Friday, October 07, 2011

The silent, sullen peoples

I'm reading The White Man's Burden right now and am just burning through it—as you can tell, because I'm all the way on chapter three and have been reading it for over a month now? Yeah. It's a good book but I do have other things that I'm reading and for some reason this book gets put on the back burner a lot. Anyway, in chapter three there's a section entitled, "I'm Hungry—Let's Invent Free Markets."

With a header like that you know it's going to be a good book, right?

In this section, William Easterly, who Andrew calls Bill because apparently they're tight like that, says, "The freedom of choice and of personal knowledge makes possible the great gains that come from specialization. If I were limited to my consuming only what I could make or do myself, the results would not be pretty. My cooking skills are limited, for example....Without markets, I would be forced to grow the wheat, beans, and rice myself, milk the cow, process the grains and beans into edible form, and make the cheese and pasta. (I have no clue how to do any of the above.) Instead, I trade on the free market my economist services...and get money in return. I use this money to select home cooking items and to order takeout" (pg. 72).

Right now people are protesting on Wall Street. People are angry because the corporate world is too wealthy while "average citizens" are too poor.

A few of my Facebook friends have posted a picture of the protestors, labeled with things that come from the "evil corporations" they are protesting against.

  • Cardboard box by Kimberly-Clark.
  • Camera by Sony.
  • Shirt by Gap.
  • Black marker by Sharpie.
  • Make-up by Proctor & Gamble.

And so on.

I suppose the point of the picture is that because the people protesting against big corporations are themselves consumers, their protestations are in vain. Or hypocritical. Or moot. Somehow.

That just makes me roll my eyes. Of course they are consumers—we live in a free market economy! I trade my goods and/or services for your goods and/or services. That's the way a free market economy works. They aren't protesting that. That would be silly.

No one wants to be The Little Red Hen and plant, grow, harvest, cart, and grind their own grain to make their own bread. Or even if someone does want to do that, they don't want to farm silk worms, harvest, spin, and weave the silk into material to sew their own clothes. Or even if someone did want to do that they wouldn't want to acquire and smelt their own iron ore (and do everything else necessary) to make a toaster. Or even if someone did want to do that (because someone does) it's rather unlikely they want to take on all three projects, let alone build their own house or computer or toilet or oven or car or piano with materials they harvested on their own.

"The free market is a universally useful system..." says Easterly. "Economic freedom just means unrestricted rights to produce, buy, and sell. Each of us can choose the things we want and not have somebody else decide what is best for us. We can also freely choose what we are going to sell and what occupation to choose, based on our inside knowledge of what we are best at and most like doing" (also pg. 72).

I think what the "99%" on Wall Street are protesting about is that we don't have a free market economy. We don't have unrestricted rights to produce, buy, and sell. Why? Because the bigwigs of banks and corporations hold so much of the country's wealth and power. It seems to me that with so much wealth and power they control the market a little bit, which kind of makes it seem less free. There is no wealth to be had because it's all stuck in one location.

On the flip side of this picture is the one that liberals used to point a finger at anti-government-program rallies earlier in the year, similar to this unapologetic defense of government as a vital institution. This kind of thinking has made several of my friends crazy angry, though I'm not sure why since it is so true!

Just as we cannot get rid of government programs, we cannot get rid of corporations. However, we can seek to limit the amount of corruption in both institutions—and I think that the people protesting on Wall Street are aiming to do that.

It's amazing when the oppressed seek to break the grip of their oppressors. Hundreds of years ago, back in the 1700s, America revolted against Britain. They—the poor, oppressed citizens, with a hodgepodge of uniforms and weaponry—succeeded in carrying out a revolution. That revolution helped create a domino effect in the rest of the world (what we call the Atlantic Revolutions) because the small, insignificant, powerless lower classes realized that they were not small, insignificant, or powerless.

This year we the world (excluding places like China and North Korea) watched the Arab Spring, when many oppressed Arab nations rose up against their oppressors. It was at once beautiful and painful to watch. The majority made themselves be heard against so many odds and in spite of hardship and threat of death. I'm not sure that the Wall Street protests are completely separate from the Arab Spring movement. Perhaps it is not on the same scale—not all the revolutions in the series of Atlantic Revolutions were on the same scale, either—but I can't help but wonder if many of the underemployed and unemployed in America watched the Egyptians defend their liberty by standing their ground on Tahrir Square and wondered if they could reclaim some of their own liberty by way of peaceful protest, too.

I'm not saying we need to call for the ouster of our president. Not at all. And I'm not saying we need to construct a guillotine and execute the CEOs of major corporations. Not at all. I'm merely saying that if the underrepresented lower-class citizens want to start representing themselves and demand changes then that is their right and their privilege.

Another message that has been bouncing around Facebook is the "I think we found where the cuts should be made!" list, which details the salary of government officials. I'm not sure what fair compensation would be for government jobs—my current salary is $0.00 per year and I work 24/7; let's just say I'm not good at setting wages—but I don't think the answer is to not pay them at all. We need government; if we did away with it we'd just form a new one whether we meant to or not. Anarchy doesn't seem to work, at least not any way that I can figure it, because it's natural for leaders to lead and followers to follow. Could our leaders possibly take a cut in pay when so many others in the country are suffering due to underemployment or unemployment? Probably, but, truthfully, so could a few CEOs that I can think of.

The 2010 edition of Forbes' What the Boss Makes article reports that, although CEOs have been taking cuts in pay, the top "500 executives earned $4 billion in 2009, which averages out to $8 million apiece." Now, call me mathematically challenged, but doesn't one million have six zeros in it? So $8 million can be written $8,000,000, right?

The POTUS earns $400,000 per year. No paid government employee earns more than he does.

If we had 500 POTUSes, then the total cost would be $200 million, which is 0.05% of the $4 billion that the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies make. But we don't have 500 PUTUSes. We only have one and he works hard. According to AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the pay for executives was higher than what Forbes reported—they reported an average of $11.4 million per executive in 2010. They also say that from 1980 to 2010 the salaries of CEOs grew from 42 to 343 times the average salary of a blue collar worker. Sheesh!

At the risk of sounding too forward-y (and, actually, to make a mockery of such forwards):

Compensation of the CEO of Danaher...$141,360,000*
Compensation of the CEO of Yum Brands...$76,490,000*
Compensation of the CEO of Starbucks...$29,210,000*
Compensation of the CEO of Walt Disney...$21,780,000*
Compensation of the CEO of GAP...$5,040,000*
Average salary of a citizen of the USA...$46,000

I think we found where some cuts should be made! If you agree...re-post!
* All CEO compensation wages taken from Forbes.

If each of the 500 CEOs earning, on average, between eight and eleven million dollars per year took just one of their several millions and used that "extra" money to hire on 25 people at an annual salary of $40,000, that would provide jobs for 12,500 people and still leaves those CEOs between seven and ten million dollars per year. They could be extra generous and double or triple or quadruple the millions they donate to their workers wages and provide jobs for 25,000 or 37,500 or 50,000 people and still (STILL!) have between four and seven million dollars per year to themselves.

Maybe that wouldn't help very much—it would hardly make a dent in the unemployment rate—but for those 50,000 people (and their families) it would probably mean the world. Who needs several millions of dollars per year, anyway? It reminds me of a meeting I went to last year, where a number of very wealthy ladies spoke on etiquette, and suggested that we, wives to would-be professionals, get a fancy black dress even if it meant going into debt. At that meeting while the hostess was introducing one of the speakers, she mentioned that the speaker had not one, not two, but three (THREE!) beautifully decorated homes. Who needs three beautifully decorated homes when I don't even have a one home (beautifully decorated or otherwise)?

I believe in the American Dream, that life "should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." But I don't believe that this happens "regardless of social class or circumstances of birth." I believe that betterment can happen, but as Joseph sings in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, it's likely the result of some fortuitous event—luck—"Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!"

Contrary to what Herman Cain may say, the poor aren't poor because they don't work hard and they aren't even really jealous of the wealthy. The poor work very hard and are only bothered by the rich when the rich get in the way of them making any sort of living—if I may be so bold as to speak for the poor (and I feel bold enough since I'm technically among them). The rich, on the other hand, are rich due to a series of events that fell into place while they too were working hard, too. But that doesn't mean that the poor, who missed the perfect alignment of the stars, don't work hard. They do—they just missed their lucky break.

In the book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says that "there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success" (pg. 18). "People don't rise from nothing," he says, but instead "owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot" (p.19). I highly recommend this book; it was fascinating!

There is no simple solution to the economic crisis we're in—if there was, it would have been done already—just as there is no simple way to solve world hunger. The world we live in is far too complicated for a "big push," as "Bill" Easterly would say—there is no magic button to press or pill to swallow or wand to wave. It will be many small solutions added together that will fix this problem and, truthfully, I'd rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. I want to help the unemployed man sitting at home, alone, on his couch as much as I want to help that starving child in Africa because, likely, neither one of them is entirely at fault for their condition.

I once had a conversation with a friend about insurance and enquired what insurance she was on (I had reason to ask since I was shopping around for a plan then). She admitted to being on Medicaid—she was expecting a baby, her husband was still in school and, although working hard, could not work full-time and attend classes; she, herself, was not working because she was staying at home with their other children. "I don't really support Medicaid," she said, "Because so many people abuse the system and just want handouts. But we really don't have any other options at this point in our life."

I was floored. This is a woman I respect and admire—a friend—and yet she seemed to think that others on government assistance were lazy people, abusing the system, looking for handouts. While that may be the case for some people, I happen to think that most people on Medicaid are on it because they have no other options at that point in their lives. Do you know how poor you need to be to be on Medicaid? Do you know how rigorous the application process is? I do.

My children are on medicaid because we have no other option to insure them at this point in our life—I had to prove my citizenship multiple times to get Medicaid for my children, which I thought was pointless because I had already proven their citizenship so I doubt there's a bucket-load of illegal immigrants on Medicaid, either (but that's another rant for another day).

I suppose my main point (or at least a point that I'm trying to make) is that I think we should trust each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt instead of name-calling and finger-pointing all the time. I think that those who have should willingly give to those who have not so that the whole community can benefit—you are only as rich as the poorest among you.

I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I am always shocked when my fellow Saints find room to condemn the poor. I'm reading Daughters in my Kingdom right now, which discusses visiting teaching and service at great length (because that is what the Relief Society organization is all about—Charity Never Faileth!). Helping the poor and the needy is absolutely fundamental to who we are as a church. Joseph Smith taught that "[we are] to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever [we find] them" (quoted on pg. 119 of Daughters in my Kingdom from the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), pg. 426).

The prophet Joseph Smith also taught that unless we are equal "in earthly things [we] cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things" (D&C 78: 5-7). I suppose that means that as we help others temporally we help ourselves spiritually—inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these ye have done it unto me. We are obligated to help our fellow man. And, as wrong as it may seem, the world will judge us—and our religions—by how charitable we are.

By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

—Rudyard Kipling, The White Man's Burden, 1899

5 comments:

  1. Amen and amen to your rant! Well said!

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  2. ^^^What Myrna said--and as one of those poor people, it's hard to be looked at like I'm lazy and using the system when I'm at the store/doctors office.
    A little understanding that you don't know others situations goes a l-o-n-g ways.
    And thanks for those stats on pay--I keep seeing that post around FB, and it drives me a little crazy. . .

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  3. OK, so I haven't read the book... But "The freedom of choice and of personal knowledge makes possible the great gains that come from specialization" seems exactly opposite of how it probably happened. We didn't decide to be free and then invent intensive agriculture in order to have large surpluses. That's like saying dinosaurs went extinct so that mammals would have a chance to evolve into great apes. It's far more likely that intensive agriculture won out because it could support larger populations, not because some at the top would be free to be priests, warriors, etc.

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  4. I don't know; I think he's saying that as we specialize we're able to specialize more. Or because intensive agriculture won out then we're able to specialize and because we have the freedom of choice, etc., we're able to capitalize, so to speak, on our specializations.

    In places without freedom of choice it's more difficult to capitalize on specializations.

    You have a PhD. He has a PhD. I'm a stay-at-home-mom with a BA.

    You two can hash it out. :)

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  5. No, it's a good point! I usually argue your side. I was just being contrary. It's true, this is the hand we've been dealt: selling our labor to earn wages that we use to purchase and consume capitalist commodities in order to reproduce our families socially. And we have to live in that world.

    On the other hand, there was an alternative at one time--sustainable lifestyles, extensive agriculture, general survival skills, eating what you grow, massive amounts of leisure time--and just because it's no longer conventional, that doesn't mean it's not possible at all, in some form, at some point in the future.

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