October 5, 2015-

Economists complain about inequality, or, as Orwell put it in Animal Farm,  how some people are more equal than others.  In Animal Farm the inequality was about political power.  There’s that too, in our time: rich people are more likely to get political access than not rich people and very rich people are likely to get immediate access. When Alfy Fanjul had a problem with a government agency he called his friend in the White House, Bill Clinton, who took time out from dealing with the Monika Lewinsky crisis to deal with the crisis of a very large donor having problems with an agency that wanted to protect the water in the Everglades from being used to irrigate Fanjul’s sugar plantations.  

Inequality reminds me of two houses I recently had the privilege to visit.  One was owned by the Colonna family and was in Rome.  It was roughly the size of the NY Public library except it was cozier.  It was very unequal. It had room after marble room, all of them fit to entertain kings, emperors and popes, and all at the same time.  That’s what they were used for.  If you are that unequal you might as well go all the way, and they did. I thought they were very tasteful.  I felt unequal, but I really didn’t mind.  

The other house we visited was built by Federico da Montefeltro.  It too had a lot of marble rooms, all filled with good to great art, art worth going quite a distance to see.  He was unequal by dint of his being a very good chap with a sword and a fine leader of men all with swords and lances and horses.  He hired himself and his army out to people like the Medici’s or the Sforza’s, whoever paid the most, and to the Pope who paid a great deal.  He thereby became supremely unequal to almost anyone.  He built a fine palace in the town square of Urbino right next to the cathedral. The charm of Federico was that he adored great artists and good writers, so he gathered around him some of the finest of the Renaissance, including Raphael and Machiaveli.  

Federico started out being as equal as any other nobleman who inherited a duchy and ended up being more equal than most.    

Now, is there anything terribly wrong with that?  If he hadn’t been unequal, he wouldn’t have built that palace and I wouldn’t have gone to Urbino.  He made the trip worth while.  A little inequality goes a long way.  In my limited experience, there is considerable merit to inequality and very little merit to its opposite, which is equality.  Dreary row houses, dreary Stalinist architecture, monotonous suburbs – that is the architecture of equality.  The lowest common denominator, the average, the undistinguished.  Socialism is nasty, grey and inevitably impractical because it doesn’t work.  

The paradox of our age is that economists (e.g., Picketty) are saying it is uneconomic for too much wealth to pile up in the hands of a few while everyone else suffers a loss of purchasing power.  There does seem to be something wrong with so much wealth accumulating in a few hands especially if it is used it to buy absurd yachts, absurd penthouses and absurd private jets.  Worse, they buy politicians who make absurd laws. 

A conspicuous inequality without redeeming features breeds discontent.  Let the billionaires do something virtuous, gratuitous, momentous, something more than making a conspicuous donation to a gilded charity that gets a name on a façade. 

Right now we need leadership to get us off of fossil fuels real soon.  If a couple of billionaires took the lead in instructing our politicians about global warming and the need for alternative fuels, those palaces might survive the growing unrest, the invasions of refugees, the calamities that lurk just around the corner.   

We think there are such billionaires. It’s a matter of faith that they too want to survive and they had better get a move on.  The candle is burning down. It won’t matter where they have a penthouse, the hoardes will descend and the seas will rise. 

And then we will all be equal.