Thursday, January 30, 2014

Missing Rungs? Flip the Ladder

© Charles D. Hayes

One can hardly read a newspaper or watch a television news cycle these days without hearing about rising income inequality. The attention is beginning to make the very rich fearful. So much so that a venture capitalist recently wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal warning that a progressive Kristallnacht is coming. Comparing the threat of taxing the rich to the anti-Semitic hostilities that led to the Holocaust is both despicable and pathetic. It is, however, very instructive, because it makes clear that, for some, the reification of capitalism trumps religion when it comes to the internalization of scruples.   

 Every society that treats its citizens poorly pays a price. Disrespect comes as a moral tax, and we Americans pay it over time with compound interest that manifests as contempt. Such contempt can easily escalate and pay dividends of divisiveness, animosity, and outright hatred.

Our economic system is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. In other words, our means of making a living should not be considered more important than life itself. Money is not supposed to be more important than people. The metaphorical lesson here is this: If your ladder is missing some rungs at the bottom and you still need to climb, you have to reverse it. Let me clarify.

Pretend for a moment that we have to abandon this planet. We are beamed up via Star Trek magic to another world very much like ours but without any memory of our current economic system or how we managed to make a living. We have to start over and reinvent our economics, so to speak. 

If we don’t remember what our roles were in the old world, what do you think the chances are that we would intentionally set out to create a new world standard that required a significant number of citizens to work really hard at jobs which serve the populace in many different ways but which pay wage rates that will keep those workers in poverty? I don’t think we would go for it. I wouldn’t. Would you?

I doubt we would ever set out to do purposely what we have become accustomed to accepting as economic reality. Thomas Jefferson argued that every generation should reinvent and rewrite the laws to live by. He would be appalled that our system has not been periodically rethought by citizens, but has instead been rigged endlessly by special interests.

You’ve probably heard the allegory of a frog dropped into a pot of cold water set to slowly reach a boil on a hot stove. The implication is that the frog will wait until it is too late to jump out. The same analogy can be applied to an economic system that has been legislatively cooked to reward the few at the expense of the many.  

So, on our new planet, would we be likely to approve of anyone buying a fast-food fiefdom that employs serfs and pays them poverty wages, while everyone else subsidizes their low earnings with food stamps paid for by our taxes? Do you think those of us who subsidize such a system could do so without feeling like frogs?

How likely would it be that we would bestow on a corporation the rights of a human being without also insisting on accountability? Would we be okay with the notion that the people at the top echelons of publically held companies could pay themselves 500 or 1,000 times what the workers at the bottom were paid and then allow these organizations big tax breaks that amount to taxpayer subsidies? Would we consider money to be equivalent to speech so that the rich could buy elections?

Years ago, Martin Buber helped us to better understand society’s moral relating convention when he described human relations as a continuum from a posture of I–Thou to one of I–It. In the first one, we treat people as equal human beings; in the other, as things. When a large percentage of the population are treated as if they’re nonentities, the result is a festering of anxiety, distrust, contempt, and disdain by both rich and poor as each escalates their derision for the other. When that happens, being cooperative is considered unpatriotic to one’s respective group or tribe, and thus, alienation and inequality is accepted by those who are more fortunate simply as a just comeuppance for those who aren’t. Keeping this in mind may help explain the way the richest one percent must view the rest of us. We are nobodies, and any effort to make us equal in terms of opportunity or status, if not in actual wealth, is comparable in their view to an act of violence.

If our species is to survive long into the future, it will be because today’s insane mania for growth has given way to an ethos of environmental sustainability. The median step on the economic ladder contains all of the resources one person needs or could possibly consume. If our knowledge is what grows, instead of our footprint on the earth, then we have a chance for a maintainable future.

It’s time to pay our bills, refurbish our crumbling infrastructure, and return to tax rates that will allow a person to easily manage and maintain a middle rung on the economic ladder. In that kind of economy, successive rungs near the top of the ladder would be attainable only by furthering one’s investment in the system that makes such successes possible. So, Mr. Venture Capitalist, your fears are warranted, but your pathetic attempt at self-victimization is not. 

When 85 people can attain the wealth of the bottom half of humanity, it’s time to flip the ladder and time for us frogs to jump.

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