Marilyn, Get a Right-Wing Response
July 23, 2002
By David Swanson
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
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 Scarry'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.