The Moral Conundrum of Success

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Long accustomed to being short of money, many professors and administrators are living rather well these days. Academic conferences, which once featured disheveled, sorry-looking folk, are now frequently high-class affairs, featuring speakers and even attendees in designer suits. College towns which once rattled with beat-up old Volkswagons and Chevys now hum and purr with shiny new Volvos, BMWs, Lexuses, even Saabs and Porches. Some academics used to attend events in which they had little interest because of the free food; today the practice is rare–except among graduate students. Indeed many academic couples out for a walk these days think nothing of paying $4 apiece for a Venti nonfat latte, or $100 for dinner and wine at the local Italian bistro. A die-hard liberal professor whom I have debated in the past recently shocked me when he confided, “I’m thinking of voting Republican this year. I really like Bush’s position on getting rid of the estate tax.”

Yes, it’s true. Affluence, once the preserve of the entrepreneurial class and the corporate sector, has now come to academe. Six-figure salaries, which used to be restricted to college presidents and a few senior professors in business and engineering, are no longer uncommon. The stock market boom of the past two decades, rising home values, two-earner households, and external sources of income from royalties, lecture fees and entrepreneurial ventures, all have given the academic world a new taste of prosperity.

You might expect all these professors and administrators who have seen their net worth soar and their incomes rise to be living it up and only worrying, like my old debate partner, about their tax liability. But in fact there are many signs that newfound affluence has generated profound conflicts and ambivalence in the academic community. You won’t find this anxiety in the business or engineering schools, where professors typically compare their salaries to the much more generous incomes of professionals in the corporate sector. Among a large segment of academe, however—especially professors of the Baby Boom generation who teach in the humanities and social sciences—there is evident angst and tension about achieving a bourgeois prosperity that many never dreamed possible and against which they have railed for most of their adult lives.

Robert Frank, who teaches economics and public policy at Cornell, describes his anguish when a relative offered a few years ago to sell him a Porsche 911 at a bargain price. “I was sorely tempted,” Frank confesses. Yet he knew that Ithaca, New York, has a strong social norm against conspicuous consumption. Indeed a chemistry professor who drove a Porsche convertible told Frank that he occasionally had to endure obscene gestures and vandalism. Frank passed up the deal because “I realized that unless I could put a sign on the car that explained how I happened to acquire it, I would never really feel comfortable driving it.” But now Frank has changed his mind, and recently purchased a BMW. Perhaps to atone for this acquisition, Frank also published a book, Luxury Fever, in which he deplored the rising tide of materialism and consumerism in our society.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “Even Leftists Have Servants Now.” The article profiled several professors who have hired gardeners, pool men, cooks, and nannies. Most of these servants are blacks and Mexicans. The contortions these academics go through to justify their behavior make for instructive reading. Political scientist Mark Petracca, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine, says he finally agreed to get a nanny, but he absolutely refuses to hire a gardener even though everyone else in his neighborhood has one. Putting all his learning on display, Petracca explains, “It reeks of a kind of imperial colonialism one can imagine present in Shanghai.”

Recently an editor at a California publishing house told me about one of her authors who has published several books denouncing the rich for selfishness and greed. Even though the latest one has been out for a while now, the author regularly calls the editor to find out how it’s selling. Finally she gave him the dismal sales figures, and his response was to curse and vow, “Next time I’m really going to slam those greedy bastards.”

It is easy to laugh at this sanctimony and hypocrisy. I do. And I’m sure the businessmen who read that Wall Street Journal article had themselves a hearty chuckle. Why not? Here, after all, were the same professors who, struggling for years to make ends meet, directed their resentment and moral indignation against “the rich.” Now, irony of ironies, the enemies of the rich have joined the rich. The virtue of impoverishment has given way to the vice of plenty. The good guys have become bad guys, and they stand condemned in their own books and Ph.D. dissertations, indeed in their own hearts. So it’s only fair that, hoist on their own petard, these self-righteous moralizers be permitted to suffer a little for sinning against their own moral code.

Even hypocrites, however, deserve understanding and even a measure of admiration, because even if their actions contradict their moral ideals, at least they deserve credit for espousing the ideals. The strange behavior and comic rationalizations of the professor making six-figures is worth exploring because it reveals genuine anguish, a split in the psyche. Call it the moral conundrum of success. These are people who know they are doing well, but they also want to feel as if they are doing good. They want to succeed, but without selling out. They want material comforts, even luxuries, but they are eager to show they have not been consumed by materialism. In short, they want to integrate the goods of the body with the goods of the soul, and they want their personal prosperity to promote the civic or common good. Hey, these are decent, even lofty, ideals.

Indeed these ideals ennoble much of the ridiculous social and moral posturing that is produced in their name. Even so, my sympathy for the ideals does not extend to sympathy for this posturing. Rather, I wish to show that this posturing constitutes a betrayal of those ideals, and that only by getting over their deep psychological hang-ups about capitalism and success can these guilt-ridden academics come closer to achieving the worthy goals they are striving for.

What, after all, is the real academic complaint against capitalism and affluence? Read scholars like Michael Walzer, Andrew Hacker, Andrew Ross and Robert Putnam, and we find variations on a single theme. Capitalism produces an unjust society in which economic values drive out human values. The rich benefit but the poor languish. Greed and consumerism prevail at the expense of altruism, spiritual wholeness, and human relationships. The mad pursuit of technology and profits endangers our environment and undermines our familial and communal bonds.

These attacks on capitalism and commerce are not new. Indeed they are ancient. We associate some of them with Karl Marx, but many decades earlier it was Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations who acknowledged that the vice of self-interest (or, as he put it, self-love) was the motivating force that drove the market system. Indeed Smith’s defense of capitalism was merely an updating of Bernard Mandeville’s argument that “private vices” lead to “public benefits.” Long before Smith and Mandeville, the Greeks and Romans reviled the merchant and the trader as a low-life and a scum, and the Bible warns that “love of money is the root of all evil.”

What is new is that today’s academic critics of wealth must themselves confront the challenges posed by wealth. These challenges are all the more severe because in our age of affluence, the problems of inequality and materialism seem to have reached gargantuan proportions. Internet tycoons in their mid-thirties boast a net worth that rivals the gross national product of small countries. Well-off people in the West spend $2 on a bottle of designer water while one third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Even in the United States, the economic divisions have reached alarming proportions. The academic literature on the “wealth gap” points out that the top 10 percent of the population now owns two-thirds of the wealth in America; that means that the bottom 90 percent of Americans own only one-third of the wealth. There have been a spate of books complaining that the middle-class, the bulwark of American society, is rapidly dissolving, and we are becoming a nation of people who are struggling and people who are living high on the hog.

To understand what is going on, it helps to have a bit of context. In 1980, not many Americans were rich. At that time if you made $55,000 a year you would be in the top 5 percent of income-earners in America. Just over a million households qualified as millionaires, having more than $1 million in net worth. The most recent census data tell us that today you need $150,000 in annual income to make it into the top 5 percent. And over the past two decades the number of millionaire households has soared to 5 million. Five million households—that’s 20 million people.

What this means is that America has created the first mass affluent class in world history. I call it the Overclass, and as we have seen, it includes more people in the academic world than ever before. Previously the great achievement of the West was to create a middle class, to take people who were poor and to give them basic necessities and basic comforts. Now the United States has gone further: it has elevated a large number of people to the ranks of the affluent.

As they have become well-off, they have increased the gap between themselves and the rest of the population. So inequality is greater. But it’s not true to say that the rich have gotten richer and the rest have gotten poorer. Data from the Federal Reserve Board show that over the past two decades, the median net worth has risen a moderate but respectable 25 percent in real terms, to around $75,000. What has happened is the rich have gotten richer and the rest have also gotten richer, although not at the same pace. An exclusive focus on inequality implies that the emergence of the Overclass is a bad thing, when in fact it is a good thing.

To be sure, affluence opens up for ordinary people the same avenues of indulgence and debauchery traditionally available only to the aristocratic few. In that sense a rich society is also likely to be a more self-indulgent and materialist society. At the same time we should remember that affluence also liberates people from necessity and drudgery, and democratizes access to the higher goods of self-fulfillment and spiritual striving. As theologian Michael Novak puts it, “The Bible tells us that man does not live by bread alone, but often you have to have bread to realize this.”

The affluence made possible by capitalism also gives us the means to realize our social values. We can expand access to computers and the net so that the young man or woman in the Bronx, and in Karachi, has the same access to information as the students in America’s finest universities. A wealthy society can afford the luxury of environmental protection, whereas poor loggers and farmers are unlikely to save trees and forests when their livelihoods depend on cutting and clearing. Finally technology and affluence give us the flexibility to work at home, or to work part-time, or to move away from crowded urban areas into small towns and communities where we can enjoy more lasting relationships and a stronger sense of belonging.

It’s time for academe to get over its psychological hang-up about wealth and discover the virtue of prosperity. What is the point of chasing after success while feeling guilty about it? Far better to recognize that capitalism, technology and wealth are not necessarily the enemies of the social values that we hold dear. Indeed, used correctly, they provide the infrastructure and give us the tools to implement those values. So go ahead, Mark Petracca, and hire that gardener. Not only will you be helping society, but you will also be a better person for it. You’ll be giving someone who needs it a job, and you will free a whole lot of time for yourself to be more productive, or to spend with your family, or to devote to a volunteer organization.

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One Comment

  • Connie says:

    February 2, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Love this piece! It seems the real problem is the rich person’s sense of guilt that you aren’t doing enough. However, a tithe for a rich man is lots in more actual bucks that it is for a poor man, so perhaps it is better to have more rich folks – if those folks can just keep their moral stance intact. I have progressive relatives that need to read this! Still very appropriate 13 years later!