Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

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                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

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Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

Image result for greed
Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed

Paying Lip Service to the Forgotten

For many people that I know and that I see around this country, the idea that a person like Donald Trump could be this close to the presidency is simply baffling.  A place we find it hard to empathize.  I am a person who always tries to remain optimistic.  The more pessimistic about things, the more I try to find that silver lining, that thread of understanding, and try to open the door to a more enlightened and positive mindset.  It is very difficult to do this about Trump and those who support him.  However in that journey I came across a couple of media pieces that have help.  One is this video piece done by The Guardian in the UK.  It is very well done and closely examines McDowell county in West Virginia and speaks to the desperation that many people are facing and why they would hang their hopes on someone like Trump.

The main thing that I want to discuss is this article from Cracked.Com.  Every once and awhile I’ll across a thought provoking article from this satirical site and this is one of them.  There are many points that I agree with, and few points that are hard to swallow, and I had to remind myself that I did have to open my heart a little bit more than I had.  There are also some important points that I disagree with, or rather omitted points that I think provide for a more fair approach to the subject.

Rural vs Urban voting
                        Rural vs Urban voting

The main thrust of the piece is that when you look at a map of blue vs. red, the state map that we often look at during elections gives us a false idea for how that break down happen.  The map in the article clearly shows that blue vs red is really urban vs. rural.  The fact that blue has been taking precedence nationally I think is fairly indicative of that demographic shift to an urban dominated country.  My state of Pennsylvania is a good example of how the urban centers of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia dominate the voting population even though most counties tend to be very conservative.  There are very many counties like the one investigated in WV in The Guardian video, and poverty and drug use is high.  As the Cracked article points out, rural America is a forgotten group of people and grows smaller and thus is paid less attention to over time.  Our country was once much more agrarian, many rural counties had factories or mines and all these things allowed small town and rural America to thrive.  This however is not the world we live in anymore.  As the article points out, even for the most part pop culture has left rural societies out of the conversation.  We forget where food comes from.  We are concerned about the mistreatment of urban minorities, but show little concern for the extreme poverty that many who live in rural areas or small towns live in.  The deterioration of their livelihood with no plan put into place for how to give these people a chance to better their situation.

Republican politicians often talk about two Americas, and in some way they are right.  They often talk about the good hard working folks in “any town” USA, and they are right.  How many times do democratic politicians even really actively campaigned in rural areas and made their concerns part of their platform?  I will concede that to many liberals, the needs and lives of rural America are forgotten or ignored.  I included.  We may find their attitudes deplorable, but let us also, at the very least consider how deplorable their lives have become over the past 40 years as jobs have moved overseas and that most of our food is produced by big companies and industrial farming.  And here comes Trump, who addresses the “common man” who says he’s going to bring coal jobs back (even though they aren’t coming back), who says he’s going to lower everybody’s taxes, who says that he’s going to bring companies from overseas back (he’s not), and make America great again.

My criticism with the article I linked is that (and maybe this is a problem with the media) we aren’t getting people who come to the fore, supporting Trump, and really making nuanced arguments about the difficulties in rural America.  What we have is a slick NYC businessman as far from rural as you can get being supported by people who rail against immigrants (even though they themselves were immigrants), who want religious law to influence government law (no abortion, end marriage equality), who shout patriotism without substance, who want to build gigantic walls that would only further their economic challenges, and who literally find their candidate’s offensive views on women to literally be no problem at all.

I think the article makes some great points and I think that in the end if we are going to survive as a nation than “WE the people” has to mean something.  We all have to do a better job at reaching across the aisle.  And this is one of my posts that is much as a call to action to me as anyone else.  I struggle sometimes when I see someone come on TV speaking hate and intolerance, but I don’t want to become a person who writes that person off as a loss cause.  So if there is this other America that is disenfranchised and needs are help than I am happy to do so, but that doesn’t mean I am going to turn my back on women, on racial minorities, religious minorities, on LGBQT people to do so.  Both sides have to want to heal the divide and that means that we have to start seeing everybody as important whether it is racial vs urban, all races, creeds, sexual orientation.  There are a lot of problems that we all have in common.  Let’s start there, and I think you’ll find that if we worked out those things first, a lot of the other things wouldn’t matter so much.

The Pope is a Great Guy, but…

Of course if you are in the U.S. you know that life is all a buzz because the Pope is here.  Democrats are happy, Republicans are mad, life can’t get better for us liberals right?

Now don’t get me wrong…I think this pope is miles ahead of popes in the past and I really love his positive messages about doing something about climate change, helping refugees, and taking care of the poor. But….

On the topic of climate change, there this group, let’s call them a hell of a lot of scientists across numerous scientific disciplines who have been saying we need to do something about climate change.  But if the Pope says, then we better start listening.

There are a large group of people who feel great compassion for the poor and already believe we should be helping them.  The Pope says we should help them and so now we better start listening.

There are a lot of people who think we need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria better.  The Pope has made it clear we must help, so now we better start listening.

And look, I get it to a certain point, because there is a large portion of this country who only start to take things seriously when it is said by religious authority, but that doesn’t mean we should really be happy about it.

Secular humanists and those that value the scientific method as the best way to try and understand how the universe works are years ahead of the church on these kinds of issues and yet nothing can be done about it until the Pope says to do something about it?

But here is the thing, the Pope is right, but there is nothing about his religion beliefs that are germane to the issues he speaks of.  Helping the poor is a matter of acting out of our natural capacity to feel empathy, it speaks to equality, and human rights.  There is nothing divine about it.  Doing something about climate change has nothing to do with the story of Jesus Christ.  Once again it is being proactive about reducing suffering and listening to what 1000’s of scientists are saying who have spent years and years researching changes to our environment.  If there was no Pope and no God this would all still be the right thing to do, because why let people suffer?

So I’m happy that the Pope is saying all these things, but there are many among you have been saying these things all along.  Intelligent and compassionate people.  They aren’t called the Pope but maybe they are worth listening to as well. To me it’s a bit sad that we have to look to a man who says many things other have said all along, but just because he is the Pope it becomes relevant.

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people… Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid … the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science. – Jawaharlal Nehru – 1961

The Scales of Justice

I recently watched this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about public defenders.  It is not a slam against public defenders, but rather a criticism of a system in which anywhere from 60-90% of people arrested cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders, but there are just far too many of them for public defenders to do their job adequately.  This leaves many defendants with less than adequate representation.  As a result over 90% of cases by public defenders end in plea bargains, even when the people aren’t guilty.  That’s a quick summary, but watching the clip is well worth the time and speaks for itself.

And I started to think about the entire philosophy of justice we have in this country and got really sad about it all.  It would be one thing if we had a beautiful ideal and we were continually striving towards it, but it seems that there is enough of a portion of this country that feel justice is working fine, and that if you are in a position to be arrested than you simply have some sort of punishment coming your way.  The system is rigged from the police procedures that target low income people knowing that many can’t afford to fight back and will pay fines whether they were really guilty or not, to the court system which puts low income people at a severe disadvantage, to the prison system which profits from long jail sentences for minimal crimes.  And once they are in there, opportunities are so low once they get out.  As President Obama said, we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population and compared to other western nations with similar standards of living we are one of the least safe nations.  The violent crime rate is down 40% from what it was in 1980 and yet prison populations have increased by over 400%.  Something is definitely not right.

Bernie_memeAnd my question really is why is it this way?  As poverty continues to grow in this country why do we continue to punish the most impoverished of our people for simply being in poverty?  I’m not saying that there aren’t people who commit crimes and that we should just let it happen, but when you look at the environment and challenges they face, those who criticize rarely have experienced such adversity.  Sure there is always a small portion who rise out of poverty but for the most part the poor are simply exploited for their labor or for their money.  On average, we don’t give them a living wage, we don’t give them access to equal education, we don’t give them equal access to quality health care, and we don’t give them equal access to healthy and affordable food options.

But they all deserve it right?  Making those bad decisions when they had so many good decisions open to them.  Do we not have a responsibility to raise the less fortunate up?  Do we just leave those who haven’t had the opportunities we had to languish and justify it with the idea it’s their fault they are in this position?  What about forgiveness?  What about compassion? How can we paint such a large population of our country with just one color and ignore the tapestry of lives that exist there?  As the top income earners continue to suck away the wealth of the bottom 99% why do we turn our attention downwards, kicking those at the bottom instead of shaking the tree more to let the fruit fall to the ground?  Some people in this country act like if we just eliminated the poor the country would be a better place, but in fact it would be chaos and nothing would remain.  No soldiers to fight our wars, no workers to pick our food, serve our food, work in retail, and all the other jobs we don’t even notice get done everyday.  And even if the void could be filled, the capitalist policies our country function on would simply shift more of us down to the bottom, while the rich keep benefiting.

Welcome to an economy built on consumerism and profit.  To answer the real question why, one simply has to follow the money.  It is to the benefit of the rich to keep the population of a large portion of the country poor.  Because there is only so far wealth can grow, it is finite and if the populous has more, they have less.  Life, liberty, and happiness for all citizens of this country take a backseat when money is involved.

I know this post was ranty and I try to put more logical discourse, but just sometimes you just look at these large systems that are so difficult to change when you are just one person and see millions upon millions of people being impacted by a system that is simply not there to help them, and in the long run doesn’t help the rest of us either.  I made a resolution with myself about a year ago then when I moved strongly by something emotionally I need to not just complain but do something positive, even if it’s just donate some money to a worthwhile charity.  Although perhaps on the periphery of the central theme of this post, there is something that I have been sort of procrastinating getting involved in for some time and I am happy to say I am procrastinating no longer.  I have decided to be a CASA volunteer which is a wonderful program where the volunteer acts as an advocate for a neglected or abused child in court until the system finds them a good and safe home.  Incarceration is a strong possibility for children who grow up in broken homes and maybe helping in this way I can help a few kids stay out of the prison system in this country.

Isolation in a crowded world

I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately.  I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing.  His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future.  To me that

From http://www.media.tumblr.com

is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.

One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series.  In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people.  The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware.  In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human.  Robots do everything.  Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need.  It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding.  And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.

Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more.  While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact.  Not overly different from today’s city life really.

Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted.  We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival.  Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance.   As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people.  The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained.  It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.

In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street.  Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well.  I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past.  I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it.  As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet.  I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship.  Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face.  Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?

And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways.  I can still conduct

my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me.  You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door.  Banking and paying bills can be done on-line.  As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher.  And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary.  Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others.  The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be.  Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.

For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species.  Is it simply not part of our

From http://www.stupidman.com

mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities?  Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man?  Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it?  What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others.  In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way.  Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way?  Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.

If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more.  But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace?  Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen?  I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder.  It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.

For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance.  I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂

Skills and Value

Topics are building up in my head faster than I have time to write them, and so despite the fact that I swore I was going to write about numerous other topics, particularly in the area of psychology a Facebook conversation has led me down a different path.

The conversation was about a McDonalds worker who wanted her $8/hr salary to go up to

From money.cnn.com

the living wage of $15/hr.  Which is still not a terribly high wage.  The conversation that ensued went as you’d expect.  Most people (who are in good jobs and living comfortably) saying that working at McDonalds requires no skill and thus should be paid accordingly.  Or criticizing the person for not doing more with their life and thus have no one but themselves to blame.  One person did make the argument that no wage has kept pace with inflation, which is true, but minimum wage has gone up at an even slower rate.

I made numerous arguments in response, most importantly challenging the assumption that the person had all these choices in their life.   Most of the people reading this blog live in a position of privilege.   And it’s not your fault.  Your parents probably pushed you, help educate you, made you aware of different options for your life, encouraged you to do well in school.  You probably grew up in relatively safe neighborhoods.  You had friends that were similar to you.  You had good schools to go to, with a lot of skilled teachers.  But not all neighborhoods are safe.  Not all parents care enough to encourage your education.

From blog.volunteerspot.com

Not all schools are equal in the quality of education they provide.  Some environments make it easier to fall into a bad crowd.  Not everyone has the freedom to go for further training after they get out of high school.  Maybe they have to work to take care of a sick parent who has massive bills because they couldn’t afford health insurance.  There are a million scenarios that could limit the opportunities one has.

I also made the argument that I did not choose my career path as a meteorology professor because of the money.  It is because I loved it.  I am glad it pays well enough for me to live comfortably.  But should all of a sudden a McDonalds job become available that pays more.  I am not going to jump ship and say, “Yay more money, flipping burgers all day is going to be awesome!”.

An argument was made by someone that garbage men get paid a good wage so they

From nypost.com

could do that instead of working at McDonalds.  Okay true.  But we can’t all be sanitation workers let alone teachers, lawyers and doctors.  It’s also important to remember that at one time sanitation workers didn’t get paid very much.  Thanks to unions though they could organize, strike, and refuse to pick up garbage until they made a decent wage to live by.  Because picking up the trash and removing waste from our streets is actually an important and necessary part of our society.

I think education and teachers are extremely important.  But do I think that makes a job that doesn’t require as much knowledge and skill less important?  Of course not.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about my role in society than someone who picks up the garbage.  In fact someone could argue that picking up the trash is perhaps more important.  When trash was in the streets, things like the bubonic plague happened.  Hygiene and sanitation are extremely important.  So let’s go a step further.  Is there anything more inherently valuable about my job than a restaurant worker?  Arguably we can have a world without restaurants and everybody cooks their own food.  Might  not be a bad world, but that’s not ultimately our world.  People like to go out to eat.  There will always be restaurants.  So restaurants are just as much part of the fabric of society as anything else.  So should the required skill level in any job be what determines the wage.  The sanitation worker, from a skill level is just as demanding as a burger flipper and yet makes more.   Is that right?  I would further argue that an employee earning a living wage at any job has more loyalty to the company and stays longer thus becoming better at their job.  If you’ve had bad service at a McDonalds, maybe it’s because they are constantly having to train new people since the pay is so bad that people leave after a short time.  The money isn’t probably worth the level of abuse they get from customers.

Now there are even more good arguments to be made about a McDonalds worker making a living wage.  They would need less social programs saving the taxpayer money, they can perhaps afford to move to send their kids to a better school to break the cycle of poverty, not to mention they may now have more free time to better themselves or spend with their kids, which also helps break the cycle.  However what concerns me the most is the attitude towards the poor.  One commenter on this thread said that “it serves them right making a low wage for their self-inflicted wounds”.  I was like wow.  As I’ve just argued it is extremely judgmental to assume the wounds are self-inflicted, but basically this person is saying:

“Hey poor person, sucks about the mistakes you made in the past.  You deserve now to suffer the rest of your life because of that”.

How callous is that? I wonder if that person has ever had somebody so unforgiving to their mistakes. And how should the poor person respond?

” Thank a lot Captain Hindsight.  Now that I realize my mistakes I’ll go back in time and fix it.”

Furthermore we can see how materialistic our society is by people who would look down on poor people in such a way.  Because where is the condemnation to the rich owner of

From socialmarketbuzz.com

McDonalds or any corporation?  Why don’t we judge him just as harshly?  Because he has money of course.  And obviously he must be working really really hard in order to make all that money.  This is of course nonsense.  A single mother working two jobs to support her family is most definitely working harder than the CEO of McDonalds. And I doubt that mother is having fancy lunches on an expensive account and playing a round of golf out in the sun with business associates.  But even if they were equal, why is that CEO more valuable than the person working at minimum wage jobs?  The corporation itself made almost $30 billion last year in revenues.  And the CEO’s take home pay is $9 million a year.  Is that CEO that much more valuable than one of his employees?  Is he/she that much more skilled?

And if workers should get a living wage, many argue about how much everything will cost.  But there is a second option.  The company could make less money.  The CEO could make less money.  Is that likely?  Perhaps not, but in the free market there is always somebody who is going to take an advantage of an opportunity and will undercut the competition and take home only 2 million a year instead.  That CEO is still living a better life than 99.99% of the people in this world.  If we want to equate a monetary value to skill, a CEO still makes far beyond what his or her skill warrants.

The Great Pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world, was built on the backs of slave labor to entomb the rich and powerful.  When I look at the vast wealth of a few, at the expense of countless millions who can barely meet their daily nutritional needs for themselves and their families, I wonder how much things have really changed.  What’s clear is that by dehumanizing the poor as many do in this country it allows a system to continue that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.  So it saddens and sickens me when I hear people idolize wealth and abhor the poor.  If the income gap continues to widen in this country I can tell you that statistically speaking one is more likely to find themselves in a poor man’s shoes.  Perhaps only then will people learn.