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.