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Bush and Lay and Unearned Income
October 9, 2002
By Jerome Doolittle

In 1894 the great populist governor of Kansas, Lorenzo Dow Lewelling, spoke as follows:

"I say to you my fellow citizens that no man in America ever had the genius or brain to earn a million dollars honestly. He can't do it while the sun shines!"

But even Governor Lewelling found himself tripped up by the deceptive language we use when the subject is money.

In what sense did Jay Gould or Cornelius Vanderbilt or John D. Rockefeller "earn" their billions, if they were dishonestly got? Earn is a word loaded with moral freight. It implies an equivalence, however rough, between the service performed and the amount "earned."

"Make," suggesting creation, is no better. Rockefeller, for instance, did not create wealth. He took it from others, who in their turn had taken it from their employees, from their customers, and ultimately from the earth.

My wife, who works seventy-hour weeks teaching calculus, earns her money. My doctor earns her money. My plumber earns his money. The dairy farmer from whom I buy my milk makes her money, out of grass and a few Jersey cows.

Kenneth Lay's money, however, was neither earned nor made. Neither, to pick a closely related example, was that of his protégé, George W. Bush.

We can only begin to think accurately about money when we stop dressing up the act of appropriation in words that carry undeserved moral significance. It is as if we habitually referred to the act of rape as "lovemaking."

Rape as a crime would disappear. We would come to honor the most successful and brutal rapists for their virility and selfless gift of pleasure to womankind. They would appear on the cover of magazines, be elected to high office, even receive honorary degrees from Yale.

Better to call things what they are, then, which is why I wrote in the preceding entry that Richard Scrushy "got hold" of the huge fortune he has wrung from his chain of rehabilitation hospitals. I could just as well have written obtained. Or took possession of. Appropriated. Gained control of. Received. Accumulated. Amassed.

But these are all morally neutral. We might do better to tip the scales all the way over to the pejorative side, if we ever hope to end up in the middle of the linguistic road.

How about grab? Pluck? Snatch? Seize? Lift? Pocket? Steal?

Or, for its cold precision, "subtract?"

Help me out here. Fill in the blanks below with the word or words of your choice. And never say earn again, unless you really mean it.

1. "In 2000, Kenneth Lay ___________ $123.4 million from the sale of his soon-to-be-worthless Enron stock options."

2. "In 1998, George W. Bush _____________ $15 million on his Texas Rangers investment of $606,000, most of it borrowed."

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