Monday, September 08, 2008

Are You Rich?

Whatever else is true, when John McCain responded to Pastor Rick Warren's challenge to "define rich" at the Saddleback forum a few weeks ago by coming up with the number "five million," he wasn't intending to give an answer to be taken at face value. John McCain's apparent intention wasn't to say that only people who make so much should be classified as "rich," so much as he was trying to change the focus of the question lest his opponents get into what many people consider "class warfare," pitting the "rich" against the "poor" (however those terms are to be defined).

There is something important to recognizing that. Each group needs the other to achieve their own goals, whether it be a high enough paycheck to survive from week to week, or the accomplishment of some great task such as building a skyscraper. No one gets by on their own, and we fight against those in the "other" class to our own potential peril. Company owners that don't treat their workers well risk the workers deciding to strike, or just quit, resulting in less work being done and increased costs as replacements are found and trained. Lower-class people who successfully shift more of the tax burden to wealthy entrepreneurs run the risk of there being less money available for the company owner to pay for higher salaries or company benefits. It is a statement of the obvious to say that tax policy, one of the reasons a presidential candidate is asked a question such as "define rich," is a complicated matter, and the potential for unplanned consequences is not one to be taken lightly.

Still, I have to admit that I was more than a little insulted when McCain gave such a huge number as his answer. According to the LA Times, less than 1/10th of 1% of Americans make $5 million a year (McCain's perhaps-not-serious answer made it clear that his number was a reference to income, as opposed to simply accumulated wealth). I have trouble with a definition of "rich" that ends up saying that less than 1/10th of 1% of the people in what is almost universally defined as "the richest country on earth" are actually "rich" themselves. (UPDATE: 10/2/08 - McCain apparently recently said he's "not a rich man." I'm still looking for context for that, but that's pretty insulting, too, unless the context somehow manages to make that look completely the opposite of what it sounds like. And, frankly, just saying that most of the wealth is his wife's, and not his, won't help....)

My sister told me once that she read something for college that said that "rich" was pretty universally defined as "anyone with more money than you have," and I certainly agree that $5 million, as a definition of "rich," works under those terms. But it's not very useful, precisely because it defines "rich" so high that it's more money than almost anybody has!

Both of the presidential candidates not only make far more money than most of us, but indeed would fit into the "rich" category even by their own definitions (Obama suggested $250,000, which is in the 3-to-4% range of Americans. He and his wife together make about $4.2 million. McCain and his wife gross about $6-and-a-half million.) Of course, this is going to be true for any viable presidential candidate, and we've long since come to understand this as a reality of American politics.

I got into an online argument last week with a person who claimed not to be "rich," despite the fact that he and his wife make about $125,000 a year. The reason he seems to feel that he can claim this is because 1) that amount is gross, not after-tax, so he actually has about 1/3 less than that to live on, 2) he and his wife have sufficient expenses in the form of student loans, a mortgage, and the probable need to replace a car in the near future, that there really isn't all that much left over. At least, that's the way he says it (I've tried to be fair to him here, although he may, of course, see things differently).

I claimed that, since $125,000 a year (even before taxes) is more than what 80% of American households make, it's not especially honest to claim that he's not "rich." Naturally, he did not respond well to this accusation. We went around the bend for a while on definitions and arguments, but never really got anywhere. Suffice it to say, $125K is an order of magnitude higher than my household makes, and I'd love to be in a place where I had a mortgage to have to pay off, because at least those payments would be going into owning my own home, which I could theoretically sell (maybe even for a profit) at a later date, rather than my current situation of throwing money that I'll never see again into rent each month, just so I can live in a place where, should my manager decide to change policies, I could find myself forced to move out of, without any guarantee of being able to find another place for my wife and I to live as "cheaply." (Anyone can tell you that rent in Southern California is far from "cheap.")

But, ultimately, this quesiton is about more than just figuring out what the most equitable tax policy should be. There's a real question here: are you rich? It's hard to imagine very many individuals who would say so of themselves, but most of the Christian blogs and websites I've read recently would definitely say "yes." I confess that I find most of their arguments a bit tiring. For example, I was a bit annoyed some time back to find an article that had a lot of people with real financial difficulty (some self-imposed, some not) asking what to do about their problems, and the answer the article gave relied solely on asking the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and to learn to be content. It's not that I disagree with the basic premise (if the Holy Spirit doesn't enable us to make the necessary sacrifices, we'll never be able to exercise the self-control necessary to deal with the financial problems) so much as I think it's a cop-out. It seems to assume that these people haven't already asked the Holy Spirit for help. I'm a firm believer that God uses people in all walks of life, including financial planning, to give wisdom to those of us who may lack it. Instead of giving a tacit scolding, suggesting that people with problems haven't let the Holy Spirit work in them enough, how about suggestions that might help actually deal with their real problems?

As to other Christians who comment on this matter, I seem to find a lot of sites (both "liberal" and "conservative") that don't stop at saying "give until it hurts," but indeed seem to send a message of "whatever it is you're giving, it's still not enough." Yes, even most Americans who are legally in poverty make more than people in many other parts of the world. To that, I counter: people in those other parts of the world don't have to worry about $1000+ per month housing costs (their other legitimate needs notwithstanding, it certainly seems to be the case that they can do more with less money than would be viable here in America). Wealth, I'm convinced, is not best defined in terms of sheer dollars alone, nor does it seem particularly helpful to define it solely in terms of comparison with other people.

In the end, however much I may know that I have more than people in other parts of the world, I don't feel very rich, living paycheck-to-paycheck with no margin for surprises. Perhaps I myself am guilty of believing that "anyone who has more money than you do" definition of what "rich" is. Perhaps I've simply gotten too blinded by my own problems to see the bigger picture. Perhaps you find yourself in the same position.

I'm certainly no financial planner. I got my training in Biblical literature, so I do often try to look at what the Bible says to various situations. And I do find a lot that agrees with the other Christian writers I've already commented about. I'm struck by the fact that the Bible tells stories of people who, although they have serious economic problems, are rewarded for their generosity. Whether it's a widow who gives food to Elijah or some disciples sharing a few loaves and fish with Jesus for the crowd, we are told that God encourages even those of us who think we have very little to give what we have.

So, perhaps we're caught a bit in the middle. I imagine that the widow who was convinced that she would die of hunger was rather upset at God when she was commanded to give food to Elijah, and even more so when her son later becomes ill after she had given what she had to God's prophet. Likewise I can certainly get upset at God for allowing my own current situation to continue, especially as it continues in the midst of an admittedly human attempt to be faithful to God's call upon my life. But God didn't punish the widow for her frustration, which she voices openly in I Kings 17:18, but she is instead given what she needs. I can only hope that this situation holds true for me, as well. I've certainly survived this far!

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