Sunday from the South Shore… In my neighbor’s house watching their dog and other belongings, I find myself having watched endless hours of The West Wing marathon on HLN, the network which used to house CNN’s secondary coverage and now exists to reel in more advertising dollars from sponsors. Has this constant viewing relit my interest in politics and writing about them? Was it my imminent move to a new property in this great state of Massachusetts that made me more vocal about current events, both local and global? Whatever happened to cause this ignition, I like it, and I hope it doesn’t go away anytime soon.
Salon‘s Amanda Marcotte wrote a missive about the collapse of America’s billionaires, positing that the country had become tired of the ultra-rich and their insipid antics. I agree with the article, but the headline reads as a question (“Is America’s infatuation with billionaires finally coming to an end?”) instead of a statement, even though Marcotte makes clear that people have indeed become sick of the sickeningly wealthy. I guess the misdirection works as clickbait, because I shouted “Yes! We are sick of billionaires!” as I mashed the link. But I worry for any red-blooded American or human from any other part of the world who wouldn’t give a full-throated abhorrence of anyone whose net worth breaks nine figures.
To me, the world of the billionaire stinks of tax evasion, loopholes, self-serving, war chests, wealth for wealth’s sake. Sure, those with deep pockets might make something great with their funds, but as far as I’ve seen, the creations of the uber-rich have never had much positive value for the world. Teslas may get great gas mileage, but the tech keeps killing folks and the creator seems less interested in customer well-being and more so in buying up social media platforms to boost his ego. FTX may have offered folks an opportunity to get into the blossoming crypto world, but that world continues to ebb and flow at the drop of a feather, and it was only a matter of time until everything went up in flames. Not to mention the personalities of today’s beleaguered billionaires – Trump, Bankman-Fried, Musk, Bezos, Gates, Holmes, and so on – should grant them a small hole in the deepest part of Hell.
Mark, Matt, and Luke all wrote about Jesus’s advice to a rich young man who asked “What good thing should I do to get into Heaven?” Jesus recounted the Commandments to this man, who said, “I have followed all of those things.” Then Jesus said, “Good. Now give everything you have to the poor: All your wealth, your belongings, everything you own.” And the man was sad about this, to the point where Jesus commented to his disciples: “Truly, it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.”
I like to think that Jesus, as the most famous Jewish man in history, was referring to the act of tzedakah, which literally means “righteousness” but also refers to the act of giving charity. The medieval philosopher Maimonides conceived of eight levels of tzedakah. The lowest level is to give because of sadness, a sense of obligation, or pity. The highest level is to provide acts of service to the poor: Find them jobs, form a partnership, provide a loan or grant, or make it so they do not need to rely on others to live. Most folks tend to stop at the first level of tzedakah, and some even climb to the second step, which is willfully giving but not giving an adequate amount. (It’s like giving twenty-five cents to a guy on the street when you have a spare dollar in your pocket.) Some climb to the third step – giving adequately after being asked – and fewer make it to the fourth step, which is giving before being asked.
The billionaires of this nation have the ability to reach that top level of tzedakah, to help the poor a hundred times over, or even a thousand times. They are in a better place to achieve that level than anyone else; the less you have, the more honorable but less possible it is for you to give. But instead, the mega-wealthy continue to seek new ways to degrade themselves, make humanity bleak, dig a new hole in the ground to plant a tree of temptation from which their fellow point-one-percenters can reap. This is why God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden, you know.
In fact, I’ve seen more folks with nothing do more good than any billionaire. I’d like to tell you about my old neighbor Andrew, a gentleman who lived in the cellar of the building next to mine when I lived in Crown Heights. Andrew had gone through tough times financially, mentally, and physically, and it was difficult for him to get back on his feet. He would wander around the block asking passersby for spare change. But although he was not well or well off, he would always greet everyone and ask them how they were. I fear that I couldn’t give him much, since I too wasn’t fortunate with money. But I’ve never forgotten his decency, even in the face of all his struggles.
I think of Najee, the receptionist at my old job, who lived in a small apartment with his family in the Bronx and didn’t make half as much as he deserved. But he always found the means to get Christmas gifts for his friends in the building, took time to chat with everyone who walked in, and always gave what he had – which was not much – to help his family, even though he had dreams of getting out on his own. I hope he’s doing well.
So many folks with so little to give have stayed in my memory because of their acts of kindness, the sacrifices they shouldn’t have had to make, the smiles they put on faces. Can the billionaires of the world say they’ve lived up to that level? Rather, should they?
To hell with them all. They have warped this world not just with their wicked inventions, but with their hoarding of their wealth. Perhaps it’s not too late for them all to turn face, repent for their sins, give what they have, and become helpful members of society. I’d like to hope, at least. We all should.