There was nothing bitter or envious about the statement; our family was comfortable, it was just a matter of fact that some of the people they knew could afford certain luxuries that would be foolish expenditures for us.
Thus, I was mildly jolted on my way out of NHC last week when I told a nurse I had to go home and cook supper. Another nurse was dubious, “You know he has somebody there to cook dinner for him.”
It was strange to think someone believed our life was something out of Downton Abbey with a butler, cooks and footmen.
Josephine and I wouldn’t mind living like that, who wouldn’t, if we could afford it, an expense that is crushing many owners of the great houses of England.
That nurse raised the age-old question about wealth, how much is too much, when is the accumulation of private wealth so great and powerful that it is a threat to normal commerce requiring government intervention?
President Obama seems to think the inequality in income between the top 1 percent and the rest of us is a matter of critical concern. It is true, according to the reliable Pew poll, that a majority of both parties believes too much power is in the hands of too few rich people.
The president’s message has not gotten sufficient traction because his message doesn’t match up with what voters see on the ground. The country is still smarting from a historically harsh recession, but America today is not what FDR saw in his second inaugural, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
If the income gap were as drastic as 18th-century France and England, whose vast urban populations lived out their miserable lives in squalor and filth, the president’s speeches would ignite the political equivalent of a revolution.
No such stirrings have been detected; instead, choirmasters of the far right, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas amplified by the Tea Party chorus in the House, have raised the alarm that our own government is the enemy we should fear.
It is true that the potential for official evil is there in the ever-curious, always-listening, powerful and opaque National Security Agency. If intelligence officials, as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover did, tap phones of selected enemies out of prurient interest in their sex lives or to extort them, that would be a serious abuse of power.
However, the greatest damage to the country and its citizens has not come from government but from overreaching greed of the private sector, largely the financial industry, in the Great Depression and in the recent Great Recession.
The single greatest abuse of power by the government was crimes of the Nixon administration in Watergate. The president was exposed by a vigorous press, indicted by the House and forced to resign in disgrace.
Not so swift have been the struggles to keep a functional balance between the entrepreneurs’ need for operational flexibility and natural growth with fairness to the interests of the consumer.
This controlled war for supremacy between an agency of the people, government, and the private interests of an individual or group of individuals has been going on since Andrew Jackson’s struggles with the National Bank and continued to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to contain the monopolistic ambitions of the trusts.
The war has not been won by either side; it goes on now, but the Republic has more to fear from a total victory by the private sector.
None of this is to say that we should hate wealth, per se, or pass legislation limiting the accumulation of wealth to some artificial amount. We should and do love our benign billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
There are other not-so-benign men like Charles and David Koch, who use their billions for strictly personal advantage — cutting their taxes and cutting back on regulation of their oil and other interests.
Our system of government was built to control human nature with its checks and balances. I trust it more than I do private interests regulated only by conscience.
Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy to let people who “have money” enjoy their luxuries. As for me, when the wife is gone, I still have to cook my supper.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.