… And its role in a just society


While reading the papers this past Monday, I paused over two stories. One was a Washington Post review by Patrick Anderson—who specializes in writing about crime fiction—of a new thriller by Dick Wolf called The Intercept. In his opening paragraph Anderson mentioned all the millions Wolf had made from his TV shows, Law & Order in particular, and ended by observing that the writer owned a home in Montecito, California, “which is, as the saying goes, where God would live if he had the money.”

The second story I lingered over was in The Wall Street Journal. According to reporter Jennifer Smith, prominent law firms are now letting go partners who don’t bring in enough business or bill enough hours. As one unidentified source said, quite plainly, “It isn’t enough to be a good lawyer. The job is to make money for the firm.”

Apparently, these are tough times for that most generally despised of all professions. Some years back, and perhaps still, the Folger Shakespeare Library sold T-shirts emblazoned with the words: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (That’s from Henry VI, Part Two, if you want to look it up.) Of course, nowadays lawyers enjoy lots of competition when it comes to being reviled. Consider, for instance, Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund operators, and overpaid CEOs (i.e., virtually all of them). Many of these are, of course, lawyers as well.

Like most people, I have a troubled relationship with money. Long ago, when I took “Introduction to Economics,” my teacher, Robert Tufts, scribbled on one of my term papers (which had vigorously defended the radical views of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty), “Mr. Dirda, you actually write pretty well, but you don’t understand economics at all.” Perhaps so.

Basically, I think that most people either make too much money or not enough money. The jobs that are essential and important pay too little, and those that are essentially managerial pay far too much. In a reasonable society, for instance, all elementary education would be public education and the highest-paid profession would logically be that of schoolteacher. The men and women to whom we entrust the formation of our children’s minds and characters would be deeply honored and appropriately rewarded. That teachers are not is largely because the rich send their kids to private schools. These should be prohibited. At that point, our politicians—one of the overpaid groups, in my view—would quickly ensure that public schools employed the best and brightest people that money could buy.

But when was the last time you heard any middle-class parents say that they hoped their most gifted child, the one with the double 800s on his or her SATs, would find a job as a third-grade teacher?

And why don’t parents wish this, rather than hope that little Chauncey or Rasheeda will grow up to become a corporate attorney or cardiac surgeon? Because of money and status. We still measure success by the Mercedes in the driveway and the size of the McMansion.

The goal of a just society should be to provide satisfying work, with a living wage, to all its citizens. The jobs that are vitally important, truly dangerous or stressful, or inherently unattractive, should be the best compensated: teachers, coal-miners, emergency-room nurses and physicians, and trash collectors should all be extremely well paid. But work that deals mainly largely with intangibles, with the manipulation of words or numbers, should largely be its own reward. Corporate executives, who love to wheel and deal, ought to earn no more than poets, who love to play with language. In fact, I think that everyone employed by a business, whether a guy on the assembly line, a secretary, or the chief financial officer, should make exactly the same amount. Each does what he or she can do best for the success of the product or the company. A job should bring enough for a worker and family to live on, but after that, self-realization, the exercise of one’s gifts and talents, is what truly matters.

Tolstoy once asked, How much land does a man need? The answer, you may recall, was basically six feet by three: the size of a cemetery plot. How much money does a 21st-century American need? Not millions a year, not the kind of salaries we bestow on many in what is loosely called “business.” The rich soon come to think that they deserve to take home grotesque sums annually, that they are, in essence, being reasonably compensated, and that any attempt to tax them a tiny bit more is unjust and undemocratic. Yet why is this? A life is a life. Self-fulfillment, the expansive exercise of one’s abilities, should be, and usually is, what matters to most of us. The only reward that counts, in the end, is to be honored for one’s accomplishments, whether by colleagues, employees, or the nation.

No doubt such thinking will be dubbed, or denounced, as socialistic or un-American. It’s certainly completely Utopian. But I am a child of both the working class and the 1960s. I don’t like gross monetary inequities. I firmly believe that the wrong people and the wrong professions are being rewarded, and rewarded absurdly, and that the hardest work the obscenely rich do is ensuring that they preserve their privileges, status symbols, and bloated bank accounts.

Of course, no one ever listens to me. But after the deplorable behavior of our legislative officials this past fall in dealing with the fiscal crisis, after the childish, know-nothing recalcitrance of the Tea Party, after the almost weekly corruption scandals among our moguls and financial “advisors,” after the outrageous golden parachutes allocated to inept executives, and, most of all, after the general and ongoing contempt demonstrated by the haves for the have nots, it’s enough to make even a mild-mannered book reviewer depressed and ashamed for his country.

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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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