05/04/2008 10:48 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Rich and Poor

I've been thinking recently about the musical comedy, Little Me, which has a very funny script by Neil Simon. In one scene, an ocean liner is sinking, and the captain's assigning his officers various responsibilities. One officer's ordered to supervise the non-swimmers. Minutes later, the officer comes racing back with his report.

OFFICER: Sir, it's the non-swimmers.

CAPTAIN: What about them?

OFFICER: They're terrible swimmers.

Why am I thinking about that? Because of the sub-prime loan disaster, which you'd think could have very easily been foreseen. It's the same situation as in Little Me.

"Sir, it's the bad loan risks."

"What about them?"

"They're terrible loan risks."


The sub-prime disaster was primarily the result of the people in the home loan business having a faulty understanding of the word "poor."

When I was a Sociology student in college, I once said that "Sociology is a discipline where they do a study proving conclusively that rich people have more money than poor people."

They didn't really do that study. That's just my opinion of Sociology, which was reflected again in a "comparative study" term paper I wrote entitled, "Crime and Height." That's a joke too. I didn't write that. I could have, though. It would have fit right in.

Returning to my point, the concept of "poor" is not all that difficult to understand. But, for some reason, smart people - and not just in the home loan business - are confused by the concept and its natural consequences. It seems to elude their understanding.

I remember once watching a discussion on This Week, when David Brinkley was still the host, concerning the issue of limiting the purchasing of television air time for political advertising. Conservative George Will's position was

"Everybody should be able to buy as much television air time as they want. Any limitation would be an infringement on their constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech."

Will's position put me in mind of what, I believe, is a French saying that goes,

"A rich man has just as much right to sleep under a bridge as a poor man."

The line is funny, because the idea behind it doesn't make any sense. Whether he has the right to or not, a rich man doesn't need to sleep under a bridge

because he's rich.

And a poor person, even though they have a right to buy as much television air time as a rich person, can't buy any television air time

because they're poor.

To buy television air time, a poor person needs precisely that thing that poor people - by definition of the word "poor" - don't have. Without that thing, it's impossible for a poor person to buy television air time. I may have repeated myself there, but I, apparently, need to, because, for some people, the concept doesn't seem to be sinking in.

Here's what George Will leaves out:

"Poor" and "buy television air time" not fitting together results in a serious imbalance in the constitutional guaranteed right to free speech, producing a glaring inequality, which, I believe, infringes on another constitutional guarantee.

That seems kind of important, don't you think?

The idea of what it means to be poor really isn't that complicated. The poor get it right away. But for some reason, the rich seem to have trouble.

Maybe sociologists should have done that study.

Earl Pomerantz's blog can be reached at