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Mitchell: Rich People Are the Smaugs of America, Aren’t They?

Please find a rich person — which isn’t easy in Mississippi — and offer him or her a hug today.

The “one-percenters” among us need a little love. They’re taking a beating from Democratic contenders for the presidency. Bernie Sanders puts billionaires and even multimillionaires right up there with Satan. Hillary Clinton (a one-percenter, herself) sings the chorus. Rich people have ruined America and must be made to pay their fair share! That was the major theme of their first debate.

Rich people were equated to Smaug, the awesome dragon in The Hobbit. The gnarly beast roosts on mounds of gold and jewels, breathing fire and death in the direction of anyone who would dare ask for a single coin.

But with apologies to the leading Democrats, that’s just not real — not in America and not in Mississippi.

The generosity of the rich and even not-so-rich is why we have first-class medical care for infants and children in Jackson. It’s why our college campuses have science buildings, performance centers and, yes, athletic facilities. Rich Mississippians have also written fat checks for parks and recreation facilities statewide, for museums and for nature preserves.

Satan wouldn’t do that.

Nationally, there are super-philanthropists. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, have given away $27 billion. That’s enough to operate the entire state of Mississippi for almost three years.

Right behind him is Warren Buffet of Nebraska. He’s given away $21 billion and, with Gates, formed Giving Pledge to encourage others among the super-rich to be super-charitable. Young people are giving, too. Ronald Reagan was leaving office as Mark Zuckerberg entered kindergarten. Yet the founder of Facebook has already given away $1.6 billion.

OK, well, we’ve heard about those guys.

But ever hear of Charles Francis Feeney? His name is not on any buildings, but the guy who once owned the Duty Free shops in the world’s airports has given away $7.5 billion, keeping only about $1 million to support himself. Forbes magazine described Feeney as a guy “working double time to die broke.” He gave $350 million to Cornell, which he attended on the GI Bill.

Not every wealthy person is generous, of course. There are Smaugs out there, but even they have a tremendous effect on the lives of others when they build, shop, travel, invest and even when they relax.

When today’s Thurston Howell III pulls his yacht into port and tops off the tanks with $80,000 worth of diesel, that supports a lot of jobs. When the jet-setters buy all the luxury-class seats on an international flight, that keeps the airlines flying and tens of thousands of employees working.

The super-rich do live in a different world. On a recent single day when Wall Street belched, USA Today reported that the heirs of the Walmart fortune lost $11 billion. Most of the rest of us would spend hours digging around the house if we misplaced a $20 bill.

But rich people are essential to the rest of the world. Whether they exert too much power or have too much influence is another discussion, but the raw fact is they produce the juice that keeps the economy going — whether in the past with under names as Vanderbilt, Roosevelt or Carnegie — or the names of those today “afflicted” with great wealth.

Now Clinton was certainly spot-on when she said during the debate that a proper function of a democratic government is to keep capitalism from destroying capitalism. And Sanders was absolutely correct to point out that overall economic vibrancy is impossible — impossible — without a vibrant middle class. But neither really had a short answer on reversing the decades-long trend in America toward lots of super-poor, a smattering of super-rich and everyone else living paycheck to paycheck.

Their solution sounded terse and Robin Hood-ish: Take from the rich and give to the poor, but that’s certainly not sustainable. What happens when we run out of rich?

Let’s keep our wits about us. The rich will continue to be targeted and described as a source of bad things. And if we take all the anti-rich rhetoric seriously, we’ll be tempted to slash the tires of every Ferrari we see. That would be counterproductive, to say the least. Instead, let’s be at least a little happy we live in a place where there are rich people and the potential remains, for now, for more people to become rich.

Rich people are not so bad. Give one a hug.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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