06 February 2020

Triumph of the magic tycoon

Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
Psalm 49:16-17; Ecclesiastes 5:10, NIV

Do you remember the millionaire columnist Percy Ross? His column, "Thanks a Million," was published in one of the newspapers we read regularly in our Richmond, Indiana, years, and in about 800 other papers nationwide. It ended in 1999, when Ross announced that he had exhausted the fund set up for his philanthropic project ... although privately he sometimes still responded to requests after that date.

The column originated when Ross decided to devote the majority of his fortune to a specific kind of very public but human-scale philanthropy. If you wrote to him with a credible pitch that some cash from him would improve your prospects in a way you weren't able to manage for yourself, and -- of course -- if your letter got picked from among the 10,000 he received each week, you'd get the cash. Actually, many more people were helped than the few whose stories were chosen for his column. In some cases, instead of cash, you'd get an in-kind gift from a sympathetic business, or Ross would kick off a campaign to get donations from other readers. His column would often also include examples of unsuccessful pitches, along with Ross's tart explanation of the denial.

Americans seem to have a fascination with wealthy people, and with the magic wand such people could wave over the rest of us who saw them as role models or yearned for a piece of their good fortune. The enormous popularity of "Thanks a Million" was just one example of that fascination, and by no means the worst. Ross wasn't exactly a systemic critic of capitalism and its ills, but he seemed to have a fair understanding of how people could end up needing help through no fault of their own. Although it seemed clear that Ross enjoyed the publicity while it lasted, there were no political or doctrinal strings attached to his gifts, and he hoped and expected to fade out of public view after his project ended.

All of these thoughts about Ross and other tycoons were stirred up by the spectacle of the constitutionally-mandated State of the Union speech for this year. Once again, a wealthy, publicity-seeking man dispenses his favors -- but isn't it fair to observe that this one is a bit different? All of the gifts and guest appearances arguably were tied into the Trump re-election campaign, but for me the most outrageous moment was awarding the nation's highest civilian honor to Rush Limbaugh, who has endorsed Trump to his dittohead audience.

(Related: see "Trumpworld has converted the nation's regional talk radio hosts into a loyal army.")

The speech was also remarkable for what he claimed that he was achieving or giving us despite his administration's actions (or inactions) to the contrary. His "ironclad pledge" to preserve coverage of pre-existing health conditions is a scandalous example, as is his claim that prescription drugs are getting cheaper or his prediction that the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico will add 100,000 auto industry jobs. One record he could have mentioned but did not: The U.S. national debt reached $22 trillion last year, or 78% of gross domestic product, with little or no apparent relief forthcoming from the pledges made during the 2017 campaign for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Aside from that law, very little of the national debt can be blamed on Trump, but an accurate State of the Union speech would not leave out this evidence of our collective refusal to live in reality.

Donald Trump did not invent the idea of using this annual speech as a campaign ad, but I cannot remember any previous report on the State of the Union with such a high proportion of blatant self-promotion, self-congratulation, and deception. I cannot pretend to have been surprised. The evidence suggests, however, that a large part of the USA still hopes for our Tycoon-in-Chief to bestow his magic bounty on us for another four years.

If you think I'm being unfair to Donald Trump, you probably shouldn't read or watch this.

Umair Haque asks why Americans idolize the rich. Are his observations fair? Also see Gillian B. White's article on photojournalist Lauren Greenfield, who has been documenting Americans' apparent fascination with wealth. And the Cato Institute surveys Americans' attitudes toward poverty, wealth, and work. Interesting sample:
Nearly three‐​fourths (71%) of Americans admire more than resent the rich. But people also believe this admiration can be taken to excess. A similar share (75%) believe that their fellow Americans admire the rich "too much."
Jacqui Shine tells us more about Percy Ross and his column "Thanks a Million."

Here's why Russian prosecutors dropped murder charges against sisters who stabbed their father.

Josh Daffern proposes six reasons that might explain why the so-called "nones" are walking away from church. His six reasons are all worth considering, but there's another reason that I'd propose -- and this might help explain several of his six: too many churches simply do not take Jesus seriously, and people know it. To borrow (without permission) a phrase from Norval Hadley, the body should reflect the beauty of the Head. Let's start making that our priority, rather than all the programming and thought policing that we see now. (Some of my own thoughts on Friends' weaknesses and potential strengths are here.)

Here's a topic you don't see every day: Sex and the married missionary.

Another kind of blues: Daniel Deitrich's "Hymn for the 81%." "I grew up in your churches...."

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