Many Christians used to imagine a heaven, perhaps some still do, where the deserving drift along on clouds, joyfully listening to the sort of music that would have driven them out of the room in real life.
Catholic children, back in the `50s, were told that, yes, good Protestants could go to heaven, but the Catholics would live in big houses and drive Cadillacs, while the lesser, non-Pope-obeisant Christians, would reside in tract housing and, at the very best, drive Buicks.
Some Muslims, notoriously, are said to imagine a paradise for martyrs, much like a Persian garden, where they will be able to despoil 72 virgins or get to eat white grapes, depending on how one deciphers the antique Arabic of the Koran.
It's hard not to wonder how that actually works. Do the virgins just hang around in semidiaphanous harem pants, looking coy but appetizing—similar to the harp-playing angels—and stay eternally intact? In which case, it's all temptation and no satisfaction, like being an adolescent back in Tehran or Riyadh, and what's the point? Or do they engage in intercourse, obviously transforming them into nonvirgins? With all 72 of them then flowering to a fuller womanhood, becoming as complicated as genuine people involved in relationships? Or worse, as difficult as anyone in a group thing that has a ratio of 72:1? The answer, according to Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, that famous 15th-century Egyptian Islamic scholar, is, "Each time we sleep with a houri [loose translation: pure companion of paradise] we find her virgin." Exhausting? Enervating? No! "The penis of the Elected never softens. The erection is eternal." Top that, Pfizer! No need to call your physician after four hours! "Each chosen one will marry 70 houris, besides the women he married on earth, and all will have appetizing vaginas."
The point of this, in a roundabout way, is to create an analogy to the economists' idea of "the market." It is an imaginary construct, like these heavens. It requires the willful rejection of obvious truths, akin to thinking there could be an entire population enthralled with hearing Pachelbel's Canon, over and over again, throughout eternity. It is fiscal pornography, intensely arousing when alone, or better yet, in a circle of other economists, but running an economy according to its tenets is like becoming a plumber because you believe that housewives always disrobe within minutes of a man with a monkey wrench coming through the door.
There is bumper-sticker logic to the idea that what people will pay for something determines its real and actual worth, certainly better than any other method.
If there were such a thing as the "perfect market," entered into by perfectly rational people, with equal power, equal knowledge, and equal resources, then that might be true. And it might be true that the amount that people acquired would be the perfect measure of the value of what they'd done to obtain that money. Furthermore, any deliberate interference with this perfect, divine, but imaginary machine would create errors and misevaluations.
The world, of course, does not work that way. Sugar, Fat, Salt, by Michael Moss, reveals, as its subtitle says, How the Food Giants Hooked Us. They invested, and continue to invest, huge sums in order invent the cheapest mixtures that will get the maximum response, hopefully something addictive, by playing on the blind, groping food cravings that humans developed through evolution. Moss discovered that when a food company decided, for reasons of conscience or just for better public relations, to make a product that was healthier but less of a button pusher, their more ruthless competitors crowded them off the shelves of our supermarkets. Beyond the point of providing nutrition, which they passed long ago, the food giants are like tobacco companies, in that the amount of their profits is directly proportional to the harm they do.
The ideal of the market, so perfect, so divine, says that money is the absolute supreme measure of value. One that trumps all others. That the acquisition of money must be a good thing. Even if it is accomplished by lying, cheating, and buying influence. That the possession of money demands respect and should not be tampered with, even if it's simply been inherited.
On his first day at a brokerage, Jordan Belfort, who would become the Wolf of Wall Street, had the job explained by the stockbroker who was his mentor: "You're not creating anything, you're not building anything. The truth is, we're nothing more than sleazoid salesmen." Yet according to the inexorable logic of "the market," if the broker makes more than the special education teacher, what the broker does is more valuable.
It is a logic that has distorted our entire nation.
As a society, and as individuals, we have other values than straight-up, individual wealth. Honor, the opportunity to determine our own lives, the ability to get justice, human progress, the creation of art, building a civil society, educating our children, building a world that offers hope and inspiration. If such values decline, as compared to the acquisition of money—or worse, they become items that can be bought and sold—our whole world deteriorates.
When stockbrokers made two or three times what a teacher made, the gratifications that come from being a good and useful person helped balance things out. Being a teacher was respectable. Teachers having unions and trying to get better pay seemed reasonable. Once stockbrokers started making 10, 20, or 100 times what a teacher makes, it began to seem like teaching was only something a loser would do. Otherwise, it would pay—be valued—more. If they didn't get more money on their own, why, then having unions to get it for them was like cheating.
The more income inequality increases, the further this process goes. So we should do something about it. Or wait to find out if there are Cadillacs in Catholic heaven and harp strummers in Protestant clouds, and what those 72 virgins really get up to.