The Greeks and Romans had a virtue known as Magnificence. The average person couldn’t be Magnificent. No, it required greatness. Greatness of wealth and power and taste and vision. Those who had such things were expected to do Magnificent things. These things, particularly in the Roman expression, had to do with the public good. They were infrastructure projects, artistic monuments in public spaces, theaters and sporting arenas, festivals, or works of religious devotion like shrines and temples. In the Roman world, everything was about Honor, the public recognition of value and worth. Yes, great houses and conspicuous consumption were part of that; but to truly be seen by the public as Magnificent, there had to be public good.
In America, and the West in general, we used to have that. The Carnegies and Rockefellers understood, at least in part, that wealth was not simply for private pleasure but required expenditure for the public good. We lost that.
Let us take for example the so called “Billionaire Space Race.” Now, anyone who knows me knows I am all for space exploration and industry, so do not mistake my purpose in bringing this up. I see a great deal of value in public and private space ventures; I am no William Proxmire. However, let us consider this in light of that ancient virtue of Magnificence.
According to Fortune magazine, Jeff Bezos spent $5.5 billion dollars of his own money on his company Blue Origin, a private—even secretive—venture. Now we know that this is intended to be a profit-making business, but Bezos has made it clear it was mostly about him fulfilling a childhood dream. It works out to about $1.38 billion dollars a minute.
The same amount of money would have paid two years of NASA’s budget, if advancing space exploration was the goal. Approximately 800,000 Americans could have gone to two years of community college/vocational school. You could pay for Medicare for about 1.5 million Americans. You could feed 2.5 million people 3 meals a day for a year. You could double the National Endowment for the Arts for almost 20 years. You could safely resettle around 255,000 refugees currently living in subsistence conditions across the world. You could pay the budget of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for about 18 months or all of the National Parks in America for a few months less. You run the Smithsonian, all of it, for 3 months.
So, what is my point? There is a huge wealth gap in America, in the world. Every single one of us makes choices about how we spend money, and the less money we have, the less choice we have. It is not wrong to expect those who have more to do more. Not just expect, but demand. Americans seem to have this mentality that you cannot expect the rich to pay their fair share because somehow that would hurt everyone else, or that if you expect them to pay more that means you have to pay more. I am sure that some rich people paid a lot to get us trapped in that fallacious logic. We have a problem because we have a supremely wealthy class who thinks that money only exists to make money, when there is so much more it could do. There is so much more that we should expect it to do.