An Alternative to Oval Offices

I published a revised version of this post in The Water Tower.

I wouldn’t be alone in saying how sickening it is when leaders of some of the world’s poorest nations bathe themselves in wealth. Jon Kofas points out some gut-wrenching statistics to this effect: former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s personal assets of $70 billion were a third of the national debt and could have paid off the country’s external debt…twice. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – with its 10% unemployment and 30% poverty rates – has been known to build institutions, palaces, and entire towns all named after himself. At 13.5 pound sterling, the Sultan of Brunei is richer than his entire country. The perks of Vladamir Putin’s presidency have increased substantially during his years in office, amounting to twenty residences, fifteen helicopters, four yachts, 43 aircraft, and a net value in the tens of billions. And 45% of the United States Congress are millionaires. An Oxfam  study covered by the BBC showed that “the 100 richest people in the world earned enough last year to end extreme poverty suffered by the poorest on the planet four times over.”

Greed is inherently insaciable. In fact, it’s exponentially compounding: the more people acquire, the more they know they could acquire, and there’s never a stopping point. And when it’s world leaders that fall victim to this, they perpetrate the Medieval tradition of states meant only to prop up their leaders. This divide makes fair statesmanship impossible. Perhaps it’s time to heed the wisdom of the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

I’m quoting Seneca second-hand, however. That quote was used by José Mujica, current President of Uruguay, to describe his modest lifestyle. Simon Romero, the New York Times journalist investigating Mr. Mujica’s austere existence, was shocked to find the president living in a small, run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts, with no servants and only two guards, making himself yerba mate, growing chrysanthemums, and rejecting the staff and opulence of the presidential mansion for the place where he and his wife have lived for years. One political opponent called Mujica’s house “a cave.” But unlike Mr. Mujica, this opponent does not donate 90% of his salary to help the Uruguayan poor, leaving him with $800 a month.

Aside from selling off a “useless” state-owned seaside mansion, Mr. Mujica has a reputation of radical liberalism in an already liberal country. Uruguay boasts comprehensive abortion rights and green energy, and Mr. Mujica has won both fans and enemies by trying to push through same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. Uruguay also has a long tradition of modest leadership: its Constitution prohibits presidents holding office for consecutive terms, an idea which Mujica shuns as “monarchic,” and though Mujica is an extreme case, he describes the country’s recent political history well by saying, “We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated.” Perhaps that’s why Uruguay is widely regarded as Latin America’s least corrupt country, and its safest.

Maybe it helped that Mujica didn’t come from privilege. During the 1970s, Mujica and his wife were members of a militant revolutionary group called the Tupamaros against Uruguay’s military regime. However, both were captured and spent years imprisoned. Mujica spent over a decade in solitary confinement, oftentimes just merely a hole in the ground, where he befriended rats and frogs, sharing bread crumbs with them. Who can doubt that this man knows what suffering is, what hunger and abandonment feel like, why he rejects all the opulence and devotes himself to his people? Perhaps ten years in a hole should be training for statesmanship: if it removes greed, ambition, and vanity from leadership as it has for Mr. Mujica, we’d solve some serious problems.

But the rich stay rich, and American Dream or not, if you’re looking to work in Washington, it helps to have a dad who can pay for private school, pull strings, and send you to your first interview in a $5,000 suit. And once you’re in Washington, if you’re not a millionaire already, it pays to befriend some. Mr. Mujica caused a stir in Montevideo when he showed up to the statehouse on a Vespa. I can’t imagine what we’d do with a man like Mujica in ‘Merica.

This is my hopeless case for de-venerating political positions. But we’re already past the brink. Comparatively, America’s not even that bad in its leaders’ opulence. But there’s a certain amount of opulence that’s just ingrained in the job, and it will remain uncontested. No one would pass up an opportunity to live in the White House if they had it. I know I wouldn’t.

José Mujica getting out of his 1987 VW Beetle outside of work. This car, worth $1800, amounted to his entire net worth, until announcing that he’d be sharing assets with his wife, Lucía Topolansky, another former guerilla and senator. Now, they collectively own the car, the house, and some farming equipment. Credit: JoseMiguelEnLinea.com

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