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Commentary: Uses of Money

By Lee Cullum, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX – Money is educational. It teaches more than the things it buys. That is a paraphrase from Howard's End by E.M. Forster. And what does money have to teach? Or, to get closer to Forster, what exactly does money impart? To E.M. Forster, money, above all, endows its possessor with the opportunity to hold independent opinions. Virginia Woolf echoed this idea when she said that for a woman to write, she must have a little money and a room of her own.

This may sound strange in modern America, where opinions are many and facts too few. But more thinking than we care to admit flows from employers or unions or similar groups, and it is governed by interests other than one's own.

I also have heard someone say that money, on a grand scale, confers the power to convert an opinion into a fact, as Boone Pickens is trying to do now, quite commendably, with energy. This is why governments must be careful how they tax away exorbitant corporate incomes, galling though they may be. What does make sense, it seems to me, is to tax yearly compensation over $5 million (or whatever is fair) at 70 to 90 percent unless it is put into a charitable foundation which the executive then can control, as long as it is making legitimate grants.

Richard Hofstadter, the historian, wrote this: "Once great men created fortunes. Now great systems create fortunate men." And women, too, of course. But there is little evidence that they are learning anything from their money. A thoughtful approach to taxation without confiscation would allow that money to instill morality, even in the unwilling.

Why did we concern ourselves with John McCain's houses, however many there may be? Frank Rich of the New York Times called them extravagant. But we gladly accepted far grander, or certainly just as grand, establishments from John and Teresa Heinz Kerry. Are riches from catsup to be preferred over those from beer? Or Northeastern money to that of the Southwest? My guess is that people knew what to expect from the Kerrys, but were caught by surprise in the case of the McCains, and it was somewhat annoying when he tried to hide his true situation by referring it to his staff.

One thing you have to say for George W. and Laura Bush: they do live with a sense of proportion. Granted, baseball was kind to them, but not to the same degree that the Kerrys and McCains benefitted from tomato sauce or Budweiser. Even so, judging from photographs, the Bushes' ranch house at Crawford could be called modest, and from what I hear about the house they are thought to have bought in Dallas, it's in a settled and lovely, but not pretentious, neighborhood. You could see from the wedding they put on for their daughter that they practice, in their private lives if not in his politics, an admirable restraint.

Which brings me back to E.M. Forster, who summed up this way, and I paraphrase: Isn't the most civilized thing going the people who have learned to wear their incomes properly? Yes, it is. Because that's what money teaches - proportion, restraint, and, for some who are especially lucky, the wisdom of giving.

Lee Cullum hosts the monthly series, C.E.O., on KERA television.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.