Ask Marilyn, Get a Right-Wing Response

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Most Americans read few if any newspapers. The papers that are read most often are the Sunday editions, the ones with the comics, the TV guide, and Parade Magazine. The papers that carry Parade as an insert run the full gamut from extremely right-wing to moderately right-wing, but Parade itself sticks close to the extreme, not just with its articles but especially with its regular advice column “Ask Marilyn.”

Marilyn Vos Savant describes herself on her website as being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest IQ. She also appears on CBS television’s Evening News. Marilyn devotes about half of her column space each week to Mensa-type games, brain teasers, word puzzles. I guess that’s what people with the highest IQ are supposed to devote themselves to. Or is it that people who devote themselves to this crap end up testing with the highest IQs?

In any case, Marilyn devotes the other half of her effort to preaching morality. She is one of the few columnists or reporters or editorialists in the country who writes about morality, something devastatingly lacking from most of our public discourse. She’s wading into a huge void, but unfortunately she gives the impression of being quite lost in it.

Marilyn, like much of our academic culture at least since Plato, seems to view morality as one more brain teaser. Whoever’s got the highest IQ should be able to look at the facts and pronounce the solution. No particular empathy or courage or sacrifice is needed, much less any humility. Morality on this view is simply a matter of intelligence. Marilyn is so intent on delivering to us her knowledge of how the world works that the moral aspect of her readers’ questions sometimes flies right over her head.

Marilyn’s July 21, 2002, column begins with this question: “Do you think it’s proper for people to spend money on luxuries for themselves when there are poor people in the same city?” This question seems fairly clearly to be asking whether someone whose basic needs are met but who has extra money should (A) spend that money on luxuries for themselves or (B) give that money to someone else in the same city whose basic needs have not been met.

If someone like the philosophy professor Peter Singer were answering this, the response would be “Obviously B, but what about poor people in other parts of the world? What’s so special about your city?” If some less courageous and honest philosophy professor were answering, the response might focus on the alleged greater need for luxuries of people who have grown up accustomed to them, or alternatively on the question of why the hypothetical poor people (setting aside many glaring real-world examples) were poor and whether giving them fish or teaching them to fish would help best, etc.

In Marilyn’s response, she appears not to have even considered the possibility that the rich person might do something with his or her money to help the poor people. She seems to view the alternatives as (A) spending the money on luxuries or (C) leaving it in the bank.. She proceeds to address the question of whether buying luxuries might in itself conceivably do any good for the poor people – not actual poor people, mind you, but quaint mythical folk like “cobblers.” Here’s her answer to her reader’s question about morality:

“Yes. Say a person buys a pair of $1,000 shoes. The money leaves his bank account and arrives in the account of the shoe manufacturer, who disburses most of it to everyone from cobblers to the people who deliver the shoes to the store (not to mention government taxing agencies). So jobs are created and maintained, the working people get the money, and our rich friend has a pair of shoes in his closet that will fall apart just as fast as any other shoes. Let’s hope he also buys a $5,000 handbag for his wife and takes his kids on a $10,000 vacation to New York City and supports all the new musicals!”

This answer encapsulates the right-wing world of Marilyn, who no doubt sees her own occasional purchase of books as public charity by means of trickle-down voodoo education.

Marilyn’s response seems to come from an age in which shoe manufacturers were likely to live and even incorporate their business in your city. A charitable reading would be that Marilyn has, rather, abandoned the concern for a particular city and is expressing a desire to help out Asian workers and the government tax agencies of the Bahamas. But “cobblers” makes me suspect that her frame of mind is shaped more by children’s books, that her categories of people are derived from Richard Scary’s “What Do People Do All Day?” more than from any knowledge of the planet most of us are living on.

In Marilyn’s shopping-as-society-building solution, “the working people get the money” (or “most” of it), and they get it by working rather than as a handout. But if some of THEM were to buy reasonably priced working shoes, instead of “our rich friend” buying obscenely expensive shoes, wouldn’t jobs still be created and maintained? Wouldn’t the money still go to working people? Is money somehow less in circulation in the economy if poor people spend it than if rich people do? Might it not even boost productivity a little for workers to see a higher wage and be able to work with decent shoes on their feet?

The question was not about one rich person, even though it is true that each individual must make his or her choices. The question was about “people.” The questioner, I suspect, was concerned about a general trend. Some people in American cities are gorging themselves on luxuries while many other people struggle. This divide has been growing for years, despite all the buying of luxuries. The questioner no doubt knew this and assumed that it went without saying that buying luxuries wouldn’t solve the problem. That’s why the question was whether it was “proper” to engage in such greedy gluttony, as opposed (presumably) to behaving generously.

For Marilyn, the greedy rich person is our friend, while someone generous would presumably be our enemy, a fool failing to support “the Market.” Maybe back in whatever year Marilyn is living in (in which cobblers make shoes and people of action are assumed to be male and to provide for their helpless wives) supply-side economics has not yet failed miserably and been forced to supply itself with its own personal Congress. Maybe where she comes from waste is good and shoes that don’t last are a plus for the environment. Maybe even in Marilyn’s world the Broadway musicals are worth supporting.

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