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.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The grope-inator

I am still working on my diatribe. In the meantime, here's a funny cartoon.