Since the candidates can't use the budget surplus to buy a new house or go on a cruise, they have to convince voters that they're going to use the money for good causes. On Thursday, George W. Bush called on Americans to move beyond political divisions and seize this moment of prosperity for a "great purpose." Before his convention speech, Al Gore declared, "For all of our good times, I am not satisfied."
Whether that "great purpose" involves universal health care or deficit reduction, one thing is clear: Money is no longer just fiscal currency--it's moral currency. How the government chooses to spend our money, or whether we choose to return it to "the people," has become not plain fiscal policy, but a matter of profound right and wrong. The United States has always championed itself as a beacon for all that is right and good in the world. Now, whatever we achieve as a nation, we're going to achieve by getting and spending.
They say all politics is personal, so it's no surprise that lately I've started to feel slightly less upstanding than some of my friends. I don't have as much money as they do.
It wasn't always thus. In the past, I derived a sense of nobility from my modest financial state. Granted, I've never been poor. I feed and clothe myself. I never get too far behind in my bills, and I rarely hesitate to indulge in a nice meal at an above-average (though never outlandish) eating establishment. I'm not rich, but I'm still a good person.
Or so I thought. Recently, boarding a plane to London (with a frequent-flyer ticket earned in five years of economy travel), I made a shocking discovery. Shuffling through first and business class on my way to Row 42, I experienced not my usual jealousy, but a more disturbing emotion: shame. Everywhere in the upper-echelon seats were sneaker-clad venture capitalists and baseball-capped dot-com entrepreneurs. In their eyes, I read a self-righteous look of disdain--the same look non-smokers have when someone lights up. The look said, "Not only are you sub-human, you have chosen to put yourself in that category." These days, cheap seats--and the lack of wealth they signify--have become a moral barometer.
In this time of unprecedented affluence, it seems it's never been easier to have quite a lot of money. In such an economy, there's no excuse for being anything but rich. The have-nots cope not only with having nothing; they face the fact that despite this abundance of wealth, they still have nothing. It's like we're living with modern plumbing in our houses and still going around unclean.
The lower and working classes are still there, of course. But they have long since fallen out of the culture's viewmaster. Now, there is a more shameful underclass: the willfully unwealthy. The willfully unwealthy are more shameful because their modest means reflect neither class disenfranchisement nor bad luck, but plain stupidity. While the privileged love to blame poverty on lack of discipline and poor communication skills, the willfully unwealthy can't use these rationales. They've had all the advantages and opportunities of the wealthy, attended the same schools, read the same books, worked in the same entry-level jobs, and lived once upon a time in the same shared apartments in the same neighborhoods of major urban centers.
I can't blame my wealthy friends for looking at me with a certain degree of pity. "She's just as smart and educated as we are," they must say to themselves. "So why can't she get her act together? I mean, she doesn't even have a broker!" After all, they've worked hard for their wealth. They have gone out of their way to enter high-paying fields, and they work 75-hour weeks. They give every impression of deserving their multi-million dollar co-ops, exotic vacations, and Italian loafers. I'm sure many of them would love to quit their jobs and do something quaint like write novels or little columns like this one, but they feel a moral obligation to send their children to private school and raise them in a desirable location (as if subjecting a child to solid middle-classdom is a form of abuse).
Of course, they'd deny this. They would agree that there is more to life than prosperity and the perks it has brought them. That's part of their moral makeup. But the predominant cultural model has become high-level, high-speed affluence. Seventy-five percent of the commercials on television seem to concern themselves with brokerages and investment companies that are thinking solely about how to pay for your parents' nursing homes, or how to use your computer to watch your kid's soccer game from a hotel room in a foreign country.
If you aren't concerned about what to do with your affluence, you begin to feel marginalized. We are second- and third-class citizens, unfortunate because we don't have as much money as others, and immoral because evidently there's nothing stopping us from getting it but ourselves.
I opened an IRA last year, and I was never more glad for it than when a friend asked me, with the casualness she might have employed to inquire about what brand of shampoo I used, what investment house I used. Not having an IRA would have been, to her, equivalent to not paying child support, not wearing a seat belt, or smoking. I didn't mention the fact that I had less than $3,000 in the account. I didn't mention that the only time I see the financial page is when I'm flipping through on my way to the arts page (and sometimes the horoscopes). It's a secret shame, this being unwealthy.
Political policies aren't designed to help the willfully unwealthy. And why should they be? The only system that's hurting us is our own value system. We were dumb enough to take the moral high road back when everyone else was busy getting rich.