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The other day, Paul Krugman had a piece in the NYT about the “Undeserving Rich.” His argument is about the question of equality in America, claiming that the rich have no right to be rich. They just do not deserve that good fortune. He says, “While we can and should have a serious debate about what to do about this situation, the simple fact—American capitalism as currently constituted is undermining the foundations of middle-class society—shouldn’t be up for argument.” Well, it is up for argument.

I have noted before that the argument is not about inequality, but that our definition of poverty is changing because the conditions of poverty have changed. The bottom line of poverty is not what it was and the state of poverty in America and the world is much less dire, less miserable than it was, generally speaking. Less starvation, less disease, fewer people living at subsistence level. This seems to be irrelevant for Krugman, for whom income disparity is the main point. For him, the real problem is not the poor, but the rich, the awful 1 percent. “And who are these lucky few? Mainly they’re executives of some kind, especially, although not only, in finance. You can argue about whether these people deserve to be paid so well, but one thing is clear: They didn’t get where they are simply by being prudent, clean and sober.” 

Neither were they born to that wealth. He says that the poor still lack opportunity, but the once poignant point of the classless society that is so American was that each made his own opportunity through education and effort. Increasingly, this is true around the world, as well. Given the ever-changing list of new names counted as “America’s Wealthiest,” this is still true. Krugman may complain, “For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities?” Yet, firstly, a good education does not, or should not, start at the university level. Secondly, public education is available to all, no matter the circumstances of birth or economic circumstances. What is done with the opportunity given to any student is another matter. Succeed there, and universities have scholarships and grants available for the deserving poor. Merit negates the problem of tuition; we want the deserving to prosper. There, conservatives find common ground with Krugman, though he seems not to see that. 

Finally, for me this raises the question of who gets to decide which person is or is not deserving in a secular world? In a world where our circumstances were known to be some aspect of God’s plan, then wealth or poverty at birth was not a question of just or unjust deserts. Krugman blames man for the inequality of circumstances. Who does the believer blame? Well, within Christianity, anyway, the circumstances of a birth were no indicator of ability or of what degree of success in terms of wealth or power might be obtained by an individual. What was certainly true within the Church itself, but was also often true in public life, was that a person might rise or fall according to God-given talent and grace. The latter means that what would be seen as chance in godless eyes, is not chance at all in the eyes of the faithful. A birth in lowly circumstances was no barrier to that grace, which is wholly God’s own, since a lowly birth made for grace. 

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