The Hedgehog and the Rich

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One of the beauties of the elegant French novel with a hedgehog in its title is its subdued but often hilarious and biting satire of a wealthy French family. This family could be American. Perhaps that’s one reason Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (first published in 2006) attracted so many American readers. But I choose to think the main reason is the joy of rooting for the intelligent underdog (hedgehog), here in the character of the concierge or apartment custodian, a personage rarely found outside major cities like New York, Paris, London, Rome, etc.

The custodian, Renee Michel, disguises herself but is also veiled by the assumptions of the wealthy residents whom she serves. Only one of these (an equally bright and disenchanted kid) suspects that behind the TV babble coming from Renee’s apartment, the concierge reads great literature (Tolstoy) and philosophy in her back room. This heavy scrim of mistaken assumptions between social classes has its peculiar French coloration, but it exists virtually everywhere in the world (with the exception of where? Borneo?).

Segue to politics, mid-June 2011, mid-continent United States. The personages of our political drama edging toward government shut-down include a Democratic governor from a very wealthy family (the Daytons, founders of that big-box giant the Target Corporation) versus many newly elected Republican legislators from what I’ll dare to call “outlying” districts. By this I mean further ring suburbs, small towns, and large-agricultural operations throughout the state. What’s different in this real-life American scenario from the fictional class differences in Muriel Barbery’s novel is that the Republican legislators probably represent a small group of very wealthy agricultural operators (I won’t call them farmers) and a much larger number of mid-to-lower-middle class people; whereas the governor himself represents a broader range of income levels, from the urban poor to extremely wealthy, long-time Minnesota Democrats who live in suburbs like Wayzata.

Income is telling here because one major sticking point is Governor Mark Dayton’s call for raising income taxes on families earning more than $200,000 a year. The Republicans will have none of it. Need I mention that the state has a huge budget deficit–$5 billion? That it’s crucial to bring the next biennium’s expenditures within expected revenue. That a government shut-down will cost not only fees and legally mandated severance pay but lots of lost business revenue from suddenly strapped state employees out-of-work.

The main argument I’ve heard against the governor’s plan to raise taxes on a small percentage of wealthy Minnesotans is that it will be bad for business. Whose business? Aren’t we talking about increasing the percentage of personal income tax on the very wealthy? Statistics, so I hear, bear out the argument that high personal taxes on the wealthy do not affect business health. Nor do they chase established families out of the state. But higher property taxes, raised across the board, would hit many many home-owners: for instance a family of four with a modest $60,000 a year income and a mortgage, or a widower retiree with a very modest Social Security check and pension (let’s image an income of $25,000 a year, the house paid for). Ditto a very wealthy family buying a $500,000 house but earning $300,000 a year. At some point those large numbers stop making sense to those of us with more modest means.

I think it’s time to drop the scrim. Imagine shopping for clothing with several thousand dollars at your disposal versus a hundred. Imagine planning a winter vacation with $10,000 to spend on a resort versus taking a modest flight to Arizona to visit your daughter’s father-in-law who’ll let you sleep above the garage. These are the differences The Elegance of the Hedgehog so nicely pursues. We need not feel sorry for or disdain the wealthy as does her elegant concierge behind their backs. But we need to slip instead into a life lived intelligently on modest means, and recognize that we use the term “filthy rich” because the wealthy can almost always avoid anything filthy. They can avoid the filthy annoyance of taking in the packages of strangers (as does the concierge) or cleaning up dog poop from somebody else’s garden (as might a grounds-keeper).

Let’s also acknowledge that the wealthy can help pay for those less lucky, less healthy, less well-born. Who keep their lawns, schools and hospitals running. Who, somewhere down the line, buy the goods and services that help to keep the wealthy going. Who are far from benighted or dumb. Who may in fact be far better read and schooled in life than the well-born or self-made (perhaps one of the US’s most cherished beliefs). Do the math: two percent of $200,000 is $4000. Not a pittance, but hardly a big chunk in an income that capacious.

Now imagine a sales tax of 7% on food. This is a suggestion made by many Republicans. Back to the family of three living on $40,000 a year. They have to spend around $1000 monthly to rent an apartment (forget a mortgage on this income). They spend, let’s imagine, $500 a month on food. If they must add sales tax to that, their expense for food per month will increase around $35. Multiply that by 12 months = $410. About 1% of their yearly income. In a pinched family budget, an additional $410 could mean the difference between very minimal health insurance and none at all. For a family with $200,000, an additional tax of $4000 probably bites only into the extravagance of their vacations.

Go figure, as we like to say, in a favorite bit of American slang. The French Hedgehog concierge would, no doubt, have something philosophical and pungent to add. I suggest those balking at raising taxes on the wealthy, simply gather paper and pencil and take a moment to imagine themselves figuring on much much less.

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