Rosewater's River of Wealth
By Nikolai Wenzel
Second in a #ReadWithMe Series
The Rosewater Foundation’s inflation-adjusted $87 million endowment represents roughly $700 million, not billion, in today’s dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, but I apologize for the error in my first entry. I must have had federal stimulus bills on my mind…
I have now read the second quarter of Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater has walked away from high culture, a beautiful French wife, and charitable support of the arts – returning instead to small-town Indiana, where he can help “these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive.” “That is going to be my work of art”, he gushes (44). With the help of Southern Comfort and the Foundation’s millions, Eliot becomes a social worker, therapist, coach, and benefactor to the downtrodden.
In this fun and rich continuation, I will focus on three economic themes.
First, the human condition has been one of misery: before the 19th century, everybody was poor (there were no antibiotics, novocaine, or indoor plumbing in the wealthiest of courts). It is easy to understand despair in the face of famine, low life expectancy, and limited socioeconomic opportunity. But it is harder to understand why the small percentage of humanity that was able to escape abject poverty feels malaise rather than gratitude. The portmanteau “affluenza” was coined in the early 1950s to describe either “feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolation experienced by wealthy people” or “extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.” A decade earlier, Joseph Schumpeter had warned that capitalism might contain the cultural seeds of its own destruction. Vonnegut writes of “one more kid rotten-spoiled by postwar abundance” (42) and Sylvia Rosewater suffers from samaritophobia, which could be quickly summarized as rich guilt (52). Why the high rates of depression in rich countries? Comedian Tom Lehrer joked of a Dr. Samuel Gall (inventor of the gallbladder), who was able to retire at an early age, because he had specialized in diseases of the rich. He was on to something.
Second, a delightful and curmudgeonly friend once described the modern American university as “a country club – with a brothel attached to it.” As a libertarian, I am not so worried about the students’ after-hours activities… assuming, of course, that there are hours in the first place, and that the students aren’t goofing off around dumbed-down classes with grade inflation. But add a hearty dose of post-Marxist identity politics, and you’ve got real trouble. So I was amused when Senator Rosewater appealed to his alma mater. If the mother is nourishing, she is also a minister of culture, a transmitter of social mores: “Ask yourself what Harvard would think of you now” (120). Eliot reassures his father than an annual donation of $300,000 from the Foundation buys him plenty of respect.
Third, we have the most interesting economic theme in the first half of the book: the Money River, Eliot’s theory of income and wealth (122-124).
I close with some questions:
- What virtues are required to sustain capitalism? Does capitalism indeed contain the seeds of its own destruction? Is capitalism sustainable if the culture of savings that leads to wealth engenders a culture of consumption?
- Why is wealth icky, when capitalism is plainly the greatest anti-poverty program ever? What about the post-1800 growth, or the post-1980 massive drop in extreme poverty – or the 130,000 people around the world who were lifted out of poverty, yesterday and every day, without a fuss or a headline?
- There are three actors (or… dare I use the word?… classes?) around the River of Wealth: born slurpers, experts who help the slurpers, and the masses who don’t know about the river – and a fourth, rare group, those who are guided to the riverbank. What do you make of this? On the one hand, the theory holds that one is simply born into a certain class, and that work and merit are irrelevant. On the other hand, could we not translate the River of Wealth as the much less romantic “human capital”? Some acquire it readily, but many are excluded (because of a failed K-12 government monopoly, college tuitions bloated by federal subsidies, regressive job licensing requirements, mass incarceration, and the million other obstacles of the swarms of regulations that harass the poor and eat out their substance).