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