US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Can the super wealthy also be super virtuous?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Members of the "99 percent" often like to paint the 1 percenters--America's super-rich who control the majority of the nation's wealth--as greedy, self-interested, and devoid of moral virtue. But how do those on the other side of the wealth gap see themselves?

Journalist Chrystia Freeland gives us a glimpse in her new book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. In an interview on National Public Radio this morning, Freeland had some interesting insight into who makes up the richest of the rich.

In some ways, they fit the stereotypes: They believe they've worked hard, they deserve their wealth, and if you didn't make it to the same level that's no one's fault but your own. They decry the overpaid American workers (tell that one to the Walmart employee making $8.90 an hour and struggling to buy his own lunch) and think Americans need to be more productive if they want to get ahead.

But what may take some by surprise is Freeland's assertion that the super rich see themselves as full of virtue. Here's how she explains the differing philosophies of the wealthy and President Barack Obama:

"In America," she says, "we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account."

But the president, Freeland adds, has been moving away from that equation, stating publicly that what's good for the people at the top may not be good for those in the middle. And that feels threatening to the 1 percent, she says. "People don't just want to be rich and successful, they want to be good. And I think it's really threatening to feel like, 'Wow, you mean I'm not as full of virtue and goodness as I thought I was?' "

Jesus, of course, was very clear on what it will take for the rich to be worthy of entering the kingdom of God. And I don't recall a scripture passage where he says, "Give to the poor, but make sure they're working very hard and earning it first."

Many have also argued that Jesus never says the rich should pay higher taxes so that the government can redistribute their wealth to the poor. How we should help the poor has thus become not a question of faith, but a political hot button issue that has people on both sides pointing to the Bible and the words of Jesus as a justification for their side of the argument.

So then, if the super wealthy want to be "full of virtue and goodness," as Freeland reports, how can they do it? For some (like billionaire Charles Feeney), it might mean giving away as much of their fortune as possible to help close that growing gap between the have-way-too-muchs and the have-hardly-anythings.

For others, it might mean sinking big bucks into political campaigns and advocating for leaders and policies that will make it easier for hard working Americans at the bottom to break through and, even if they don't become 1 percenters, to at least make a decent living and put food on the family's table. And to the rest, it might mean fighting to keep things as they are, refusing to believe that the system in which they acquired (and keep) such vast wealth could possibly be keeping so many others in, or very close to, severe poverty.

Which approach would Jesus prefer? If only we could ask him, maybe we could quit arguing about whose side he's on and get to work on fixing the real problem.

A taxing problem: How can the nation help the poor?