Monday, June 02, 2014


In 1995, during my freelance writing career, I interviewed Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour when Robert MacNeil, his co-anchor of 22 years, retired, and Lehrer was preparing to staff the anchor desk alone. A seasoned newspaper reporter when the two had first teamed up to cover the 1973 Watergate hearings, Lehrer said he had still  learned a lot from MacNeil, citing as an example that the most valuable follow-up question he could ask an interview subject was “Why?” I found that wonderfully simple, sage and clearly important. I used it often in my own subsequent interviews, always with valuable results, because it took the subject off-guard and “off-script.” To this day I listen for it in on-air news interviews and am sorry to note that I rarely hear it – especially when it really needs to be asked!

Last week, Daily Kos reported on a survey of America’s oft-mentioned “one percent,” the country’s very richest and most politically powerful people. It asked if they favored  such things as: more U.S. companies operating overseas (75%); the federal government providing jobs for all who are willing to work but can’t find jobs in the private sector (8%); cutting Medicare, education, and highways [repair] to reduce the federal deficit (58%); federal spending to ensure good public schools for all (35%); federal government support to ensure college for all who want it (28%);  redistribution of wealth through heavy taxes on the rich (17%); cutting Social Security (33%); and believing it is the federal government’s responsibility to reduce income inequality (13%).

The figures are revealing and discouraging – less in comparison with the general public (who score a high, sharp opposite in this survey) but more in comparison to the famous robber barons of the early 20th century. Generally speaking, today’s rich don’t have their sense of noblesse oblige, of a special responsibility to help society in general and the poor in particular. The survey provided the numbers, but it didn’t ask why people who have so much begrudge others anything, everything?

I have a sense of the why. In the 1970s, I spent four years working for a “society” charity and had occasion to deal with a lot of very rich people. When “in their cups,” as they usually were by the end of a long charity event, they were often childlike and perceivably sad. I had odd, intimate (not sexual, but close, personal, unguarded) experiences with a number of them when they were drunk. When they were sober and their defenses were up, many were hard, rude and haughty.

I think that rather than being oblivious to the rest of the country, they know very well that they have more than they deserve – even if they’ve worked for it, rather than inherited it; “need,” real need, doesn’t enter into the conversation. From their perspective they do need every cent they have and they do deserve it and they’re entitled to it because they’re just better people.

It’s no accident that government benefits are now called “entitlements.” That term is sarcastic and intended to make the rest of us feel worthless and nervy for asking for anything. They don’t believe that ordinary folks, let alone the poor, are entitled to anything; if we were, we would already have it! And it’s certainly not the responsibility of the rich to give it to us, either personally, or via that blood-sucking, tax-imposing albatross around their gilded necks called government.

The charity I worked for was an employment agency for the disabled. We touted the dignity of work (which is very real) and the rich who supported us loved that. When some of them came to our offices, they delighted in seeing our own disabled staff members, people who were missing limbs, or riding in wheel chairs, or trembling with cerebral palsy working to help others like themselves get jobs. The rich like charities for people whose problems “aren’t their own fault,” like the disabled and babies with cancer. But philanthropic giving is way down from what it was back in the 70s – especially for ordinary people with aspirational goals, or poor people trying to get on their feet. Money – and compassion – are hard to come by these days.

Of course there are some rich people who are kind and generous and care about their fellow humans; who are also smart enough to realize that living in a country which is increasingly poor, ignorant, and falling apart is not in their own best interest. But for the most part, the rich care about themselves and they don’t like or care about us. That’s the why. The next follow-up question is: What are we going to do about it?

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