One of the truer things I’ve read about the American perspective on money is found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
In a move I assume was a particularly incisive bit of satire,1 Vonnegut puts these words in the mouth of an American traitor during World War II:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand—glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.2
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph3 went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves…4
We don’t have to look very far to find examples of the wealthy being improperly presumed to be wise.
That is one of the lessons in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Namely, many successful people are only lucky. People should be judged, irrespective of success or failure, based on their real merit. Wealth does not matter.
I’ve often wondered if rising out of poverty would be easier if there wasn’t this negative moral component of being poor. If all poor American folk heroes didn’t have to be wealthy by the end of their tale.
So it goes.
I don’t think I’m smart enough to plumb all the depths of someone like Vonnegut. ↩︎
In the story, the monograph here was the German publication of the writings of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who rose highly in the German Ministry of Propaganda. ↩︎