Thursday, February 24, 2011

Brother, can you spare a care?

I once saw an episode of an old television drama called “Route 66,” in which Tod and Buz encounter a young boy whose father has just been knifed to death. He has no mother or siblings, only an aged relative to look after him. Predictably, his emotions are confused and he runs away. Tod wants to look for him; Buz, who was himself an orphan, empathizes with the boy’s feelings and believes he should be allowed to find his own way. Tod disagrees, saying that he believes in the adage “I am my brother’s keeper.” So he leaves and tries to find the boy without success. Buz, meanwhile, has second thoughts; he decides to help Tod find the boy, who is eventually located at his father’s grave site. The boy has no faith left in the justice of the world, but Buz, speaking from his own experience, tells him it’s OK to let out his anguish, but in the end everything isn’t so dark after all if you just hold on long enough to faith.

In the world of “Route 66,” compassion and self-sacrifice had not yet gone out of style. Regardless of the cost—including physical—Tod and Buz did not turn their backs on those they encountered who were in need. In this episode and many others, the theme of “my brother’s keeper” played out time and time again; unlike other later television series that followed the same theme but were more overtly religious with less than human characters, the protagonists of this series could have settled down anytime they wished and lived normal lives, but they chose to move on, rebelling against the strictures of a material-gathering society. But what they were able to give, they did.

In today’s world, there is not much mood for being charitable—even the kind espoused by Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s novel “The Magic Christian”—especially among the most fortunate. If corporate America and the super wealthy are not providing the jobs they promised with all the tax cuts they have been given, surely they are giving some of their largesse to aid food banks and homeless sheltering, right? Hell, maybe a job or two. No, they are providing aid to other poverty-stricken programs, like the local opera house, symphony and right-wing think tank. There are those like Bill Gates who are doing good work in finding ways to combat problems in Africa (which the Seattle Times recently bizarrely accused of being an example big money buying political favor); but that is over there, not over here. In hard times, organizations that supply aid to the poor and hungry in this country are hard-put because the people whose charity they depend on—the middle class—tend to be hard put as well.

Concerning how much more some people have to be charitable with, this past January the Economist explored the issue of the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and in keeping with its right-wing bent, predictably found it less disturbing than ought be the case. This despite the fact that today the top 0.1 percent of the population in the U.S. had 8 percent of the country’s wealth—compared to 2 percent in the 1960s—and that between 1980 and 2006, the earnings of the top 0.1 percent rose 80-times that the rate of the bottom 90 percent. The top 0.1 percent were obviously not paying 80 times the social cost of this inequality, either. The Economist did, however, suggest that there was a physical, emotional and mental impact to this inequality: It quoted some researchers who claimed that in impoverished environments, stresses of impoverishment prevented the production of certain hormones that from birth promote trust and social bonding, and this has something to do with the failure to improve one’s life when confronted with the reality of inequality.

Given the suggestion of environment-based variables, the Economist’s answer to income inequality is the government’s need to “keep their focus on pushing up the bottom and middle rather than dragging down the top.” That is “investing in (and removing barriers to) education, abolishing rules that prevent the able from getting ahead and refocusing government spending on those that need it most.” That, of course, is the government’s business, not the super rich and their potential tax dollars. We’ve heard that story before, but this costs money so as to avoid laying-off teachers in droves and reducing the availability of educational tools, and that kind of thing won’t get any traction around here these days. “Second, governments should get rid of rigged rules and subsidies that favor specific industries or insiders. Forcing banks to hold more capital and pay for their implicit government safety-net is the best way to slim Wall Street’s chubbier felines.” In other words, no charity for businesses, and forcing banks to work for the public good. Again, not over a tea partier’s dead body. They just don’t understand the concepts involved.

The “elite” have become super rich because they have been more “clever,” even if that cleverness was put to use in misusing regulations (or lack of) to manipulate financial transactions. Forget all that; they are actually more altruistic than we give them credit for. They might not be donating to food banks or homeless shelters, but we need the super rich to create the tools for which the common folk can live “easier” lives, although the presence of livable wages is probably a greater indicator of an “easier” life than toys. Giving people laptops, cell phones and other time-wasting devices can keep people oblivious to the finer things in life that the rich enjoy in abundance, like healthy food and health care (Ben-Ami calls this the "greening" of the elite: they don't want "Everyone" to live "well," because they'll use up all the Earth's resources reserved for their class). But the fact is that the “elite” are becoming less and less creative when it comes to advancing technology to make us forget; they are merely improving on old technology. Accepting so-called “hybrids,” there has been no major advance in the basic technology of the automobile in 100 years, since they almost all still run on some form of petroleum; if we had an automobile that ran on water, that would be a technological breakthrough. Until science discovers how to harness energy from a less dangerous source than uranium and less polluting than carbon-based fuels to cover our needs into the next millennium, one which presumably turn fantasy into reality and allow humanity to explore other worlds to plunder, we will have to be satisfied with slight improvements that are becoming less and less accessible for many of us, especially in the health care arena if the Republicans have their way.

The irony of the world of “Route 66” was that it was people who came face to face with misfortune who felt a greater desire to assist in alleviating it, because they felt a moral responsibility as human beings; the people who lived in the mansions on the hill were either completely oblivious or completely contemptuous. We are coming closer to a world where neither side cares—one side which is too distracted to notice, the other side that doesn’t want anyone to acknowledge that there is anything to care about.

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