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US Media Look to Billionaires for Moral Wisdom

The media in the US are giving major coverage this week to the random political thoughts of a host of billionaires that include JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, investor Paul Tudor Jones, Bill Gates and, most spectacularly, hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman, the founder of the investment advisory firm, Omega Advisors. The business news outlets want to understand their feelings about the wealth tax proposed by two of the prominent Democratic presidential primary candidates.

Interviewed by CNBC, Cooperman made the news because, while defending billionaires, he also criticized Donald Trump. He went so far as to encourage the sitting president and fellow billionaire to retire from politics, while nevertheless praising the Republican president for the positive effect he has had on the stock market. He appears to believe that Trump’s systematic political and economic gifts to the super-wealthy may translate, in the mind of the public, as unwelcome PR for the moneyed class.

Once his criticism of Trump was out of the way, Cooperman expressed a far more severe opinion of the political platforms of Democratic primary candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom he accused of “presenting a lot of ideas to the public which are morally and socially bankrupt.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Morally bankrupt:

A meaningless insult typically used by people who are more familiar with the mechanics and strategies related to bankruptcy than with moral principles

Contextual Note

To set the scene in the interview, Cooperman prefaced his remarks with the disclaimer, “I’m not a political analyst, I’m a financial analyst.” Nor is he a moral philosopher, it should be noticed. Cooperman does at one point in the interview attempt to quote Aristotle, punctuating his diatribe against today’s politicians with this remark: “Aristotle I think observed that basically the last virtue of a society is tolerance and indifference.” At least Cooperman is honest when he admits that he “thinks” Aristotle said something that he never actually said, though it would be difficult to make any sense out of his reformulation of Aristotle’s thought.

Cooperman’s attempt at interpreting Aristotle reveals not only his ignorance of Greek philosophy, but also his failure to mention the source of this quote. The apocryphal quotation he attributes to Aristotle usually goes like this: “Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society.” It is a pure invention that has apparently been circulating for over a century in white supremacist publications as an argument against multiculturalism.

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Had Cooperman consulted Aristotle’s writings, he might have taken away this far more pertinent and succinct lesson from his work: politics. Aristotle argues that from a moral point of view “all riches must have a limit,” while admitting that in practice “all getters of wealth increase their hoard of coin without limit.” As one commentator of Aristotle’s political thought explains, “For Aristotle, the legitimate end of money is as a medium of exchange but not as wealth or as a store of value.”

Aristotle makes this reproach to those who, like modern billionaires, focus on accumulating wealth: “Nevertheless, some men turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute.” What better description could anyone imagine of the narrow-minded reasoning of a hedge fund manager?

In other words, Cooperman himself offers as a supreme example of intellectual bankruptcy augmented by moral perversion when he cites a half-baked idea that derives from the worst racist traditions spawned by right-wing American culture. And yet, the media present Cooperman as basically a “good guy” because he’s rich — therefore to be admired — and because he must be “liberal” as he says he’s in favor of a progressive tax system. He even strives to distance himself from his own racist attachments evident in the phony Aristotle quote by citing a black conservative economist, Thomas Sowell, insisting on his African American identity: “Since this is an era when many people are concerned about fairness and social justice, what is your fair share of what someone else has worked for?”

Cooperman calls this the “essence of the argument.” Translated into pragmatic English, it conveys this meaning: We rich people will let those who are too lazy to be rich steal some of our honestly earned wealth because we are generous people, but we will also tell you what your “fair share” is. Or as the black singer Billie Holiday sang, in a far more philosophical treatment of the same subject: “Rich relations give/ Crust of bread and such/ You can help yourself/ But don’t take too much.”

Historical Note

If Cooperman really trusts Aristotle, he should pay heed to a pithy bit of the philosopher’s wisdom undoubtedly intended for the edification of hedge fund managers: “For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest.”

For centuries, Christian Europe took this Greek condemnation of usury so seriously that the Catholic Church banned lending at interest, as anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice,” will be aware. Islamic banking still follows this tradition. Until the triumph of capitalism in the 18th century, when they needed cash, Christians somewhat hypocritically managed to deal with this moral stricture by subcontracting to Jews the nasty business of lending with interest. That hypocrisy played a role in aggravating the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Europe, defining the Jews as an imperfect race that is outside the true moral law.

For right-wing thinkers and committed racists, that tradition persists today. As Ann Coulter formulated it back in 2007, “We just want Jews to be perfected.” For the enlightenment of her Jewish interviewer on CNBC, she added this explanation: “We consider ourselves perfected Christians.”

Cooperman calls Warren’s wealth tax “morally bankrupt.” But what moral philosophy is he appealing to? We know it isn’t Aristotle’s ethics and, of course, it can’t be the Christian tradition that began with two notable and often-cited warnings. Jesus provided the first (Matthew 19:24): “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” St Paul added this reflection (Timothy 6.10): “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Like many rich Americans, Cooperman probably believes that, as a privileged citizen of the United States, a nation blessed by God, he has already entered the kingdom of heaven and no longer needs to worry about squeezing through the eye of the needle.

Cooperman may be unconsciously appealing to a philosophical tradition that can be traced back to John Locke, who saw property as an “inalienable” right, alongside life and liberty. The nation’s founders considered property — which, for some, included slaves — as sacred. John Adams wrote in 1787 that, “The moment an idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.” 

The libertarian strain in US politics shows that Americans are still not clear about whether the nation itself has the right to tax something that they consider sacred, notably their “hard-earned cash,” which billionaires continue accumulating even in their sleep. Then there is the question of the status of money: Is it property or is it, as Aristotle maintained, something designed by the community to be used for exchange?

In the first case, money or wealth is the property of the individual who controls it. In the second, it has a social definition, related to the role it plays in human relations. The wealth of a nation is something that is bound to be shared. That reflects a cultural, rather than a purely legal principle. It justifies the taxing of citizens and deciding on the rules of taxation. Or as one man stated two millennia ago, it is about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. 

The author Philip Goff remarks: “This feeling that your pre-tax income is ‘your money’ is difficult to shake.” That appears to be what’s behind the moral principle — if that’s what it can be called — that Cooperman is appealing to. In US culture, taxation, though acknowledged as minimally necessary, is seen as immoral, an assault on the pristine purity of property. 

But, of course, the US Constitution defines the government’s right to levy taxes. Cooperman’s “moral” sentiment about property and wealth being inalienable is undermined by the law itself and has been throughout human history. Once anyone — even a billionaire — acknowledges the government’s right to tax while respecting the duty to apply the law equitably, the moral quality of that government’s policies can only be judged on whether they are oriented toward the public good or private interests.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders insist they are focused on the public good. In contrast, Leon Cooperman appears to be voting for the priority of private interests, which, after all, is a totally understandable position for a billionaire.

BREAKING NEWS: A billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, hints that he may step into the Democratic primaries to save the party and defeat billionaire Donald Trump.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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