If I were a rich man

Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof promo art
One of the most memorable numbers in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is Tevye’s what-if song, “If I Were a Rich Man.” There in his ramshackle barn the poor, Jewish dairyman living in czarist Russia daydreams about being wealthy. Most of us probably do it. If I had a million bucks, what would I do? A billion?

Some of us feel ashamed if we dream about being wealthy. It’s greedy, after all, isn’t it? Grasping, crass and base. Such a daydream is probably pretty foolish, to boot. In the introduction to his song, Tevye sheepishly admits, “I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.” Maybe, if there’s no shame in it, we should just content ourselves with being poor.

Tevye doesn’t. He quickly qualifies his statement by adding that being poor is “no great honor, either.” Right after which he questions God in his conversational way, asking, “So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”

Disregarding weighty and specific questions about God’s providence (as Tevye asks about being rich, “Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan?”), the quick answer for Tevye is, “Nothing.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with having “a small fortune” — or a large one, for that matter. There is no evil basic to being rich. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for being rich.

For starters, if you’re rich you have a better chance at enjoying your circumstances. If you don’t like the circumstances in which you currently find yourself, you can just go and buy some new ones. Money lets you purchase things you like, help friends in need, donate to charities, get a broader education, bribe politicians to name state landmarks after you. Sure money can’t buy you love, but you take a date to a much nicer restaurant if you’ve got more of it in your back pocket.

But even if we separate money from self-gratifying motives, being wealthy is still good. The most obvious way in which this is true is that rich folks benefit poor folks — in many ways. First of all, they employ them. Who ever heard of a hobo hiring 20 computer technicians to run a local Internet company, or a Skid Row ragamuffin writing the paychecks for a staff of retail clerks? Only people with money can hire those without it.

Right now, you’re objecting: But not all rich folks run businesses. While this is true, most members of the “moneyed class” don’t leave their spare millions lying around the living room collecting dust, either.

They invest their money in the capital market — things like stocks, bonds, real estate, and banks — and the more money which is invested in the capital market, the more there is available for loans. People are willing to pay for the use of another man’s bread; we call it interest. Dust-collecting money is worth nothing to a rich man, so he loans it to an enterprising fellow who has more immediate use of it. The lender gets paid interest on his loan, and the borrower gets to use his money — everyone’s happy.

Those loans allow companies to hire more employees, increase the wealth of current employees, expand the size and scope of their business, invent new and better products and improve old ones. Those loans also provide the necessary capital for start-up companies, plus home, car and college loans — all of which are an economic benefit to folks occupying the lower economic rungs (me for instance).

But the rich don’t cease benefiting the poor by forsaking tightwad investment strategies and, instead, simply enjoying their wealth. While the Mr. Moneybags of the world are not busy sensibly investing their stash, they are often out having a good time with it, buying things like expensive art, Rolls Royces, planes, illegal cigars, boats, and miniature robot gizmos to hide in the desk drawer and play with at work.

While the lifestyles of the rich and opulent may disgust us all with their “conspicuous consumption” — as economist Thorsten Veblen dubbed it — consider who else benefits from all those “consumed” mansions, BMWs, Learjets, yachts and luxurious toys: the folks who build them. And they don’t keep the money to themselves, either. All that conspicuous consumption equals money for some Joe to buy groceries and pay the rent.

Cash never sits idly by. One man’s spending is always another man’s income. Thus, even while enjoying his extravagancies, the fat cat is inadvertently benefiting the skinny mouse.

But what about a worst case scenario, one in which a miserly old scrooge with deep pockets and short arms doesn’t hire people, doesn’t invest his money in stocks, store it in banks, or spend more than a nickel? Let’s say the old skinflint just uses his millions to stuff his mattress. What then?

Effectively, our tightfisted Ebenezer pulls dollars out of the money supply, resulting in deflation. In economic terms, deflation results in the proportionate inflation of the unit value of the dollar. In other words, if the money supply decreases, the change in your pocket becomes worth proportionately more, and voila! You’re rich. Or at least marginally better off. So even if the old codger is being a jerk and stashing his loot, his pigheaded decision still benefits those around him.

So, next time you see a rich man driving by in his new Mercedes, don’t pray he gets a flat tire, cuss his good fortune, envy him his bank account; don’t even ask your congressman to take away more of his money. Do the polite thing. Tell him, “Thanks.”

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