By Richard Schmitt
According to recent newspaper reports, the leadership of the state higher education system includes the highest paid state employees in Massachusetts. Some salaries in that group are said to exceed $400,000. (In the last two days, the president of the University of Massachusetts has announced freezes on the salaries of top administrators. But there is no talk of a reduction of salaries that are higher than those of anyone else on the state payroll.) At the same time, the fees of students at the University of Massachusetts seem to be going up by $1500. There is fairly reliable information that the President and top administrators at our own Worcester State College received raises this year of up to 15%. At the same time, many of our students work minimum-wage jobs, or jobs that barely pay more than that, in order to afford their college tuition.
Large salaries at the top; financial squeeze at the bottom. One cannot help but think of the large banks that received government bailout money and passed a good deal of that money on to their top executives as rewards for bankrupting their companies. After AIG, the largest US insurance company, was bailed out by the government, some of that money went to a weekend retreat for top executives. $20,000 went for pedicures for those attending that retreat.
To be sure, the University of Massachusetts is not using bailout money to pay such grandiose salaries. But it is using public money that comes from the children of taxpaying citizens and their taxpaying parents themselves. Both the banks and our public education system are led by men and some women who are after big bucks before they care about anything else. We are not surprised when bankers are, above all, interested in enriching themselves. We are justified, however, to expect better from the leaders of our educational institutions.
We live, as someone recently said, in a society that “equates self-worth with net worth.” We have been taught and are being taught even by the leaders of our University that what a person earns determines their worth as a person. We have learned to estimate our own value as human beings by our income.
But what does my worth as a person have to do with my income?
If there is any lesson in the story of Bernie Madoff who swindled people–many of them his friends– of $50 billion, it is that even very rich people may well be crooks. The fact that other rich people allow themselves to be taken for large amounts of money shows that even very rich people are not always smart. If there is any lesson to be learned from the people nominated to Pres. Obama’s cabinet who then could not serve because they had neglected to pay significant portions of their income tax, it is that even rich people are often not public spirited, that they care more for their money than for their elementary obligations as citizens.
Many people care more for money than for their moral character or for their fellow men and women. Many people are blinded by greed to act stupidly. Many people, supposedly in public service, will gladly cheat on their taxes. Why would anyone think that a person’s worth is to be measured in dollars? Why do so many people think that money is more important than being an honest person, that it is more important than setting a good example to young people?
We live in a capitalist country and we are proud of the wealth our economic system has produced for (some of) us — or produced for us until not too long ago. What we are not often willing to admit is that this capitalist system does have its dark side. We now see one of those dark sides; capitalism encourages greed. It rewards greed; it makes heroes of the greedy, at least if they succeed in enriching themselves. What matters for the capitalist entrepreneur is the bottom line– profit. The canny entrepreneur will, for instance, pay employees as little as possible because that increases profits. If that means that the employee needs a second job and may get ill from overwork, or if it means that both parents have to work and children grow up unsupervised — none of that is the employers’ concern because profit for themselves is all that matters to them. According to the capitalist ethic, profit is the only thing that ought to concern the employer. Let the other people struggle; that is their problem.
The leaders at the University of Massachusetts, at Worcester State College and at our banks and huge insurance companies have learned this lesson well. They are above all entrepreneurs; their first concern is their own personal income. If the university needs more money, let the taxpayers — many of them already burdened – come up with extra fees for their children. Let the taxpayers bail out the banks whose leadership gets bonuses for having run their businesses into the ground.
If you look at capitalist ethics in that way, it does not look very good. But it happens to be our ethics.
Is anyone willing to say a good word about Christian ethics– about loving your neighbor like yourself (without asking how much you will get paid for doing that)?