Contents of Character

Martin Luther King JrFifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is a wonderful sentence, wise in content and poetic in style. I thought of it watching Democracy Now! this morning, during which they showed extended clips of the 1970 documentary King: a Filmed Record. It is really good and I recommend you check it out. The problem is that I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment.

In some ways, Chris Hayes was wrong in Twilight of the Elites; America is something of a meritocracy. People who have more than enough to eat do not steal bread. And that is what is going on with the vast majority of so called immorality: teen pregnancy, drug use, and even violent crime. These are problems that explode due to insecurity, want, and apathy.

I don’t mean to put down Dr. King at all. He was talking at a different time. Not being judged by the color of your skin is necessary but not sufficient. And it isn’t as though we have become a color blind society. People (especially conservatives) who wanted to say that Obama’s election meant that we had moved into a post-racial era have shown themselves to be silly indeed. If anything, Obama’s election showed just how much racism was festering below the surface throughout the country. Have you heard about the research showing that less than 4% of fashion models are nonwhite?

The last year was frustrating for me. I hated hearing that Obama was for equality of outcomes while Romney was for equality of opportunity. First, of course, this isn’t even true. Obama is very clearly in the “equality of opportunity” camp and Romney is in the “equality of inheritance” camp. But the bigger issue is that “equality of opportunity” is a lie. There simply isn’t any such thing when “equality of outcomes” is so skewed.

Any society that allows one working man to make 500 times what another working man makes is morally bankrupt. There is simply no justification for such a system. As is well established, the more money one makes the easier it becomes to make money. In other words, we have developed a system that is nonlinear and unbound. Bill Gates makes millions of dollars every day even though he no longer works. I know all of the arguments to justify this income. None do I find compelling. But there are obvious and very strong arguments against it. I think the best one is the conservative argument: incentives matters. How does Gates’ ridiculous wealth incentivize the economic system to work better? The answer is that it doesn’t. The truth is that Bill Gates’ wealth is no more deserved than Edmund Tylney’s.

What I propose to you is that the billions of dollars that Gates gives away to (often repellent) charities speaks very little of his moral character. A guy at a rescue mission who gives an unwanted fish stick to his neighbor demonstrates a higher moral character. I’m all for judging people on the content of their character, but we need to contextualize it. We need to remember that a poor person’s stealing a cookie is hardly a moral failing at all. And giving away part of your unearned fortune is mostly if not wholly vanity. Most of all, we need to create a society that is equal enough so that we can reasonably judge the content of our character. Martin Luther King Jr certainly understood that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Contents of Character

  1. its always amusing when people lavish praise on Bill Gates for his "generous" donation of a small fraction of his enormous wealth to a charity bearing his own name. Talk about an inflated ego.

  2. The "taxes remove incentive" crowd have it completely back-assward. Of course, marginal tax rates only apply to income above a certain level. So what Bill Gates earns for his first yearly $35,000 is taxed at the exact same rate my $35,000 is. It’s only his remaining zillions that get taxed at higher rates. That apologists for the super-rich have managed to skewer this argument to make it seem as though making one dollar more puts you into a different tax bracket and negates all your earnings is a testament to how pernicious and efficient their propaganda is.

    However, like I typed above, it’s back-assward. If rich people are taxed heavily, then they just have to be more efficient and productive to take home scads of pay, don’t they? Any moron with a nonexistent moral sense can make six figures at a financial company. And they currently get to keep over 60 percent of that — better if they bother to hire a good accountant. Why not demand that they create far more wealth before they take home that much money? If what they do is so creative and useful, surely they can do more of it.

    Aargh, this stuff is depressing.

  3. @Andy – Yep. Also galling is that Gates made all his money by hindering progress. As I’ve written before, the truly great men of high tech make reasonable upper middle class livings.

  4. @JMF – The marginal tax rate really confuses people doesn’t it? That really bugged me with Joe the Plumber. But then, he was an idiot in all kinds of ways.

    One thing about the incentives: we should incentivize rich people to stop working. A rich CEO who retires gives a job to a younger CEO. The problem with the rich is that they have great jobs that they enjoy. And that’s cool. But it begs the question why we need to incentivize them with big paychecks to do jobs they would do for no money.

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