Sunday, July 5, 2015

It’s No Sin to Be Rich, BUT …

In recent years, observers in the United States have noted that the rich feel that they have no obligation for anyone else’s welfare.  In third world countries such as Angola (I just saw a shocking documentary about Angola, but the same could be said of many 3rd world countries, especially in Africa), the disregard of the rich for the poor is even more shocking because the divide is so clear and the poverty so visible and horrendous.

There is nothing wrong … morally, spiritually, ethically … with being rich.  Of course, there may be such problems with how one became rich, but that’s another matter and not the subject of this post.  This is about the moral, ethical, spiritual and civic obligations that come with being rich.

First, though, I need to define what I mean by “being rich.”  Rich is certainly a relative term.  By rich I don’t just mean fabulously wealthy … e.g. people who buy $50 million condos for their first or second residence.  (Incredibly there appears to be no shortage of such people in the global economy.)   

Webster’s defines “rich” as “having abundant possessions and especially material wealth.”  “Abundance” is in turn defined as “an ample quantity” or “a relative degree of plentifulness” or “extreme plentifulness.”

In the United States and other developed countries the dividing line between rich and not rich is a much finer line than the line between rich and poor in third world countries.  When President Obama was talking about tax rates at one point, he defined rich as anyone earning over $250,000 a year.  I would not be quite so conservative.  In 2010, the top 1% made $380,000 or more.  That clearly indicates a relative degree of plentifulness.  The top .09%, or 267,000 people, had an adjusted gross income of $1 million or more; extreme plentifulness.

For the purposes of this discussion, getting more exact than that isn’t necessary; you get the drift.  The point is that if one is rich in any country, one has a moral, ethical, spiritual, and civic obligation as a citizen of that country to help the government provide the poor, those less fortunate, with the basic needs of life … food, shelter, subsistence, and health care.  I should be clear … everyone has a duty to participate and help according to their means.  That’s what taxes are all about.  But the rich, because their wealth is abundant, should pay more, and the very wealthy should pay even more.

Why?  First, let’s dispose of one canard.  No one chooses to be poor.  It is not their fault.  It’s not because they’re lazy, as Republicans are fond of saying of late.  Yes, it is true that many do rise out of poverty, but not just through their sheer determination.  Whether a Rick Perry or a Clarence Thomas or a less extravagant example, they made it out because of the often happenstance assistance and guidance of people and often government programs, like affirmative action.  In third world countries, the intervening factor is often nepotism.  One should always remember the saying, “There but for good fortune go I.”

In most cases, someone is poor because of the way our society and economy are structured.  Whether someone is born into poverty and receives the poor education that the poor receive, live in a nightmarish environment, and have been told by society that they are worthless and bums.  Whether someone formerly middle class becomes poor because medical expenses force them into bankruptcy or the loss of a job makes them homeless almost from one day to the next.  Whether try though they may, over and over and over again, they can find no work.  These are all examples of how societal and economic structural issues cause and prolong poverty.

In none of these cases can the poor be blamed for their situation.  It is instead society that has failed them.  No child should be denied a good education.   No one should be denied safe and decent housing.  No one should be denied adequate food to keep them from being hungry.  No one who desires to work should be unemployed.  No one should be branded by society as worthless.  No one should be without a safety net when the circumstances of life turn against them through a major illness or the loss of a job.

If this is the result of a capitalist economy, then capitalism cannot be the sole economic force in a civilized society.  In such a society, there needs to be an adjunct social economy to provide for those that the capitalist economy would throw on the trash heap.  Even if we ever reach the point where there is true equal opportunity for all, some safety net would still be required for the elderly, the infirm, the intellectually-challenged, and those who face a catastrophe in their lives.

Which brings me to the other part of the response to the question, “Why?” … the moral, ethical, spiritual, and civil obligation.  Let me first speak to the civil obligation.

In the United States … and I will only speak to that as my knowledge is limited to the U.S. … this obligation is founded in our historical development.  In my book, We Still Hold These Truths, I devoted a chapter to the evolution of a social contract in the United States.  Let me quote from those pages:

“As the nature of the body politic and its political views changed during the course of the nineteenth century, there was a shift from the philosophy that each man was his own master and whether he succeeded or failed in the new egalitarian society it was to his credit or fault. The new philosophy instead recognized that many individuals were impacted by society-driven factors over which they had no control and which had a
significantly negative effect on their ability to make the most of their lives.

Especially after 1890, the reform movement gained strength, fueled by the extremes of poverty and wealth found in the country, as well as the general population’s dislike of
what it saw as the absolute power of big business, corruption scandals in government, and the violent suppression of strikes. The result over the next few decades was an American social contract with increasing emphasis on a balance of rights and individual obligations, and the role of government in leveling the playing field, with each person contributing to the government’s support according to his ability.”

Clearly, this was thought to be a civic obligation.  That’s a major reason why in this country virtually everyone pays their taxes.  Yes, they take advantage of every loophole that the law provides, but they do pay their taxes.  

But the idea of taxes being spent to help the less fortunate has grown out of favor among a large segment of the American populace, at the same time as the shift in political power has reversed itself and returned to the powerful, to the large corporations.  Social security is still supported because that is felt to be earned, but other programs … whether food stamps or health care or almost every program that supports the poor … are regularly attacked by the new Right.  Part of this new attitude is simple greed; the other part is the popularized myth that the poor are poor because it’s their own fault and thus are not deserving of government support.

The development of this civic obligation, while it was as noted above partly the result of a shift in political power during the 19th century, was based largely on moral, ethical, and spiritual teachings that go back to ancient times.  Every religion, every spiritual belief system, regardless of the cultural context and time has at its core a teaching of humanity, of concern for your fellow man.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and helping others through charity and other ways are universal teachings.

Why is this so?  It’s a combination of the spiritual and the practical.  As I’ve written before in these pages, we are all one, we are all children of the same God or the same life force.  What divides us is man made, not nature.  And so we should treat our fellow man with humanity and compassion.  Not just for the benefit of others, but for ourselves, as in the teaching, “Give and you shall receive [spiritually].”  

The practical is that every society, from the smallest primitive to the largest industrial is dependent on people working together, each in their role, to make the society function smoothly.  And so community leaders and belief systems have always fostered a sense of community, that we were all in this together, that when one had the good fortune to have more he gave much away to those who had less, understanding that “there but for good fortune go I.”  

Even after the advent of the industrial revolution and capitalism, people understood that the poor were not just deserving of being cared for and helped, but needed to be for the good of all.  And so most developed countries, including the U.S., embraced some degree of socialism to counter the loss of community brought about by the move into cities, fragmentation, and capitalism.

The current state of affairs, where the rich care only for themselves and no one cares what happens to the poor, is a recipe for cultural disaster and collapse.  Just viewed coldly from an economic standpoint, the reason why our economy has been pretty stagnant is that the broad mass of people, as opposed to the rich or well-off, don’t have the ability to purchase like they used to, and so the engine of our consumer economy has partially dried up.  

Over time, if this continues we will get weaker and weaker economically.  And as inequality grows, the nation will become morally and spiritually weaker as well.  All of this is on top of the degradation of our environment, of the eco-system that is our life support, which degradation is related to this issue of responsibility and yet separate.  I certainly have no ability to predict the future, but I’m glad that I won’t be alive 50 years from now.

I have written over and over on these pages that the current state of affairs, in almost all particulars, cannot continue without disaster for our children and future generations.  What it will take to wake us up, I don’t know.  Whether we have the capacity to change our perspective and habits, to in many ways go back to the future, I don’t know.  But these are issues that need to be discussed in all parts of the body politic … in schools, churches, and government.

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