Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Defending class warfare

I have class issues. I've never been comfortable with wealthy people and the notion of wealth. I recently told someone that my feelings are a result of my hatred of the relentless pursuit of material wealth--a soulless endeavor which I believe does not cause happiness, despite society's claims. I explained that the lifestyles of the rich and famous first create envy. This is followed by the empty pursuit of wealth. The conclusion of this sad quest is frustration and unhappiness.

But I forgot why, about a decade ago, I came to hate vast wealth in the first place. I'll get to the explanation some other day. At any rate, though, I was reminded two weeks ago.

Like so many other people, I was disgusted to see that the poorest and neediest of New Orleans' residents were left behind to fend for themselves when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. We live in a nation in which some people can afford a $1390 handbag from Prada; we live in a nation in which certain wealthy people feel no qualms spending thousands on shoes; we live in a nation in which many are expected to spend exorbitant amounts of money on weddings. Yet we live in a nation that treats its most vulnerable citizens like sewer rats. This is morally reprehensible. It simply cannot be defended.

Here's one tale of horror:

Denise said she thought she was in hell. they were there for 2 days, with no water, no food. no shelter. Denise, her mother (63 years old), her niece (21 years old), and 2-year-old grandniece. when they arrived, there were already thousands of people there. they were told that buses were coming. police drove by, windows rolled up, thumbs up signs. national guard trucks rolled by, completely empty, soldiers with guns cocked and aimed at them. nobody stopped to drop off water. a helicopter dropped a load of water, but all the bottles exploded on impact due to the height of the helicopter.

the first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her. the second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her. Denise told me the people around her all thought they had been sent there to die. again, nobody stopped. the only buses that came were full; they dropped off more and more people, but nobody was being picked up and taken away. they found out that those being dropped off had been rescued from rooftops and attics; they got off the buses delirious from lack of water and food. completely dehydrated. the crowd tried to keep them all in one area; Denise said the new arrivals had mostly lost their minds. they had gone crazy.

inside the convention center, the place was one huge bathroom. in order to shit, you had to stand in other people's shit. the floors were black and slick with shit. most people stayed outside because the smell was so bad. but outside wasn't much better: between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, the old and very young dying from dehydration... and there was no place to lay down, not even room on the sidewalk. they slept outside Wednesday night, under an overpass.

Denise said yes, there were young men with guns there. but they organized the crowd. they went to Canal Street and "looted," and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. when the police rolled down windows and yelled out "the buses are coming," the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back. just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.

Denise said the fights she saw between the young men with guns were fist fights. she saw them put their guns down and fight rather than shoot up the crowd. but she said that there were a handful of people shot in the convention center; their bodies were left inside, along with other dead babies and old people.

Denise said the people thought there were being sent there to die. lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. cops passing by, speeding off. national guard rolling by with guns aimed at them. and yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all. she saw a young man who had stolen a car speed past, cops in pursuit; he crashed the car, got out and ran, and the cops shot him in the back. in front of the whole crowd. she saw many groups of people decide that they were going to walk across the bridge to the west bank, and those same groups would return, saying that they were met at the top of the bridge by armed police ordering them to turn around, that they weren't allowed to leave.
The amount of money Americans have donated in the wake of the hurricane to organizations such as the Red Cross is staggering. Their commendable generosity will undoubtedly help the victims of Katrina. However, these people have been victimized by society for years and nothing has been done. Think about it: While New Orleans's destitute were suffering, a wealthy American was probably shopping for a $55,000 Hummer. This person was able to frivolously waste money on a vehicle that will waste a colossal amount of fuel while poor New Orleans residents without cars were stuck in a soon-to-be war zone. How can this be? How can we treat them so callously?

Consider the following graph:

Source: Arthur B. Kennickell, "A Rolling Tide: Changes in the Distribution of Wealth in the U.S., 1989-2001"

This massive concentration of wealth at the very top fuels much of our economy. Because they are the captains of the economic ship, the wealthy are treated best. If we don't treat them exceptionally, they argue that they will become disenchanted and our economy will suffer. They are given absurd tax cuts and their corporations benefit from legislation that harms the general welfare of this nation. Therefore, the barons of industry are living the high life while many are struggling. So what if the bottom 50% struggles? They own less than three percent of the wealth, making their economic impact miniscule.

Of course, the captains still need passengers on their ship. These are the people who drive the consumer economy. Consider the following graphs:

Source: Washington Post

The people in the top fifth and, to a lesser extent, the fourth fifth, have always occupied more seats on the boat. As the wages of the top fifth continue to dramatically rise, these people become increasingly valuable in the eyes of the marketplace. Meanwhile, as the bottom fifth's wages become proportionally smaller, they are worth less in the eyes of the marketplace. Because America worships at the altar of the marketplace, the poor, therefore, are considered worthless people.

Allow me to use a different metaphor. The economic train will continue to run as long as enough people have an increasing supply of disposable income to fuel the train. The conductor doesn't care if the bottom fifth has no gas. He's getting plenty of fuel from the top two-fifths.

This information is no big secret. It's just that no one is paying attention. In fact, shortly before Katrina hit, while many Americans were still following the story of some inconsequential teenager in Aruba, the Wall Street Journal reported the following:

Although the U.S. economy grew robustly last year, the income of the median household slipped a bit, wages of full-time workers fell, the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose and more Americans went without health insurance, the Census Bureau said.

I know you must be thinking that I'm some kind of communist, advocating for an equal distribution of wealth. I'm not. I'm a fan of capitalism, and I believe a capitalistic system will inevitably cause wealth inequality. However, a civilized society must keep that under control. I don't know what the answer is, although I can tell you that abolishing the estate tax is not the answer.

Today on NPR, a fellow from the Brookings Institution offered a suggestion. It may be a start.

Update: I wanted to include this quote from Franklin Roosevelt, but forgot:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little.


At 9:10 PM, Blogger CCHarmony said...

Ah, the diatribe at last. Are you some sort of communist or something? ;)

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Greg Pultorak said...

If a larger portion of the population over time is getting worse off, how do explain the recent voting habits of the American people?

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Anonymous Person said...

Uhhh, we live in a nation where even the poorest (60%) own cars which is substantialy higher then in the 1970s. Where statistics showing income don't show expendatures by the poor which includes money given to them from taxes paid by the rich.

You can't deny the fact that we have a progressive tax system. If that's the case then if the rich are getting richer tax revenue is increasing.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger Pete said...

They're not rising fast enough to keep up with our spendthrift president, who has increased the size of the federal budget more than 47 percent during his tenure.

He's a disgrace to true conservatives.

At 1:39 AM, Blogger Pete said...


This is enormous in scope, and therefore hard to comment on all in one fell swoop.

But a couple of points:

1. Your example of someone off buying an SUV while the poor in New Orleans were cooped up at the convention center is a little naive.

Let's be honest. Most of the country went about its normal business while the floodwaters were rising.

Of course we were concerned. But there's really not much Joe Average Citizen can do if you don't have a helicopter to help rescue people. So we went about our normal lives.

For you, this probably meant riding the T to work, update your blog, and doing whatever else it is that you do.

For some other dude, he went about his plans to buy a Hummer.

2. I think you are a little heavy-handed in your condemnation of those busy chasing a dollar.

For a lot of people, I don't think it's necessarily a matter of running the rat race so they can buy the Prada bag or Hummer (granted, for some, this is precisely the case).

But for a lot more, it's about saving up enough money to pay basic expenses, maybe eat a couple really good meals out, saving some money to put our parents into a nursing home in the future, etc.

I think your intent to scold the Prada people, but what you leave undefined is the gray area as to what is excess and what is needed for everyday life.

For example, what category would cell phones fit into? Picture phones? Etc. I'm curious where you draw your line.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Dan said...

First, I'll address Greg's question. Perhaps that can be answered by Albert Einstein:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.

It's a question that many people have pondered. Thomas Frank addresses it in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas.

Briefly, their voting habits can partially be explained by a combination of the following factors: southern voting patterns rooted in racism, religion, a distrust of elitist intellectuals, and fear that Democrats are incapable of defending the United States against the bad guys.

As for your points, Pete: I, of course, expect people to continue with their lives. My problem is that this hypothetical wealthy man was able to buy a frivolous, wasteful vehicle while destitute New Orleanians were literally stuck in New Orleans because they had no means of transportation.

I did not intend to condemn those that work hard to provide themselves a nice standard of living. My intention is to question the buying habits of a small, but extremely influential, portion of society—those who can afford Prada bags, own several homes, and for whom one pair of shoes costs more than my entire wardrobe.

I agree that there is a slippery slope between those who have nothing and those that are living an obscenely luxurious lifestyle. Clearly, I own several nice things, including an iPod that I won't shut up about. Perhaps it can be argued that the iPod is frivolous, but I don't think so.

People should absolutely buy for themselves toys and other nice items that make them happy. They are worthy rewards for a job well done. But moderation is the key. Once it becomes clear that a person is indulging in gluttony, this is when the line has been crossed.

So, no, I don't mean to scold those that pursue a middle-class lifestyle. My issue is that A) there are people who relentlessly pursue an over-the-top luxurious lifestye, and B) we live in a sytem that can provide people with luxury, but we have difficulty providing the poor with the basic necessities of life.

In yesterday's New York Times, this idea was explored in the Editorial Observer.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

we waited three weeks for this rhetoric?

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Dan said...

You seem to be unhappy with this entry. Join the discussion and offer a detail or two explaining your displeasure.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

I don’t have that much to say. I think you said it best yourself with "I believe a capitalistic system will inevitably cause wealth inequality…" The underprivileged will always fight to gain wealth, and the wealthy will always fight to keep it, with Adam Smith’s big invisible hand serving as the moderator. People also inevitably cross the fine line of what they need and what they want, which is part of what makes capitalism tick. Deciding where to place that line is the difficult part. Some are a bit more lenient in their placement than others.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Dan said...

That's the same big invisible hand that's destroying the character of your beloved Arlington, further evidence that sometimes the hand's actions cause less-than-ideal results.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger jeffro said...

true, but sometimes ya gotta take the good with the bad, especially where capitalism is concerned

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Dan said...

I realize that no system is ideal, capitalism included. But it's important to at least work toward the ideal. So while there will always be haves and have nots, we can at least try to limit the number of have nots. The oppposite is occuring, however.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger dave bones said...

Great post.


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