Money is even more broken than I thought

Writing in the neoconservative Commentary magazine, and purportedly rebutting an op-ed in the New York Times, John Steele Gordon attempts to justify Wal-Mart’s low, low wages:

I doubt that Timothy Egan has ever gone into a store to buy something and, on being told the price, insisted on paying more. So if Walmart can hire a satisfactory employee at a given wage, why should it insist on paying more? For one thing, it would violate its fiduciary duty to the stockholders. For another, it would have to raise the prices its hundreds of millions of customers pay.

Egan’s column, demanding that Walmart pay higher wages, is classic modern liberalism, solving the problems of the world with other people’s money, and using junk statistics to justify it.[1]

Egan had suggested that “Walmart is a net drain on taxpayers, forcing employees into public assistance with its poverty-wage structure.”[2]

I can’t say whether or not Wal-Mart is indeed a “net drain.” Gordon says this claim relies on “a ‘study’ that left-leaning calls ‘mostly false,'”[3] but links only to the Politifact site, not to an article where Politifact actually disputes the claim. And really, it’s beside the point.

What I want to highlight is the hazard of monetary abstraction. Gordon objects to “solving the problems of the world with other people’s money.”[4] What this means is that property rights outweigh other internationally recognized human rights, specifically the rights to a decent job paying a decent salary so a worker can live in dignity.[5] It means that, for Gordon, property has become more real than the human.

But property itself is also an abstraction.  With land, its boundaries are legally-enforceable lines on a map, carefully measured by surveyors, manifest in fences and at the edges of sidewalks and public streets. The fence might be ‘concrete’ (more often, it’s wood or metal), but the boundary remains abstract.  The land itself is ‘concrete’ (okay, dirt and rock), but the notion that humans may ‘own’ it is abstract. And so it is with other objects. Green paper with portraits of dead presidents might be ‘concrete,’ but money remains abstract.

It is curious that conservatives so often criticize ‘abstractions.’ In fact, they criticize some abstractions, but not the ones that make them comfortable.

Thus, calling social inequality “the world’s problems,” the problems that would be solved with “other people’s money,” is in fact a way of distancing oneself from those problems and minimizing them. For Gordon, they are less ‘concrete,’ less real. But then money itself takes on multiple personality disorder. The “other people’s money” is mostly rich people’s money and is very ‘concrete,’ very real. The money that workers need to live even a decent life is ‘abstract,’ less real, even though rich people have it, have arguably stolen it from them, and are keeping it from them.[6]

Such a distinction, for the rich, and for Gordon, is plainly self-serving. It is not logically or ethically justifiable. It is, in fact, entirely arbitrary. And it comes well before the complaints I make more often about reducing human beings or their efforts to quantities (of money) or, from Weber, about how any system of exchange inherently and cyclically privileges whomever has the greater power to say no.[7]

Update, 7:30 pm: Gordon and, apparently, other right wing commentators have made much of Wal-Mart’s rebuttal of Egan’s column, however  Ari Rabin-Havt seems to address that rebuttal effectively.[8]

  1. [1]John Steele Gordon, “Walmart, Wages, and the Public Good,” Commentary, June 24, 2014,
  2. [2]Timothy Egan, “Walmart, Starbucks, and the Fight Against Inequality,” New York Times, June 19, 2014,
  3. [3]John Steele Gordon, “Walmart, Wages, and the Public Good,” Commentary, June 24, 2014,
  4. [4]John Steele Gordon, “Walmart, Wages, and the Public Good,” Commentary, June 24, 2014,
  5. [5]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI),; Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations, December 10, 1948,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Trying to understand Marx’s Development of the Labor Theory of Value,” December 3, 2013,
  7. [7]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  8. [8]Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014,

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