When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” he inadvertently foreshadowed the government shutdown of 2018-19.
Fitzgerald was alluding to the wealthy class, which he had earlier portrayed in “The Great Gatsby,” the great American novel. Old money is also different from newly made fortunes, as Jay Gatsby himself discovered during his futile attempts to buy acceptance.
But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ recent comment about furloughed government employees — that he didn’t “really quite understand” why unpaid workers were visiting food banks — confirmed Fitzgerald’s point. The very wealthy are different — and they think differently.
Ross furthered his disassociation from reality, saying that “the obligations that they [federal employees] would undertake — say, borrowing from a bank or a credit union — are, in effect, federally guaranteed, so the 30 days of pay that some people will be out is no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.”
Yes, quite, quite.
Then again, if you’ve never lived paycheck to paycheck, as nearly 80 percent of Americans do, you might not be expected to really quite understand what it’s like. Although some banks have, indeed, been helping out with zero- to low-interest loans, it wasn’t clear that everyone would be eligible. Even the fully employed suffer less-than-perfect credit.
The notion, meanwhile, that all will be rectified in due course is cold comfort when you can’t meet your financial obligations. Now that the government is reopened — for three more weeks, at least — federal employees are still likely to face days of paperwork and telephone roulette as they try to correct their credit history and satisfy debtors.
This isn’t end-of-world stuff, obviously, but the shutdown certainly wasn’t a “vacation,” as President Trump’s chief economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, suggested. Ross, who made his billions partly by buying distressed debt further revealed his own cluelessness by dryly noting that the 800,000 furloughed and unpaid workers represent only one-third of 1 percent of our gross domestic product.
Why all the sad faces?
Thanks to Fitzgerald, we learn that being blessed with wealth “does something to them … that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” Which is to say, we have a failure of mutual understanding.
Ross and Trump are primarily businessmen and, thus, perhaps see people more as commodities than human beings. Despair is a market fluctuation that cool investors simply wait out. And massive inconvenience for the ordinary working stiff is represented as dots and jagged lines on a spreadsheet.
Nevertheless, Trump, whose philanthropic pursuits end where the casino parking lot begins, felt compelled to rich-splain the commerce secretary, saying that although he hadn’t heard Ross’ statement, “I do understand that perhaps he should have said it differently. Local people know who they are when they go for groceries and everything else. And I think what Wilbur was probably trying to say is that they will work along.”
Here’s the sad part: I know what Trump meant. After two or more years of listening to “Trumplish,” a linguistic pattern of half-thoughts, sentence fragments and primary wordplay, one begins to get the hang of it. In this case, there’s actually some consolation folded into Trump’s translation of Wilburnomics: “Local people know who they are,” even if Ross doesn’t.
Locals and nonlocals alike also know who forced the government to shut down over an unpopular, expensive and likely ineffective border wall. Compute this: Landowner lawsuits and appeals over eminent domain could last years; construction of 1,000 miles of steel barriers could take a decade; and technology gallops along. How soon before passenger drones are delivering migrants to Oklahoma?
This may seem far-fetched, but so, too, were mobile phones not so long ago.
Meanwhile, we face problems more pressing than our dysfunctional government. Recent polling shows that America may be drifting away from capitalism and toward socialism. In 2018, Gallup found that fewer than half of young Americans view capitalism positively and 51 percent view socialism favorably. A Fox News poll released Thursday found that 40 percent of Democrats think a move toward socialism would be a good thing and only 34 percent disagreed.
Republicans are against a socialist shift (80 percent), but they also tend to correspond to a graying demographic.
When the very rich are exposed as removed and oblivious to American daily life, it becomes far easier for socialists to make their ideas, such as wealth redistribution, attractive. Ironically, Trump’s true legacy may not be the wall but the fall.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is email@example.com.