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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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How Much is Enough?

Last month a University of Chicago law professor got in trouble with a blog he wrote about whether the Bush era tax cuts should be extended.  His argument was that his and his wife’s combined annual income of more than $300,000 did not make them wealthy, that an increase in taxes on the top tier income brackets would force them to make painful choices about continuing private schooling for their children or continuing to provide income to the new immigrants who cared for their lawn and took care of their children.  Needless to say, not everyone felt overly sympathetic in this age of unemployment and foreclosure.  Cutting your own grass probably feels like a welcome luxury to someone who has lost his own home to some unscrupulous mortgage company.

The response has not been kind.  In spite of attempts by sympathetic friends to portray this professor as a nice but sadly misunderstood guy, the general response, including some from colleagues, has been blistering, causing the professor to give up blogging altogether.  One is tempted to say he deserved everything he got.  It’s hard to imagine a more insensitive posting given what so many people are dealing with in this recession, including a large number of his impoverished neighbors living no more than a block or two away from the law school campus.  Arguments can be made on the economic benefits to the wider society of extending or curtailing these tax cuts.  Failing, however, to acknowledge that one is doing so from a place of enormous privilege, is indefensible.

But the professor is certainly not alone with his blinders.  There is no magic income level that appears to relieve people from the anxiety that they don’t have quite enough.  Few of us are willing to admit that we are, in fact, well off, not just in relative terms compared to neighbors living in poverty here and around the world, but objectively as well.  Fixated on those who appear to have more wealth than we do, we seldom note the massive numbers who have far less.  For reasons that are sometimes hard to fathom, the United States has never been afflicted with widespread class conflict despite widening disparities between the very rich and the very poor.   My sensitive mother surprised some year ago, commenting on the affluence that had grown up around her in a once modest middle class neighborhood – “I sometimes wonder why poor people just don’t rise up in revolt.”

How much is enough?  Enough money to put a roof over your family, feed them, send them to decent public schools, save for retirement, pay for health care, and take an occasional week long vacation?  For many that would be a dream come true.  For others it would feel like a grossly diminished life. People tend to gauge their wealth – and as a result, often their happiness – by comparing themselves to those who have more than they do.  J. Bradford DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California, suggests that many people don’t consider themselves rich because they compare themselves to the top income brackets – a statistically tiny group – rather than to the much larger proportion of the population that earns less.

It’s pathetic and embarrassing that somebody with five times the median household income, someone in the top 2 or 3 percent of the population, thinks of himself as just another “average Joe.”  Why don’t you ask someone who makes $40,000 or $50,000 a year if they have a lot in common with a family making $250,000? (The New York Times, September 30, 2010)

Global Rich List can help you determine where you stand financially in relation to the rest of the world.  I checked out my income (significantly less than the University of Chicago law professor, but still comfortable).  It places me in the top ½ of 1% of the population in the world!  Wow.  I’m rich!  Why don’t I always feel that way?

If we only compare our financial circumstances to those who have more than we do, we run the risk of living in a perpetual state of envy, bitterness, and anxiety.  Removing the blinders of our privilege is the first step toward healthy attitudes about our own wealth.  The point is not to promote guilt, but to nurture gratitude, which in turn can lead toward more faithful, generous and responsible living in relation to all of our neighbors, rich and poor alike.  How much is enough?  For most of the people reading this, the answer is probably “about what I have.”  Once we “get” that, it’s amazing how often our grasping turns to giving.  It may even be a clue to what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not worry about our life, what you will eat or what you will drink. . . , or about what you will wear. . . .  Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

John H. Thomas

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