SWETLITZ: No one hates earned money

Elaina Plott’s arguments, published Oct. 25, sound familiar. They draw much from Francisco d’Anconia’s money speech in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” The speech outlines Rand’s view of money, arguing, as Plott wrote, that neither money nor the love of money is the root of all evil.

Plott assumes that the Occupy Wall Street protesters hate money. However, there’s a fundamental flaw in her argument condemning them as hypocrites. The money glorified in Atlas Shrugged is not the same as the money in circulation today. So let us begin by asking: What is money?

Let’s look back to Rand. D’Anconia begins by asking, “Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?” and answers, “Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them.” Money, he says, is made “by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability.”

The Occupy Wall Street protestors would have no problem with this kind of money. For example, soon after Steve Jobs died, a Twitter account associated with OccupyWallSt.org tweeted: “Much of Occupy Wall Street and the tech community respect you & will miss you.”

But Steve Jobs was worth $7 billion the month before his death, according to Forbes. And according to Plott’s argument, the Occupy Wall Street protestors hate money. But they don’t hate Jobs’ money, because he made his money by founding Apple, by honestly producing goods and providing services.

So the money Jobs made is money as Rand defines it. There’s nothing wrong with loving this kind of money, because to do so is to love your creative capacity.

What about money that is not the result of goods produced? From the perspective of an Occupy Wall Street protestor, it’s easy to see some members of the financial sector becoming richer and richer while not actually making any money. Some financial tools and derivatives are far removed from the labor upon which they are based. The people who use these tools seem to merely be manipulating the labor of others, not making money through their own honest work.

So maybe Plott is right that the Occupy Wall Street protestors hate money if she’s referring to the type of money described above. They most certainly do not hate the philosophical idea of money made by honest effort. In this respect, Plott’s argument is simply a straw man.

A problem with our current economic system is that one can use one’s abilities but not get much money in return. Scrolling through the “We Are The 99 Percent” Tumblr account, I read about people who say they are lucky to have a job, have taken on multiple jobs to support themselves and their family or are so desperate for work that they move to other countries. They don’t hate work; quite the contrary — they want to work. They are looking for a way to sustain themselves through work, not through handouts.

Plott claims that they would, if presented with a dime, take it and run, but this isn’t the case; they realize that economic growth will come through job growth. Additionally, I’d wager more than a dime that some of the protestors qualify for government benefits, and if they do, they’re not shooting themselves in the foot by taking these benefits.

If they work multiple jobs, still don’t make enough money to support themselves and accept government benefits, they’re doing so out of necessity. Sure, some may prefer a system without government benefits, or where benefits are unnecessary, but, in the current system, they are necessary.

Rand’s idea of money, along with most of her philosophy, works in a perfectly capitalist system. However, the United States is not, was not, and will never be a perfectly capitalist system. Some money will inevitably be what Rand would call unearned, and this gives the Occupiers something legitimate to complain about.

The legitimacy of a disgruntled mass who no longer think the American Dream attainable should make us realize there is something fundamentally flawed with our country. We don’t know what that flaw is, but it’s not our imperfect capitalism.

Though its lack of organization may lead to confusion about its true motives, the Occupy Wall Street movement brings to light that people are fed up with what they perceive as powerlessness. The economy of the United States is changing, and they want to be a part of that change. They don’t want the future handed to them on a silver platter. Rather, they want to forge the platter out of silver and eat off it themselves.


  • JohnnyE

    Once upon a time, your average person couldn’t (or didn’t make an effort to) understand why merchants were able to make so much money. All they cared to see was that merchants produced nothing tangible. The people became angry and resentful at the merchants, and being a merchant became shameful in the public eye. People are no less simple today.

    >Rand’s idea of money, along with most of her philosophy, works in a perfectly capitalist system. However, the United States is not, was not, and will never be a perfectly capitalist system. Some money will inevitably be what Rand would call unearned, and this gives the Occupiers something legitimate to complain about.

    Wait, what? The Occupiers are against unearned money? Have you seen their demands? Here’s one…

    >Demand three: Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment.

    Talk about unearned money…

  • River_Tam

    “You’re just the middle man” has always been the rallying cry of communists.

  • Tan

    While, I don’t agree with all the assertions in this article, it’s definitely one of the best ones on the Occupy movement so far.

  • nick


    everywhere that list is posted (except the conservative sites) *clearly* state that is not an official list of demands, just something that one person drafted. conservatives whined about the radicals being made the face of the tea party, and that is exactly what you’re doing here.

  • SY

    Good insight, but also it is possible to dislike OWS and Wall Street at the same time. OWSers have a hundred frustrations. Wall Street, for at least 20 years, has been windfalls, instead of old-time raising and allocating capital. Unearned money from government deals (Fannie Mae, Solyndra, etc.), related real estate/mortgage windfalls, many businesses (backdated stock options, etc.), and lawsuit shakedowns are part of or bigger than WS. Now the crisis. OWS calls attention to the crisis.

    You call out unearned money. You’re right that “earned” money from productive work benefits few (e.g., Jobs) while also benefiting many. “Unearned” money from nonproductive work benefits few at the expense of many people. The problem of the past 20 years is that too much money is “what Rand would call unearned.” That nonproductive income has caused the wealth and income inequality not seen since 1929-32. That inequality was resolved around 1950. We know what happened between 1932 and 1950, and it was worse than tents and drums in the park.

  • River_Tam

    Wait, are we calling Solyndra part of “Wall Street” now?

  • GrantDWilliams

    Is it true that many on Wall Street simply “shuffle money around.” Yes. Certainly. Does it follow that working in the financial industry is fundamentally unproductive? No. Not at all.

    Two issues:

    1) Good ideas for tangible products are, without money to fund them, just that – good ideas. People are neither omniscient nor clairvoyant. Wall Street’s productive contribution to the economy is that it identifies which activities in the economy are productive and rewards those, while also identifying which are unproductive and punishes them. This is an extremely difficult and specialized task in an advanced, complex economy, and is deserving of a great deal of respect and financial reward.

    2) Whatever “money shuffling” that goes on on Wall Street that doesn’t do what is described in “1)” isn’t because such activity is inherent in the nature of the financial industry, but rather because the financial industry – like all industries – is at the mercy of an ever-shifting taxation and regulatory climate that is impossible to predict; even by the most successful and sophisticated player. With that in mind, it is important to denounce taxation and regulation – not the concept of finance – as the cause of unproductive “money shuffling.”