Can you believe that an actual real-life prospective Supreme Court justice nominated by President Trump had thousands of dollars in — gasp — credit card debt? And that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is reported to have run it up buying, of all things, baseball tickets?
Like many social conservatives, I have serious reservations about Kavanaugh. But he has won at least a measure of my esteem by being made the subject of breathless reports about his personal finances. According to The Washington Post's analysis of financial disclosure forms, Kavanaugh "at times reported liabilities that could have exceeded the value of his cash accounts and investment assets." What is this supposed to tell us? That, in common with millions of Americans, he owes more money to financial institutions than he in fact possesses? The most recent available records suggest that he has "reportable assets between $15,000 and $65,000, which would put him at the bottom of the financial ranking of justices, most of whom list well over $1 million in assets."
He's basically too poor to be on the Supreme Court.
It would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as typical of the omnidirectional smear campaign no doubt being carried out against Trump's judicial nominee. Certainly the level of prudence and good faith in media these days is fairly low when a writer in the same newspaper mentioned above can argue that Kavanaugh's harmless self-deprecating remark about finally being appointed after perhaps the most exhaustive search process in the history of the high court was a lie because actually no single person could possibly know how much time or effort every single president in history has put into each of his judicial nominees. Pants on fire, I guess? Not only was it a lie, however; it was, in fact, "bizarre" and "a thoroughly inauspicious way to begin [Kavanaugh's] application to the nation's highest court, where [he] will be deciding the merits of the country's most important legal and factual claims." Please.
But there is something more going on here, I think. There is simply no way that any of the information about Kavanaugh's finances that has been reported could be considered newsworthy if it were not for the fact that politicians, journalists, and other well-heeled meritocrats are utterly clueless about money, especially other people's. Imagine finding it surprising that anyone, even a respected judge, has considerable debts and very little in the way of savings or investment. A survey earlier this year found that only 39 percent of Americans say they have $1,000 in cash savings to cover an emergency. The average American has more than $6,000 in credit card debt; the average amount of student loan indebtedness is nearly $40,000. A good headline for a piece about Kavanaugh might have read "Report: Trump Supreme Court Nominee Broke Like the Rest of Us."
Even worse than the cluelessness is the implicit — and sometimes more than implicit — tendency to moralize about the way other people spend money. I am not going to suggest that it is a prudent use of one's resources to rack up enormous amounts of debt in order to attend professional sporting events with one's friends, as Kavanaugh is reported to have done. It almost certainly isn't, even if your pals are going to pay you back soon. But what about when in 2015, for seemingly no reason, The New York Times ran a story entitled "Marco Rubio's Career Bedeviled By Financial Struggles," the substance of which amounted to the shocking revelation that the Florida senator and then-presidential candidate had purchased a "luxury speedboat," i.e., a vessel worth some $11,000, for his family's use while he had outstanding student loan debt? The idea, one gathers, is that anyone foolish enough to want something he could not quite afford has no place among the austere and self-denying calculators who make our laws.
This sort of thinking is a symptom of the same broader obsession among elites with judging others on the basis of their ability to progress through institutions. They are convinced that they deserve their success, such as it is, because after all they studied hard in junior high and got into "magnet" high schools, where they studied even harder — though what they actually read or learned is often mysterious — and performed well on standardized tests before going on to highly ranked colleges and universities, where in turn they got good grades and met the right people. All of which is, of course, very good for them, but it tells us very little about a person's innate ability or intelligence and a great deal about how much money his or her parents had and what sort of neighborhood they grew up in.
"Money," said a great American thinker, "changes everything." This is especially true, I think, of our attitudes about money itself.