Unfair distribution of wealth has nation going to the dogs

Published in The News Tribune, June 16, 2011

It’s not quite the dog days of summer, but dogs are making the news.

First came the story of the dog Trouble who just passed away.  Although she preferred to call her dog “Princess”, “Trouble” was the name the billionaire Leona Helmsley gave her beloved Maltese.  You may recall that Trouble gained fame four years ago after Helmsley’s death.  Leona, concerned that her dog might have to live out her life leading – well, a dog’s life — left Trouble a $12 million inheritance so that her dog could continue leading the life to which she had become accustomed. 

Among other things, apparently Trouble had a craving for crab cakes.  Over the last four years of Trouble’s life, something close to $1 million was spent on meeting that craving as well as numerous others.   Trouble traveled by private jet and received top notch medical care for her kidney problems.

Coming on the heels of this story was another published the other day in the News York Times about the $235,000 price tag that certain German Shepherds now command.  Apparently, these dogs are gaining popularity among very wealthy individuals looking for “personal protection”.  One person interviewed had six such “personal protection” dogs.

Such stories can be seen as evidence of lopsided values in our economy.  After all, one in five workers are either looking for a better job or, for many, any sort of a job.  Elsewhere, researchers at the Harvard Medical School estimate that almost 50,000 people a year in the U.S. die for lack of health insurance.  And one in seven Americans today buy their food with the help of food stamps.

With all these problems in our economy, aren’t such examples of luxury spending on dogs not just tasteless, but perverse?

Opulent spending on dogs – or jewelry, cars, foreign travel, and rare books for that matter – is nothing new of course.  The hyper wealthy have always sought ways to spend their money so that they could distinguish themselves from the merely wealthy.

And it can be argued that such spending is the cost of an economic system that rewards the productive – they reap the benefits of their productivity, and can and should spend their well-deserved earnings as they see fit.  Trying to engineer outcomes that we may deem to be more “socially desirable” may only serve to kill the golden goose.

In our own backyard, the power of this argument was one of the main reasons why so many Washingtonians voted against the income tax initiative back in November.  Voters were convinced that with a state income tax in place, the golden geese were going to fly away.

But we all systematically overestimate the extent to which earnings (or lack thereof) reflect what individuals deserve.  With great accuracy you can predict anyone’s income in the world if you know what country they live in and what family they are from.  Moreover, rapid changes in both technology and communication today – factors beyond the control of any one individual– are shifting incomes for good and bad at a speed never seen before.

So there is a lot of luck involved in what one earns, and structural economic changes are making that luck more unevenly distributed among us.  This is why the image of Trouble dining on crab cakes while being watched over by her own personal security agent can anger many.

For whatever good incentives there may be in letting people keep the money they earn, the growing unfairness in how economic resources are distributed in our country is increasingly troublesome.   When A Dog’s Life is literally something to aspire to, that’s a clear indicator that things are amiss.