Paul Krugman has an interesting piece in which he argues that huge disparities in incomes undermine the dignity of the worst-paid workers. This sentence struck me most:
we live in the age of the angry billionaire, furious if anyone should suggest that his wealth doesn’t entitle him to acclamation as well as luxury.
On that topic, I’m inviting all American billionaires to attend a talk at the Stanford Center for Ethics in Society on Thursday where I will be arguing that the billionaire has a duty not to be rich. [If you’re not a billionaire, you’re equally welcome.] I think there are a couple of good arguments to give for this view, including arguments along the line that Chris wrote here recently. I’ve presented these arguments before to British, Dutch and mixed European audiences, and am curious whether the reactions of Americans will be different.
I’m prepared to be surprised. Even more so given a scene that happened on Sunday at a plantation in Louisiana that I visited, after a great tour in which I learnt a lot about the horrible conditions under which slaves had been working so that the plantation owners could build their wealth:
Me [asking a sales person in the plantation shop]: “How much should I tip the tour guide? What is the custom?”
Sales person: “Whatever you feel like.”
Me: “But I have no idea. I live in a country where we don’t tip anyone.”
Sales person: “Really? That’s not a good idea!”
Me: “We don’t tip because we pay decent wages.”
Sales person (with voice raised) “But that is socialism!”
Now if even an ordinary American, working on a former slavery plantation where he is every day reminded of a past of exploitation and gross violations of human dignity, believes that ‘decent wages’ implies ‘socialism’, then I start to understand that Krugman faces an uphill battle generating a reasonable debate about income inequality and human dignity. Let’s just hope that my encounter at the plantation wasn’t representative for the range of categories in which people are thinking.