Chuck Smith writes that he’s on a ‘Christian Quotation of the Day’ mailing list and found this recent quotation ‘somewhat apropos to your December 7 column’ about the rich getting richer. I would never go so far as the Bishop of Milan – wealth need not necessarily stand for human misery at all! But that last line? From more than 1600 years ago? Whoa!

Feast of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Teacher, 397

Wealth, which leads men the wrong way so often, [should be] seen less for its own qualities than for the human misery it stands for. The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds — and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor! … The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there, confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.

— St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397)

Reacting to that same December 7 column, which made the point that the folks at the very top were gaining on everyone else even before the Republicans’ recent effort massively to shift things further in their favor, Joel Margolis writes: ‘It is true that there has been a shift in the income distribution, but this doesn’t mean that people at the end of the period are in the same quintile that they were in the at the beginning of the period. There is [mobility within the quintiles] and most Americans people believe in this idea. In addition, there is movement simply through the general aging process (e.g., the average income of people aged 18 is considerably less than the people who are aged 58).’

☞ I believe in it, too! But relatively few folks are delivering mail, trimming hedges, or clerking at Home Depot one decade, piloting their own jet the next. And relatively few doctors’ daughters become hotel maids – at least not for more than a summer on the Cape.

Yes, there are things that give folks at the bottom a real chance. One is our system of public education, which Senator Jim Jeffords and others believe we need to fund more aggressively (only, now that we’ve passed a $1.4 trillion tax cut, much of it aimed to help those at the top, the money for education is just not there). Another is the estate tax, which gets many folks to throw at least some of their chips back into the tax or charity pot at the end of the game, and thus leans against a permanent plutocracy (only, the new Bush tax law cuts the top estate tax rate – which might sensibly have been cut from 55% to 45%, say – all the way to zero by decade’s end).

My point is not that things are rotten in America or that the wealthy should be criticized for their good fortune – or that they spend all their time confused over floor coverings.

My point in these columns has been, simply, that the balance between the folks in the top 1% and the folks in, say, the bottom 95% does not need to be shifted further in favor of the top 1%. Yet that’s been a major priority of this administration: changing the rules of the game to make it easier for the top 1% to get richer even faster.

Not what America – or the world – needs most right now.


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