Took a morning to read through the recent scholarly work of Dr. Paul Shervish, of Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, on what he calls "the moral biographies of the wealthy," or their "Gospel of Wealth." What he means is that all wealthy persons - probably every human being - has a story (however hackneyed and insufferable) to tell of how they became what they are - a model for others to imitate. Schervish is Catholic and there is something of hagiography, or "Saint's Lives," in his uncritical account of wealth holders' stories of heroism and achievement. But the analogy that comes to mind is more Protestant, "Pilgrim's Progress." My question is whether we as a society, and we professionals who work with wealth, can afford to adopt torwards the wealthy this atitude of uncritical admiration, pending their exposure and incarceration. As advisors to wealth must we be Courtiers, Ambassadors, Wise Counselors and Scops? Who will play the role of the Fool? And how will the public interest be served in an "ownership society" if those closest to the wealth holder remain flatters and ennablers, rather than thoughtful teachers, and devil's advocates?
Schervish's other current theme is "supply side philanthropy." He suggests, based on his uncritical interviews with the wealty, and based on their word, that if estate tax is repealed the rich will step up and give more, perhaps enough more, maybe to make up for the loss of tax revenue. But if that is so, if it happens, will it happen with all those whose estate tax is forgiven, and what will we do with those, whether they be few or many, who shirk or smirk? What must be done with the wealthy free riders whose "Gospel of Wealth" is "gimme mine," whose hero story is strictly that of acquisition, optimization, and retention of wealth? Who will play the Fool or the satirist to instill in the wealthy a felt sense of obligation, a sense that many feel, but not all?
Is giving, then, a brand preference? A consumer choice? And is the Gospel of Wealth in some cases a self-gilded lilly that festers?
A third theme that runs through Schervish's work, in tension with the Gospels of Wealth and uncritical acceptance of the wealth holders blarny is that of paedeia, or moral education.
I want to ask if we as advisors do not have a Gospel of Service, and a Moral Biography of our own, and a civic responsibility, not merely to serve as Practical Servant, and Trusted Advisor, helping the wealthy to a healtheir sense of self-esteem, and helping them accomplish whatever ends they posit, no matter how benighted, but to elicit from each the best of which he or she is capable.
No, the worldly wise will say that we may not "impose our values on others." Rather like marketers we must fish around in the bucket the client presents, the Horatio Alger story they so often pass off as Gospel, for what values might be hidden there, beneath what may be a cover story, press release, or alibi. Do we have a responsibility to them and to society to elicit values that bear scrutiny and to force them, as Socrates did Thrasymachus, Jesus the Pharisees, and Diogenes did Alexander, to reconsider their Gospel, amend their actions, and open their hearts that they might be saved? (Saved from what? Maybe public contumely, if nothing else? Or the sheer loss of their own best human possibility?)
OK, let me try it again. As teachers, as parents, we know full well that a child must be nurtured, cultivated, and disciplined if he or she is to develop a moral self. We do not accept a 15 year old's midnight Gospel as Gospel because we know it is shot through with evasion, half truth, and outright fiction. We know they are shining us on, often, and often about what matters. They are testing the limits, and seeing what they can get away with or talk themselves out of. Hence, we probe, and force the issues with an eye to instilling habits of rectitude - let alone self knowledge.
My question, dear fellow "professionals," is at what age, or at what relative level of wealth, does that obligation end? Who has let us off so easy, that we have become ennablers, facilitators and flunkys?
Values-based planning! "Vanity," saith the preacher, "all is vanity."
Shervish is a fine scholar, a good man, and a wonderful resource to the planning professions. But he is engaged in a purportedly value neutral social science of sociology, what he sometimes likens to physics or hydraulics. And, the moral vocabularly he uses is far too charged to be used for decoration or tonal effect. You quote St. Thomas Aquinas and Socrates at your own risk. These men were moralists. They did not preach that whatever Gospel you spoke it was OK with them as long as you were rich. In fact, quite the opposite.
Doing a "cost benefit" analysis of this post, I determine that it would be wise to delete it. No wealth will come of this post, not to me, and probably some hassle. The heck with it: Press "Save and Post." So much for my Gospel of Wealth. My story is how, by not containing my mirth, I tossed away a promising career as Court Barber to King Midas.