When the Onion is Redundant
April 17, 2014
Ace’s headline pretty much sums it up:
Selfless Crusader Against Income Inequality to Heroically Accept $225,000 for Nine Months of Sub-Part-Time Work from State-Funded Organisation to Occasionally Give a Few Quotes About the Scourge of Income Inequality.
Hiring Paul Krugman, a Guardian contributor and the left-leaning owner of this humble abode, is part of the City University of New York’s latest “inequality initiative.” Mr Krugman’s will be “a modest role” with no teaching or supervision commitments. In fact, neither party seems able to define what, exactly, that “modest role” will be. Hence the salary of $25,000 per month.
Update, via the comments:
When stories like this crop up, as they do, it’s interesting to scan a few left-leaning sites and see what kinds of questions aren’t getting asked much, if at all. In the comments over at Gawker, Mr Krugman’s imperviousness to irony elicits sympathy and a number of indignant defences: “At least Krugman came by his wealth doing something somewhat worthwhile for the human race.” And, “A man who cares about income inequality is accepting a salary in proportion to what his credentials merit.” Which suggests Krugman’s imperviousness is shared by many of his supporters, whose basic assumption seems to be that a person “concerned” by income inequality - a good person, someone like them - should somehow be exempt from the bitching and resentment aimed at people they regard as not being concerned, or sufficiently concerned, regardless of how much either party makes. It’s a neat dance if you can do it.
Readers here, though, may still have a question, one of those that isn’t being asked.
When very well-heeled people, including state-loving ‘progressives’, decry income inequality as at the very least something to be fixed, and fixed urgently, at what point can we expect the people saying this to act as if it were true? I mean, act individually, themselves, in accord with their own professed values and imperatives. Curiously, the most typical position is to do nothing whatsoever unless the state acts coercively against everyone, thereby deferring any personal action, aside from the usual mouthing. And so inevitably that mouthing looks a lot like chaff, a way to divert the envy and tribalism they’re so happy to inspire in others: “Yes, I’m loaded, but look at those people over there – the ones who disagree with us – they have slightly more, or almost as much. Let’s all hiss at them.”
To use an example close to home, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee rails against “the unjust rewards of the rich,” by which she means, “the 1.5% who earn over £100,000.” These, she says, are the “extravagant earners” who “feel profoundly entitled to take what they like in salaries… untouched by public disgust or a sense of propriety.” Toynbee’s Guardian salary, for years a subject of speculation, was eventually revealed as £106,000 - excluding royalties, advances, media fees, rental income, etc. Curiously, Polly’s own financial rewards are not deemed “extravagant,” “unjust” or in any way improper, such is her ability to tolerate dissonance. Again, a certain imperviousness.
And so I see no reason to suppose that Ms Toynbee is quite as gushing with tearful concern as she would have us believe. If she were, she might give a third of her six-figure salary to those she deems in need, and do it again the next year, and the year after that. I suspect she could do this with minimal suffering and each time it would transform quite a few lives. It would also address, in a very real and direct way, the “outrage” and “injustice” that so bedevils her. Likewise, she might give one of her three houses, including that spare villa, to a deserving family. That too would be a life-changing act, something tangible. Living one’s values and all that. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Because Polly’s socialism, like that of so many of her peers, is instead more like this.
It’s hard to resist contrasting Ms Toynbee with, say, Mitt Romney, who apparently gives 30% of his (considerable) income to charity. Though I suppose Polly belongs to a class of people for whom altruism is defined not by giving their own time and money, but by voting to have the state take more of other people’s earnings, regardless of those people’s priorities and commitments, and regardless of whether they share Polly’s egalitarian pretensions. Given that this entails the coercion of a great many third parties, it’s a strange definition of compassion and philanthropy.
In September 2011, Toynbee struggled with a reader’s suggestion that instead of demanding others pay even more tax she could make large donations to charities of her choice and thereby ease her conscience. “The point about tax,” she replied, “is that it’s collective – it’s an ‘I will if you will’ deal. I see no hypocrisy in any of this.” The Guardian’s foremost class warrior waved aside suggestions of hypocrisy as merely “empty spite,” the smears of “malevolent” people.
But if Polly’s idea of “being progressive,” as she puts it, hinges on the coercion of millions of people who may already feel over-taxed, her preferred tomorrow isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Come the next election, those she wishes to see taxed more heavily, indeed punitively, will most likely resist. And thus “social justice,” as she sees it, is indefinitely – and conveniently – deferred, leaving her free to be indignant without consequence. For a six-figure salary, of course. As Polly’s conscience is apparently troubled more by what you earn and keep than by what she earns and keeps, that life-changing gesture, that personal action, will simply have to wait.
And if a well-heeled person bangs on, week after week, about how terrible unequal incomes are and how something must be done urgently, and then says they won’t do anything to help directly until the state forces them, along with everyone else, this isn’t a resounding affirmation of their professed morality.
Goodness me. A button.