With a Trump presidency, it seems everyone who’s anyone is casting about for an explanation of his egregious and narcissistic behavior. This has brought up the effects wealth can have on individuals psychologically. This is not a new argument, but what is new about it is that ancient people were generally wary of wealth, but in the last few decades, we’ve begun to see the wealthy as just like you and me, but with more resources. We’ve stopped seeing wealth as a danger that leads to corruption and unhappiness and begun to see it as a reward that’s been earned, while seeing the poor and lower middle class as somehow less deserving, lazier, or morally weaker.
The Amelioration of Wealth
I just finished reading an article in the Washington Post about the effects being rich have on a person’s soul. The article points out that it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve forgotten the age-old wisdom that money is the root of all evil and wealth corrupts.
According to an apocryphal exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the only difference between the rich and the rest of us is that they have more money. But is that the only difference?
We didn’t used to think so. We used to think that having vast sums of money was bad and in particular bad for you — that it harmed your character, warping your behavior and corrupting your soul. We thought the rich were different, and different for the worse.
Today, however, we seem less confident of this. We seem to view wealth as simply good or neutral, and chalk up the failures of individual wealthy people to their own personal flaws, not their riches. Those who are rich, we seem to think, are not in any more moral danger than the rest of us. Compare how old movies preached the folk wisdom of wealth’s morally calamitous effects to how contemporary movies portray wealth: For example, the villainous Mr. Potter from “It’s A Wonderful Life” to the heroic Tony Stark (that is, Iron Man) in the Avengers films.
Tony Stark isn’t the only “virtuous billionaire” superhero. There’s also Batman who when asked what his superpower is replies cavalierly, “I’m rich.” The audience laughs, in on the joke. Our view of wealth has gone from a thing that cankers our soul to the power to do whatever we want, to do a greater good, a godlike power to control our destiny. And we see that as a positive, not a temptation that leads to ruination. Even the Bible, with its diatribes against the rich, hints at this with a caveat in Matthew 6:33:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Or as prosperity gospel fans like to say, if you live righteously then you get blessings and you’ll use those to build up God’s kingdom. Not everyone agrees that riches are swell in the “right hands,” though, any more than hot coals are swell in the “right hands.”
Some contemporary voices join this ancient chorus, perhaps none more enthusiastically than Pope Francis. He’s proclaimed that unless wealth is used for the good of society, and above all for the good of the poor, it is an instrument “of corruption and death.” And Francis lives what he teaches: Despite access to some of the sweetest real estate imaginable — the palatial papal apartments are the sort of thing that President Trump’s gold-plated extravagance is a parody of — the pope bunks in a small suite in what is effectively the Vatican’s hostel. In his official state visit to Washington, he pulled up to the White House in a Fiat so sensible that a denizen of Northwest D.C. would be almost embarrassed to drive it. When Francis entered the Jesuit order 59 years ago, he took a vow of poverty, and he’s kept it.
Mixing Business & Personal
I was also reading an interesting essay about the TV show Arrested Development, a show about a family whose wealth breeds a host of evils: laziness, ineptitude, greed, outrageous conspicuous consumption, betrayal and intrigue, adultery, relationship dysfunction, potential incest, arson, and oh yes–light treason! The article was a Marxist perspective on the show, illustrating the 4 ways capitalism alienates the workers, causing dysfunction:
- Workers are alienated from the actual goods they produce which are taken by the capitalist and sold in the market. Because workers do not choose or keep the objects they produce, their vision is not reflected by them.
- Workers are alienated from control of their own labor altogether. The capitalist determines what, how and why it is produced.
- Since capitalism alienates the workers from control of their activity, and since free and conscious control over that activity is the human essence, capitalism alienates workers from their essence. Because workers are alienated from who they really are, they are likewise incapable of seeing others for who they are.
- Workers are alienated from other people and from community.
From an article in The Spectator:
Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves.
His criticism of the way capitalism creates distance in communities sounds familiar to some of the dysfunctions when ward members embark on MLM schemes, using ward connections to create revenue streams for themselves or their families. As a business owner, I am loathe to seek customers among my fellow congregants for this very reason. Customers and companies have a very different type of relationship than do friends and extended family members. Business relationships are based on goods or services being valued and exchanged, in which both parties play a specific role with each other rather than merely being themselves; those roles contain certain expectations and pressures, hierarchies and obligations. Going to church with one’s clients changes the nature of the relationship inherently and makes friendships fraught. Like hiring relatives, it’s all good and well until it’s not. Then it’s awkward as arse. Money intrudes. Money alienates. Money makes things fake.
But what about tithing? Doesn’t tithing settlement create a similar issue by involving a reckoning or settling of accounts, an artifice to the relationships between congregants and ecclesiastical leaders? Yes and no. For those who work for the church or who have business dealings with an ecclesiastical leader or clerk, this can absolutely be problematic and create awkwardness or even abuse of power. For the average lay member with no such ties, the fact that tithing is self-reported mitigates the likelihood of abuse of power greatly, although not entirely. As business people we don’t tell our clients to pay what they think is right and that’s good with us. Well, except Radiohead and a handful of sociologists.
How Does Wealth Corrupt?
A while back, I blogged about the perils of being rich (during the Romney campaign) here. From studies cited in that post, wealthy people are more prone to certain bad behaviors than the poor are, namely:
- More likely to take candy from babies.
- Less likely to pay for pastries or bagels on the “honor system.”
- More willing to cheat to win money in a computer dice contest.
- More willing to hide important information from their opponent in a negotiation.
- More likely to cut off other drivers in traffic or run stop signs.
- Less empathetic to others; less aware of the feelings of others in social interactions and more likely to be disengaged. 
- More likely to commit adultery.
- Tendency to drink more alcohol.
- Far more likely to shoplift than poor people are.
- Less willing to share with others.
From the WaPo article cited in the first paragraph:
Over the past few years, a pile of studies from the behavioral sciences has appeared, and they all say, more or less, “Being rich is really bad for you.” Wealth, it turns out, leads to behavioral and psychological maladies. The rich act and think in misdirected ways.
Moderation in All Things
Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Outliers, talks about the similar effects of both poverty and wealth in how children turn out. He calls this a “U-Curve” result in which the best performance occurs in the middle with equally bad results at both ends; children raised with the disadvantages of poverty perform similarly bad to children raised with the disadvantages of wealth. Children that perform best as adults are those in the middle class, who have to get jobs, but are able to get ahead with hard work and education, unlike the poor who may lack a support structure and unlike the wealthy whose support structure is often warped and corrupted by ease and luxury in a way that reduces ability in the next generation. It’s like the chicken hatching from its egg. If you break the shell for the hatchling, it is not strong enough to survive; if it’s incapable of breaking through the shell on its own, it likewise dies.
So, if our families are becoming too wealthy, we should be like the rich man Jesus admonishes to give what he had to the poor.
“Give, but give until it hurts.” Mother Theresa
The problem is that we admire the wealthy and aspire to wealth without seeing that wealth cankers the soul and is often a temptation too great for mortals.
I was in a corporate training years ago that talked about the sweet spot being “financial freedom” rather than “wealth.” When you seek wealth, there is always more wealth, more ease, more luxury, to aspire to–the chase is never over because wealth becomes an idol, a symbol of your importance. When you seek financial freedom, you seek to free yourself from this endless question for things and instead to have enough to cover your needs and to let go of things that you don’t need; acquisition takes time and effort, and it also misdirects your attention from the things that create real happiness: family, friends, health, living in the present. Another way I like to think about it is that I’d rather acquire experiences than things, although I do also enjoy expensive experiences (theater and travel), so experience-seeking isn’t perfect either.
Conclusions & Discussion
- Do you think we’ve changed from seeing wealth as a negative to a positive in society at large? What about in the church?
- If you are a parent, what have you find to be good strategies to help kids have a healthy attitude about money & work?
 I’ll call this one the Darcy Effect, although he otherwise seems to be the perfect hero–the rich guy with a heart of gold who is merely aloof and socially inept but really does help his tenants and is a generous master of the manor despite accidentally insulting his social inferiors. I suspect Jane Austen’s of Darcy was intended to be more critical than our modern reading of him, though. It’s all too easy for middle-class Elizabeth to expect the worst of him because he’s part of the corrupt ton, socializing in Regency England under the morally corrupt Prinny and his set.