Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sure, we criticize the rich for not giving enough, but what about ourselves?

During the epic argument over whether UUs liked people who have money too much or not enough that we had at Peacebang a couple years back, I responded to some of the more radical "rich people are evil" arguments by pointing out that the average household income in America is usually pegged at something like $40,000* and that if your household makes more than the average income in the United States, then clearly you were rich and should be giving the excess to the poor.

Upon being challenged that money meant different amounts different places, I pointed out that, worldwide, about half of all people have running water. If you have running water, you're rich.

Oh yeah, and if you were making choices that improved your lifestyle but lowered your income, shouldn't you really be making more profitable choices and giving the money away?**

TheCSO and I do make more than the average household income. We have running water and we do not give all our excess to the poor. I admitted as much throughout the thread, emphasizing that I was making a point that the rich aren't a "they," the rich are an "us."

Anyway, there's an article in Salon making a softer, more reasoned version of my points and it's really good. Also, there's lots of stuff about Peter Singer, which is usually good for a tiff in the comments.


*Just looked it up, it's more like $50,000, or was before the economy crashed.

** This argument sounds a bit saner when I phrase it the way I did in the post:

I don’t actually have an objection to a social safety net, and I do want to relieve suffering.

But I, politically and theologically, don’t know what to do with the idea that:

Anne wants to be an artist and sacrifices and scrimps to make art. She’s a starving, but well-respected artist.
Brian wants to be a professor and keeps himself a poor student for years on end. His students love and respect him even if he has to live on campus because of a state education salary freeze.
Carrie wants to be a mom and has five children, who bring untold fulfillment and joy to her life.
Dave wants to be a stockbroker and works night and day to make that happen. He makes some wise trades and is very successful.

Everybody got where the are because of the choice they made. But taking care of the poor is Dave’s, and only Dave’s, job, because he’s the “rich” one.

The worldwide median income is about $5,000. We’re all rich by that standard.

For me, it comes down to a question that others have struggled with far more heroically than I do: How much comfort is OK for us to allow ourselves in a world where people are suffering?
Should Anne quit painting and start designing advertisments and send the extra money she makes to charity? Should Brian give up his research and teach in an inner city school? Is Carrie expected to donate her kids’ college funds to feed the hungry?

How do I justify throwing parties in a world where people are starving?

I don’t have an answer. But at least I’m willing to apply they question to myself, rather than deciding that struggling with it is the province solely of “The rich.”


Bill Baar said...

Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth. Nor can he do justice to his genius, without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence. He is by constitution expensive, and needs to be rich.--from Emerson's essay on Wealth.

nkjvcjs said...

In Hebrew the word for charity, tzedakah, is derived from the root justice, and everyone is obligated to give, even if they are themselves needy.
My former rabbi says it quite well.


fausto said...

Emerson was expressing the conventional Unitarian "salvation by character" ethic of his day, which (IMHO) was only a variant on the "Puritan work ethic" of his (and our) denominational ancestors.

A few decades later, it was Karl Marx who coined the phrase, "from each according to his ability to each according to his need".

I'm sure Marx would have been as appalled as Emerson at those who voluntarily choose to be less than optimally productive economic contributors to society, with the expectation that someone else should bear all the burden of providing for the less fortunate, or even for themselves.

PG said...

This reminds me of when I had my sari ceremony and got a lot of cash gifts from family friends. I was reading an article about a humanitarian disaster somewhere in the world, got upset and decided I should send the money to a charity working in that area. My dad counseled against it, pointing out that I didn't know anything about the charity's operations and how effective it was. He wasn't saying this in the vein of "keep all your money for yourself"; he's built a medical school and teaching hospital near his home village, which means he's helping to build up a local population of health care providers (as opposed to having Doctors Without Borders on constant call) and a permanent facility for people in the area to receive care. But he couldn't do that as soon as he was making enough money to support himself, his nuclear family, plus his parents and siblings back home; he had to be able to reinvest his earnings into further wealth-production in order to have the kind of cash you need to build a medical school and hospital.

I generally don't judge people for having been too greedy unless they die and leave a ton of money to their already-wealthy offspring (or to a pet). I don't know what their long-term charitable plans are. But that's why I support the estate tax, though I'd prefer for it to be done based on the gifts to each non-charitable beneficiary rather than on the size of the estate.* If you have a ton of money and haven't managed to be charitable in life, and you're not being charitable in death, the government's taking half.

* If someone dies with $2 million and spreads that around to 500 people, e.g. by giving a $1000 college scholarship for every kid graduating for the next four years from the decedent's high school who will be going on to college, why should the gift to each kid be halved to cover estate taxes? On the other hand, why should a estate that was carefully managed to have $1,999,999.99 all given to the decedent's child escape the estate tax?

Anonymous said...

I found that discussion over on Peacebang so ugly and judgmental that I stopped reading her blog.

In my many years as a UU, I never was so blatantly hated as when I anonymously identified myself as wealthy on a blog. That painful memory forces me to remain anonymous here, too.

No one knows the soul of another person, nor walks in their shoes.

Chalicechick said...

I've been too poor to afford heat. Like, it was 23 degrees in my apartment*.

Now I live nice house in a wealthy neighborhood, though admittedly not the good part of it, and my husband has been redoing our house himself for two years with varying degrees of completion so it's not like I live on the set of Desperate Housewives or anything. Still, it's nice to know that the ambulance will come pretty damn fast should I need one.

I know how little my achievements and failings had to do with the lifestyle I had at any given moment.

(If your achievements have gotten you where you are, you have my congratulations and I'm not saying that wealth doesn't come with achievement a lot of the time. It's just not a very direct relationship in my personal case, at least not yet. My achievements have mostly been of the non-wealth-related variety and what money I have comes from lucky circumstances and a few really wonderful choices that I made for non-wealth related reasons that I could not reasonably have expected to work out as well as they did in the wealth department.)

Anyway, you're not going to face any judgment here on wealth grounds, at least not from me. Remain anonymous if you like, I allow it because sometimes people have good reasons and yours seems as good as any.

And we haven't had a true dustup in the comments here directed at anyone but me since the Bill Barr/PG Obama wars of last year, but that was all in good fun and immensely entertaining.

But I've been around for a long time. Five years is forever in blogging time, and people pretty much know what to expect here so the people who don't like it don't read me.**

But anyway, yeah, your soul isn't really any of my business though there are people around who would be happy to debate its existence or lack thereof, and whether your shoes are Chinese Laundry or Jimmy Choos, I only expect to walk in them to the degree that you describe your experiences and I'm happy to have you here.

who has lots of cheap shoes and a few nice purses.

*I did at this point have the option of quitting my 18k a year job and moving home at any moment, I will admit, but if you were me you wouldn't have done it either.

**Occasionally someone who doesn't like it shows up looking for a fight, gets one, and leaves. Shrug.

PG said...

I still look forward to those revelations about Obama that Bill Baar promised would come out of Rezko's cooperation with prosecutors. Plenty about Blagojevich, apparently, but haven't heard a word re: Obama.

Will said...

It takes all kinds--rich and poor both, generous and not-so-much.

Haven't been here in a while bc. last I read, you were retiring The Chaliceblog. Glad you stuck with it, CC!

Bill Baar said...

I still look forward to those revelations about Obama that Bill Baar...Trial hasn't started yet. Rahm on tape yet to be heard. Rezko's talking though, Harris is talking... Alsammarae is talking from Amman about Reconstruction Program corruption. (That's gotta be a message to Washington.)

Fitz has been investigating for five or six years now, and the indictment is basically a racketering charge on a criminal conspiracy starting before Blagojevich's election in 2002.

A lot of Illinois Democrats will come down after all is said and done... America just got their first peak of it all with Rod... he was typical of the bizarre corruption that's passed for reform in this state.. Rahm, Rod, Barack... these guys were inseperable.

Only Illinois Senate Prez Mike Madigan, the first to call Obama Massiah, had the wisdom to avoid the muck.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the welcome, CC.