same ballpark.

    Now I want to go on to what I think is an entertaining weasel story. Online, I got into a discussion with a guy who was a pay-by-the-mile highway use fee advocate, I made the point that the existing fuel tax system already made drivers and operators pay roughly in proportion to their ability to damage the road. Drtive a lot, pay more. Drive a heavy vehicle, pay exponentially more. Big rig trucks do pay a lot more than little cars do.

    Then he told me that he was driving a hybrid vehicle and said that he wanted to pay no more than for his actual road use. I suggested that for hybrid and electric vehicles, the road use fees could be built into the capital cost of the vehicle. He asked me what that meant, and I said, it meant built into the price of the vehicle when new. He acted like he was Rumpelstiltskin and I had just found out his name. Because I had. He was already being subsidized for driving a hybrid because it used less gasoline than a typical car of the same weight and he wanted even more.

    He was really just an aspiring petty tax cheat who hoped to scheme his way to some miniscule saving no matter what the effect on other people or on the economy was.

    This is how the creepy world of unfair taxation works. Step one is admitting that all taxes really are taxes.

    • Your point about state and local taxes is valid. They tend to be less “progressive” (brilliant word, that) than the federal income tax.

      But lets cut to the chase in this. Why are federal taxes set as a percentage at all, not to mention a progressive percentage? Why does a guy making a million a year have to pay $100,000 in taxes under a flat tax of 10% while a guy making $100,000 a year pays only $10,000?

      The only true answer is that we have some socialism built into the tax system. We make richer people pay more than poorer people for the simple reason that they can do so more easily.

      Maybe that’s the right solution, but, notably, we don’t impose that solution on other expenditures in the economy. When you buy a movie ticket or entrance to a National Park and ask “How much is it?” nobody answers “How much you got?”

  18. I am going with Chad on this one: obscene or good hinges on what one does with what one has.

    Luther said that a good life is one Ob Sie Christum Triben (which tends towards Christ, in the sense of Christ-ifying, or what Teilhard calls Christogenesis), implying that anything less than that is obscene.

  19. Lots of wonderful comments here! It’s a terrific conversation, revealing the profoundly moral significance of the topic.

    At the root of the matter lies the etymological root of the morpheme “-scene,” thought to be the Latin word for “filth,” whereby the complete word “obscene” means something like “in front of filth.” How revealing it is that we refer to people with “filthy lucre” as “filthy rich.” Has history recorded a wealthy person who, no matter how civically high-minded and philanthropic, has not, like the dog in Proverbs, “returned to its vomit”? Nelson Rockefeller was found dead in a hotel bed with a prostitute. Howard Hughes dissolved in a vortex of drugs and ice cream in solitude (from the Latin “solus,” alone).

    Exceptions such as Chuck Feeney can be found, but by and large the Jesus “eye of the needle” maxim holds up. Wealth is inimical to a “clean heart.” It says to its pursuers, “Ye shall be as gods.”
    We know how that works out.

    • You know of the handful of the rich who did evil because they are well publicized by envious journalists. You don’t hear about the virtuous rich who put people to work, make good products that improve people’s lives, and live quiet lives doing good for their community.

      The Eye of the Needle referred to a gate in Jerusalem that required returning caravans to dismount their camels to enter. It was not impossible to enter as if you assume Jesus was referring to a human passing through the eye of a sewing needle. What this means is that a wealthy person has more opportunities to do evil than a poor person. Look at poor people who win the lottery and die of a drug overdose because they can buy all the dope they want. Poverty kept them from killing themselves because they could not indulge their addiction enough to make it happen.

      • Your points are well taken. Indeed, I was rather hoping for a response like yours. In my mind, Donald Trump is a conspicuous example of “the virtuous rich,” despite the left’s emphasis on the seamier side of some of his past conduct.

  20. People who earn their wealth do so by creating goods and services that other people buy. Obscene wealth is stolen, like bribes to politicians. Harry Reid entered Congress poor but retired a multi-millionaire. That’s obscene wealth.

    Joe Kennedy gained his wealth manipulating the stock market and in Hollywood making movies.

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