Greed And Social Creation Of Wealth


John Fleming

"Because you like nice things" is a wonderful advertising slogan, a real classic. I think this phrase from a local television commercial should be trumpeted throughout the country. It could be applied to everything from automobiles and houses to schools and supermarkets. "Harvard School of Business Administration-because you like nice things." "Illinois Power Ball - because you like nice things." It could be a marketing bonanza if captured in a universally recognized trademark, such as the McDonald's arches or Coke's waves.
Such an icon would make a useful reminder, too, of the rewards of success and what the true use of money is, like Ben Franklin's adage counseling thrift: "If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some, for he who goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing." Just as the golden arches appeal to our appetite, an instant symbol of wealth and the "good life" could appeal to our sense of national purpose, especially in the wake of socialism, as the last refuge where anyone can get rich. America has always meant the great El Dorado, the main chance, the mother lode.
But maybe we already have this trademark in televised celebrities. Wealth goes hand in hand with TV fame, and the media ceremoniously extol these wealthy celebrities as heroes to emulate. "Our aristocrats" obviously must live royally, as fame itself is not considered reward enough. In the conversion of fame to gold, celebrities are so closely associated with certain products as to be marketed like aftershave or motor oil.
M*** marketing has made them household names, symbols of the American dream come true, constant reminders of the reason for America. No one seems to be complaining that $10 million for starring in a movie is too much, despite trouble in the economy, such as corporate down-sizing, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and the creation of low-paying service-sector jobs (facts that date from the early 80s, if not earlier).
Lucrative endorsement deals are actually part of the entertainment, to be accepted amiably and cheerfully, despite justified criticism of a "Wheaties reunion" that crowds out genuine news. Whether as movie star, comedian, musician, quarterback or novelist, the celebrity seems to justify his wealth--on the rare occasion that justification is called for - with the entertainment ethic. Actors and athletes are generically known as entertainers. They have "entertained millions," and have millions of fans. Their faces are recognizable worldwide.
Some commentators even boldly proclaim that celebrity worship is democracy's aristocracy, as it were, just like the royal family in Britain or Monaco, and will always be with us, or is somehow socially necessary. The entertainment ethic, though such popular notions do not run deep on theory, seems to say that celebrities are very productive, earn extraordinary salaries commensurate with their extraordinary creation of economic activity, such as movie-going, tuning in to broadcasts, concert-going, purchase of the heroes' memorabilia, and so forth. They haul in every extra million dollars possible through continual ******* agitation of all four limbs.
But celebrities are only the most superficial aspect of American royalty. While the media dote on them--using hard-news space for corporate advertisement more and more--other stories of riches and "success" are neglected. The leisure classes, the idle rich, inherits lightly taxed trust-fund fortunes and never work a day in their life. As political scientist Michael Parenti pointed out, some members of corporate boards vote themselves huge incomes!
Highly paid physicians incorporate themselves to avoid taxes -- a privilege not available to the ordinary worker. While a labor strike by multi-millionaire professional athletes will make headlines, the work stoppage, as it were, of the leisure class is not "news." And the New York Stock Exchange has always been a den of thieves, money - hungry vultures guilty of insider-trading and selling stock short, just to name a little of their "entrepreneurial" tomfoolery.
And the circularity of the entertainer-ethic argument cannot be denied. He is very well paid because he is a famed entertainer known to millions. Sometimes a celebrity arises - though not for very long - as one known for being famous, for being an entertainer without the usual artistic or athletic basis, or an entertainer whose initial achievement is dwarfed by his celebrity success per se, and this type of celebrity is well paid also. His fame justifies his wealth, just as his wealth comes to justify his fame.
But it is not hard to be sarcastic. In the larger picture, taking away the cultural rose-colored glasses, celebrities can be criticized as greedy and opportunistic precisely because, as the commercial says, "you like nice things." By which is meant - if anyone needs hard evidence -- mansions, palaces, Mercedes, worldly travel, servants to do your work for you, membership in exclusive clubs, winding private drives, gate houses, emancipation from labor. Given the obvious universal appeal of luxury, what is the point of the phrase? Is there anyone who doesn't like nice things?
Is there anyone who doesn't wish to be wealthy? History and all experience - besides bearing not a single memorable instance of a wealthy, powerful family giving everything they have to the poor and following the Lord's servants and ministers - teach us that when they have money, when they are "loaded," they will indeed live well and buy nice things, will lead the good life. An aristocracy of celebrities, though it is tiny, is an anomaly in a country afraid to admit to classes, or to use "upper-class" instead of the term "up-scale." The "underprivileged" - that is, the unsuccessful - can only dream of the good life enjoyed by this aristocracy, but that was never the meaning of the American dream in the first place.