The Illusion of Poverty: The Age of Sharing Awaits Us

Huge caveat: The author fortunately has not suffered directly from impoverishment during his life. (We all suffer from it indirectly.) Thus, he contributes this piece, not as an expert on the “topic,” but as attempt to generate productive exchange.

People in the world, in fact most people in the world, suffer greatly because they are economically poor. (Many are spiritually and culturally rich and this should give many unfulfilled “Northerners” pause regarding the “civilized” nature of our lifestyle.) They go without food, water, housing, health care, education, etc., because they cannot purchase these necessities. Why? It is because these items, despite being core basic necessities for a fully actualized life, have all been commodified. (All resources are commodified, even air–you don’t pay a monthly fee for air yet but you suffer, and pay for medical treatment, from the reckless polluting of the atmosphere.) Commodification in our capitalist world dictates that these (all) resources are provided (or not) so as to maximize profits for the few. This is a terribly inhumane situation and one that will continue to bring great suffering to the world if not ultimately trigger the elimination of our species.

But hold on. There is something incredibly simple about this terrible situation. It is completely an artificial construction! It isn’t like we don’t have enough food, land, water, or shelter to provide every human sufficient resources to self-actualize. We do! Yet we don’t make this grand aim a priority and most of us are not yet willing to share. But we could change this, couldn’t we?

What is holding us back? I think three things are key. One, we accept inequality and selfishness as reasonable/normal and a natural outcome of human society. I see this point of view as a cop out/rationale which can be tackled by intentional efforts to share and redistribute resources so that every person is a “have” and no one is a “have not”. Two, we must change the economy from a profit-based one to an equity-based one. We need progressive taxes (not more regressive ones) and shared resources. One need look no further than the difference between health outcomes in the USA (where more and more hospitals are becoming privatized and costs are skyrocketing) and those in Europe (where socialized medicine reigns)–U.S.’s health system is ranked #37 by the WHO while 17 of the top 20 ranked are European (link) Similar benefits would come by making sure that all of us have true access to the best education possible, clean water, healthful food and safe housing. (Recent efforts to privatize these resources has resulted in worse conditions, not better.) Three, we should have more free time to give to our families, children, friendships, & communities; some European countries are moving in this direction. Capitalism has demanded more of our time (men and women) and not made us any happier or fulfilled. It is also destroying the planet due to its “rational” short-sightedness that dictates that an old-growth forest is worth more as a ream of paper now than a flourishing ecosystem for perpetuity.

So, some big changes in consciousness and structures are necessary, but we are closer than we think. Recall it was just 150 years ago that many thought slavery was necessary to deliver a good life. Some still do, but most do not and we are part of that most and we can make a better future for ourselves and the future.

are we moral?

In a world where people eat scrumptious meals in fancy restaurants while homeless people peddle for coins just on the other side of the glass, where others drive their $100,000 autos solo daily past hordes of bus goers (in sub-freezing temperatures) without considering offering a ride, and where increasing numbers communicate via “god-like” cellular devices while others, thousands of miles away, work feverishly in horrific conditions to collect enough “coltan” (a versatile metal alloy used in WiFi-transmitting electronics) to feed their families, one has to ask, “What’s moral these days?” And, relatedly, in a world so extreme in its inequality and maldistribution of resources, “Is it even possible for a person of economic privilege to live morally?”

Imagining an extra-terrestrial who happened upon our planet, I suspect he/she would unequivocally state that nearly all “first-worlders” live immorally. This judgment would come simply from his/her observation that we consume resources that are obtained, distributed, manufactured, and sold in ways that usually cause great psychological and physical harm to other humans and other forms of life. From the pesticide-laden plants (or hormone- and antibiotic-dosed meat) food that dominates food systems, our fossil fuels which often come from war-torn regions of the world where (despite the amazing amount of $$ that these resources must be worth) most people have remained severely impoverished for decades, or our everyday clothing and house “products” that are almost always made by workers overseas who live in inhumane work environments, this verdict is undeniable. If there were a functioning international court, we would be found “guilty” of immoral lifestyles.

Concluding that we are living immorally shouldn’t be news to anyone, though it rarely gets coverage in such blatant terms. It also doesn’t have much meaning if it isn’t just an inevitable result of living in the 21st century (or at all). Clearly, humans must consume substantial resources to live, all large animals do by necessity. So, do we have any real choice? The answer is “yes.” First, we overconsume, producing excessive amounts of waste. Many of the products that we buy aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. Second, we, if we really cared to do so, could find many of the resources that we do need to thrive from producers that aren’t destroying the environment in their work. This is particularly true with food but is doable, albeit difficult, in other areas as well. (Here are a few articles that lay out some of these options, ref 1, ref 2). Third, all of us are entangled, whether we like it or not, in the most immoral component of our “consumption”: the trillions of dollars lost (which we pay in taxes) on the continued militarization of the world and its ties to resolving humanitarian and economic challenges with arms and violence, rather than diplomacy and peace.

All this said, it must be noted that many of those that live in “rich” countries, especially the U.S., live under great economic stress and this limits their ability to act morally with regard to their consumption patterns. Reasonably, until they are relieved of their structural impoverishment, their immorality doesn’t deserve much attention; though increasing their “take” and not causing further damage would necessitate a different type of growth than we are use to. On the other hand, the behaviors of those that live in middle- to upper-class lives cannot be overlooked. Sadly, much of what they (and “I”) consume falls into the category of “horrible.” Our educational system and mainstream media (both increasingly influenced/controlled by corporations), in their effort to ensure that we continue to consume, completely fail to teach us what we need in order to consume morally.

So, where does this leave us? I don’t think there are any magical solutions. But, just as alcoholics must admit their addiction before making headway, we need to admit our immorality as well. Perhaps part of the solution is something equivalent to AA (or NA) where people could meet regularly and figure out ways to modify our (individually and collectively) consumption patterns toward moral pathways. Such meetings are happening under other auspices (e.g., Green Party, First Nations Environmental Network, Urban Ag/Permaculture, etc.). Start your own group or check one of these out. Let us know what you find!

meritocracy

Since I was young, I have been told by society, “work hard and you will succeed.” And, guess what, the prescription worked.

Ah, but not so fast. I know many others that have worked hard as well and they haven’t been as fortunate. Also, I have met many people who have “made it” largely based on luck (having wealthy parents/family or merely occupying a high-paid, paper-pushing job). Is this fair?

I realize that I was very lucky too. Both of my parents are intelligent and educated. And my aunts and uncles are too. Additionally, I lived most of my life in Northern Virginia, which has very strong school systems. A good education can go a long way.

I also realize that I have other fortunate assets that have made it a lot easier for me to “make it.” I am “White” (though I have endured some discrimination due to my ethnic last name), I am a male, and I am taller than average. In the U.S., in 2016, “Whites” make nearly twice as much as African-American’s do and men still make ~27% more than women (ref 1, ref 2). (Notice that the stat I provide is higher than the one in the article–this is due to how one reports the difference. If you say that women make 79 cents for every dollar men make, you can equivalently say that men make 27% percent more (as 100 is 27% larger than 79) or you can talk about the “21% wage gap,” as does the article; which one highlights the severity of the problem better?). Also, interestingly, in the history of the US, the taller candidate for president has won 67% of the time, suggesting that being tall is a significant advantage (ref 3).

So, I have been lucky too, and I can’t complain. But, I don’t like to think that my accomplishments have been based on luck alone; I suspect others feel the same way about their “fortune.” Having studied environmental justice for the past 20 years, I am aware of how pervasive economic injustice still is, both here in the United States as well as internationally. Thus, I am not comfortable telling people “less fortunate” than me to “just work harder.” I recognize it often takes a lot more than “work” to succeed. So rather than just brazenly telling people what to do from my ivory tower, I do what I can in my local/regional environment to “pay it forward.” One example of this is my co-creation of a Time Bank in my community earlier this year; you can find out about it here. I don’t make these contributions out of guilt. I do it because I firmly believe that we will all be better when we all have better opportunities. Our economic system, which has largely lives by the principle that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” is a deceptive failure to increasingly many (ref 4). We need to do what we can to truly develop economic justice and opportunity for all. Only then will we make real progress.

money lost (part I)

Thinking about the political scene right now elicits anxiety. My state of Illinois is in major gridlock. This is having profound effects locally. Case in point, in Galesburg, summer school for elementary children has been eliminated as has the breakfast and lunch program that children depend on for nourishment. At the federal level, the US government has been in gridlock for most of President Obama’s tenure and arguably for most of the Bush (#2) era. Amidst all of this governmental logjam, it is understandable that many are becoming frustrated, particularly those that understand that government, when functioning well, can do wonderful things–such as, providing care for the downtrodden, a high level of education to its people, and efficient and accessible transportation for all. With all of these programs hemorrhaging, many people are hurting unnecessarily.

Those of us that live in the United States are told repeatedly that we live in the freest and most prosperous nation in the world. Some statistics compel us to believe this. Among nations with more than 25 million people, of which there are 49 (in 2015), the USA has the highest GDP (gross national product) per capita. Yet, other figures clearly demonstrate it as wishful thinking. Consider, the US, home to less than 5% of the world’s people, houses ~25% of the world’s prisoners (ref 1). Additionally, childhood poverty in the US is among the highest (if not the highest) among industrialized nations (ref 2, ref 3). How could this be?

Let me inject a new law of conservation to shed light on this. The Law of the Conservation of Money (LCM), an idea that I hereby make up (but apparently has esoteric roots elsewhere), says that money always goes somewhere, it doesn’t disappear. So, if “America’s wealth grew by 60 percent in the past six years, by over $30 trillion [… and,] in approximately the same time, the number of homeless children has also grown by 60 percent” (ref 2), we can see the source of the problem–the continued misdistribution of money. In Illinois, we hear powerful leaders talk about how we don’t have money for X or Y (where X and Y are often critical programs that keep the underclass alive). But the answer to where our money went doesn’t take “rocket science” to determine. Among key drivers, look no further than IL’s extremely regressive tax structure (5th worst in the U.S., see ref 4). Yet, is there a state leader (who receives any media attention) who points to this obvious source of our economic woes? I don’t know of one. We will not make much progress until we identify where our riches went.

(to be continued)