RUMINATIONS FROM MONTICELLO
A few days have elapsed since my most recent trip to Monticello, which remains one of my favorite spots to visit. My daughters and I made the 2 ½ hour drive there from DC, and whenever I go, the itinerary is always the same. First to Monticello, see the house there, lounge around on the lawn, gaze at the mountains, and then head to downtown Charlottesville, where we all can see the prime accomplishment of Thomas Jefferson’s old age, the University of Virginia. I never feel right celebrating Jefferson without visiting that school, just like I’d never order a martini without the olives. He may have fancied himself a farmer above all else, but I know that it wasn’t crops he most wanted to cultivate – it was the human mind. And few of those have been more cultivated than Thomas Jefferson’s.
During my pilgrimages to Monticello, I invariably spend much of my time simply marveling at the breadth of Jefferson’s passions and the depth of his accomplishments. But this time, when I raised that point with my daughters, I heard the inevitable response: so much of what Jefferson was able to accomplish was due to his slaves. It certainly wasn’t a point I could argue with. Jefferson had several scores of slaves at his disposal, and they included a number of highly skilled workers. Living in captivity on that plantation were teachers, farmers, chefs, blacksmiths, brewers, and animal caregivers, among others. And the more I admired the work done on that plantation, the more I came to see Jefferson in the role of the CEO and the slaves as his professional workforce.
Just as Jefferson wouldn’t have been Jefferson without his slaves, we who work in white collar jobs couldn’t live our affluent lives were it not for the blue collar workforce that serves our own community. They supply the food and wine, pave the roads, build the bridges, clean the houses, and provide our clothes. No, we don’t enslave them. In fact, we even pay them. But when we do pay them, we live according to a fiction that our marketplace determines precisely how “valuable” their work is compared to our own. That is why so many people aren’t outraged when they read articles indicating that CEOs tend to earn hundreds of times as much money as their workforce (http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/19/news/economy/ceo_pay/index.htm).
Personally, I am outraged by the discrepancy in pay, but that’s not to say I detest the CEO beneficiaries of it any more than I detest Jefferson. He remains a hero of mine. In fact, I will point out here what I told my daughters when I was reminded of the source of his wealth: many aristocrats in slave owning or feudal societies served as lords over a mansion, but precious few have cultivated themselves and served their planets as marvelously as did Jefferson. In his own culture, he committed neither crime nor sin; he simply took advantage of the opportunities made available to him by virtue of his station in life. And indeed, one can say the same thing about the modern day CEO. Many of these men and women oversee companies that produce incredibly useful goods or services for our society. Resenting them, simply because they accept the salary that the market will bear, is small minded and shallow. But that is not to say that we need to accept today’s discrepancies in wealth any more than we accept the slaveholding practices of our nation’s past.
Market-based economics makes sense (and dollars) for so many reasons. Remove market-based incentives, and you remove the engine of prosperity. Stated differently, to force feed absolute economic equality is merely to ensure that all will be equally poor.
But while pure socialism is one extreme, post-Reagan capitalism is its book end – and it is no less absurd. If the above-referenced study is correct, the “masters” of our economic house now receive 343 times as high an income as their average worker. Worse yet, the centripetal forces that govern our society seem to be moving that number higher and higher. It is precisely the kind of Dickensian model that fueled Marx and his followers, who were every bit as hell bent on destroying the excesses of capitalism as the laissez-faire crowd is in expunging any semblance of “social engineering.”
What I am asking for, by contrast, is to put ideology aside for a moment and focus instead on sanity. Are we not all working together to make this society prosperous and free? Do some of us really need hundreds of times what the rest of us earn in order to motivate themselves to work hard?
I’m quite sure that Jefferson didn’t need that kind of incentive. And I doubt modern American executives do either. Let’s take a serious look at our tax system and make it both simpler and fairer. That way, we can all bask in the accomplishments of the masters of our economy without looking at them as selfish, greedy, or flat out rapacious. But remember – just as Jefferson couldn’t bring himself to dismantle “the peculiar institution,” the CEOs can’t be expected to fight for progressive tax reform. That job belongs to the rest of us. We’re free, we’re educated, and we’re capable of appreciating what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. So what are we waiting for?