My online pal Amy Morgenstern over at Sermons in Stones had a brief blog post recently in which she asked, “…Is there a special place in hell for people who spend $425 on a lace t-shirt in a world where they could use that money to feed a hungry family for a month? And if so, am I going there too for spending $65 on a jacket?”
It’s a great couple of questions, and in my response to her I indicated that I had long had a blog post in mind addressing them, with the headline as you see it at the top of this page. She said she would read that post if I wrote it, so Amy, this one’s for you. (And for anyone else who has pondered these same questions, which I am going to guess is everyone who peruses this site.)
Unfortunately, the issue is not only $425 t-shirts and other forms of conspicuous consumption by what is commonly regarded as the 1% in this country. Because the truth is that most people in the developed world are part of the 1% when measured against the grinding, intractable poverty and primitive living standards that still reign supreme across vast swaths of the world in the 21st century.
Everyone in the middle class who kvetches about the upper crust’s offshore tax havens and multiple homes in Tahoe, Tampa and Rome are themselves upper crust when spending just $15 for a T-shirt, with the gulf between them and the undeveloped world just as wide as between them and the 1% here.
That’s the terrible and true math of income and dumb-luck-place-of-birth distribution in this world.
When I spent a summer in Kenya after graduate school, I was 31 years old without an asset to my name, no particular career prospects, and barely enough income to pay rent and ponder whether to spend 25 cents for a daily newspaper. So I was amazed at—and quickly grew weary of—how persistently the locals asked me for money I did not have and goods I could not afford to buy.
It took me a while to realize that as a westerner, I’d been able to pay for plane fare to a faraway land—with a pit stop in Europe—and was heading back to my own studio apartment on the beach in Marin County, where I had sole and blissful possession of about 250 square feet of living space and my own bed, along with electric lighting and running water and flush toilets and no dirt floors or thatched roofs.
All this was beyond the wildest imaginings of the villagers I exchanged pleasantries with every day, and whose stories I occasionally heard while nursing a Tusker beer or the local cheap-as-dirt firewater known as “changaa.” To them, I was as 1% as they come.
Mr. Andrew, the tycoon from California.
We live with this reality, because this is life in an imperfect world with structural inequities we did not choose or much promulgate, but whose advantages we enjoy unless we insist on self-enforced privation.
Here is the difficult, challenging part for all us first worlders, to which there is not an easy answer, not in a house, not with a mouse, not in a box, not with a fox: In a fundamental, existential way, we do participate in a zero sum game in this world, in which our consumption—even at the modest, relatively restrained levels that socially conscious people try to effect —is at the expense of those less fortunate.
How? It’s as simple as this: If we wanted to, we could forego or cut back a vast array of extra-curricular pleasures that we don’t really need for our survival and instead give money for food and shelter to others who really do need it for their’s.
Sure, we middle-classers might already give to hunger relief and work a soup line while feeling resentful of those spending $425 on a T-shirt and nervous about spending $15 for our own.
No, we don’t take or use anything close to what hedge fund managers do, we drive Priuses and maybe even shop second-hand; we work for justice and a more equitable tax system.
But we, too, are self-evidently guilty of having and consuming too much in a world of chronic shortage and environmental strain.
Full refrigerators, cars, gadgets, vacations, restaurant meals, art, furniture, club memberships, therapy, shoes for every occasion and a belt for every shade of clothes—almost none of it necessary as such. All of it serving to create a rewarding quality of life that is the envy of much of the world (including the poor in our own country).
All of us come to our own hard determinations, weighing competing needs and desires and fears in finding our own balance on the assets we keep to maintain a satisfying lifestyle and ensure ourselves a secure future in this extraordinarily privileged period and place in history.
And we are tycoons, all of us.
We all draw lines between what we keep for ourselves and give to others, and most of those lines are beyond what we strictly need for our survival as others go wanting. We live with this reality, because this is life in an imperfect world with structural inequities we did not choose or much promulgate, but whose advantages we enjoy unless we insist on self-enforced privation.
These are the roll-of-the-dice imbalances we must ultimately accept, the cosmic shrug in which we must join, whatever our attempts at redress via charitable giving, relief work or simple expressions of compassion.
What is the alternative? Noted French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil tried one by being so attuned to the unfairness of life and the hardships endured by so many that she decided during World War II to eat only what she understood to be the rations of those living under German occupation. This despite the fact that she suffered from tuberculosis with severely compromised health, and there was a more or less adequate (and much needed) food allotment available for her.
Her act was one of solidarity and extreme sensitivity, but it also may have contributed to her death as her body could no longer summon the energy to fight off her disease. Is this what conscience requires of us if we are to live up to our spiritual ideals?
How many of the world’s hungry can and should we feed while reducing our own consumption? By how much should we reduce?
Where is our line?
Weil is often held up as a model of spiritual integrity, her reputation almost hallowed, her name spoken in reverential tones, but was her refusal of food a truly spiritual and uplifting act, or its own peculiar form of irrational, misbegotten indulgence?
Perhaps in death her and her words of justice-seeking and solidarity ring louder and serve to inspire more than they otherwise would have, but we must at least also ask about the cost of no more words or perspectives from her, no wisdom of age she could share (she died at 34), her voice silenced thenceforth for want of adequate health.
What would a merciful and loving God have wanted of her? Or phrased in more secular terms, what would the life force, the hunger she effectively squelched by a sheer act of will, have wanted?
Perhaps the trickiest part of this discussion: Should we feel guilty about our exalted economic status? Would that perhaps lead us to some more righteous balance of our own and others’ material needs, satisfying our all-too-human and often competing desires for fairness and the maximum flourishing of our own lives in their pursuit of happiness?
Christianity, no doubt the most personal of all religions, informed America’s own Founding Fathers in their official, enshrined endorsement of individual happiness. God loves us just as we are, Jesus died so we would be free, grace and promises of abundance and healing abound in this world that was pronounced “good” by the Creator of the Universe.
Should it shame us that so many of our brothers and sisters have it bad? Spur us to give away all that we have, as the Book of Mark urges us, to help the poor? Or live somewhere in between those poles of shame and ultimate charity, in an uneasy truce between the debilitation of shame, the glow of charity, and the satisfaction of creature comforts that are now deeply ingrained in our culture and personal history?
Can we settle into that truce with a sense of integrity, knowing the world is tilted on a strange axis indeed, accepting it as we can, making an honest (if less than total) effort at redress, while knowing that no matter what we do, life, as our parents reminded us so directly, just isn’t fair and never will be?
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small photo of pearls top of page by Theen Moy, Adelaide, Australia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theenmoy/
Photo of Kenyan village by William Warby, London, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby
Photo of Simone Weil plaque by Jagz Mario, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/siwc/
Thank you Andrew. As always, you present a thought provoking question with multi-layered resolutions. This subject has haunted my life, brings me to tears quickly and I’ve come to some of the same uneasy conclusions as you suggest here. So much is unfair. Just do your best. Be consistent. Live fully. Find ways to give back. Be grateful. Fair enough.
I suggest that the many resources are not a zero-sum game, since certain resources are increased by our developing skills. Example: much more food/acre is grown now than a few years ago due to genetic modification, better farming techniques, fracking, etc. There’s an inevitable limit, of course. After all, we are a limited planet.
However, many people feel that technical developments will continue to let us find more oil, grow more crops, etc. for a while longer. This cannot go on forever but is happening now. Look at the race to develop oil as the Arctic ice receeds due to climate change which in turn is due to oil combustion.
The random factor you mentioned (having the luck to be born in the US rather than Africa) needs to be more fully addressed. I believe the randomness in our lives is much more prevalent in our lives than we admit. Many people see a lightning strike or hurricane visit as part of God’s Plan. I see it as just bad luck, unrelated to any God.
I hope in a future blog, Andrew,, you can take up the thought that randomness (bad or good luck) is in our lives to stay and may not be divinely directed. If so, how does one explain the bad luck that befalls otherwise good people?.
Big unanswerable questions again my friend! The dilemma faced when walking past a homeless person (should we give? will they just drink it up? so what? how much if we do?) – I do not think feeling guilty seems to add much of value to the equation – being acutely conscious of huge role played by the fate/luck factor (something that only becomes more obvious the older I get – but was pretty clear even as young man) – allows us to be humble, grateful, and hopefully motivated to find some kind of viable equilibrium in terms of balancing our lives; giving to those in need, supporting some kind of sanity re: sustainable development/living and keeping our hearts open – of course there is no causally useful explanation for Walt’s question – making sense of things that don’t make sense is a recipe for either mindless adherence to dogmas or in the extreme, throwing away the gift of life as I would argue Ms Weil did – much like your blog re: Camus (but she made a different choice)… this blog reminds me of a classic Jon Carroll column from 2003 re: giving to the homeless/United Way, http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/carroll/article/JON-CARROLL-2524968.php
Thanks for the post!
Candi, your last few sentences pretty much sum it all up and could serve well as a little poster or stick ’em above my computer screen or bathroom mirror. Thank you!
Walt, I am constantly amazed by technology and figure to be amazed quite a bit more, though part of our current environmental predicament is related to hubris or simple ignorance of its sometimes unintended negative consequences. And though ag yields keep going up and some voices claim we really could feed the whole world if we could actually get available food to people, we still haven’t figured out how to bypass corrupt dictators and their henchmen taking their huge cut from every dollar and truckload of assistance. (Ag yields change faster than human nature?) As for randmoness & good people suffering, perhaps you missed my discussion of this very topic in my post on Job a while back? Won’t be the last time I broach the subject, I suspect, but here it was: http://andrewhidas.com/god-as-is-ness-answering-the-challenge-of-job/
Kevin, that Carroll column remains one of my favorites, unforgettable after all these years. And yes, I couldn’t agree more that guilt-wallowing just won’t cut it. As Candi and you both suggest, we do what we can, stay aware, and leave the rest to posterity. Saw a quote at the end of a George Will column (yes, George Will!!) yesterday that applies, methinks, from Thomas Jefferson: “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches…we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get.”
So onwards we go, yes?
[…] Andrew Hidas asks how we, as privileged Americans, should respond to global inequality. […]
Andrew, I look forward to the day we meet. It seems we have much in common and much to talk about. I, too, spent time (a semester) in Kenya. Should we keep a scoreboard of our shared experiences? Thanks for the provocative blog on a topic that is textured.
Would be a pleasure, Karen, and meanwhile, that scorecard is, in a sense, kept on our respective blogs, so you’d better keep at it! I also share your belief in the superior soulfulness of the Pacific Ocean vis a vis the Atlantic, but realize we are treading on dangerous ground there… :-)
Sounds like you are drifting towards agreement with John Calvin. :-)
Glad to see that smiling face there, Jim! So just to reiterate, I don’t believe one stitch in feeling guilty as such for the choices we are forced to make in this life. We do what we can, we draw our lines between self-care and charity, and we leave the rest to whatever/whomever it was that presented this world to us in all its contradiction and strange grace. No self-loathing from this corner, just a note that we be conscious of the rather untenable position life puts us in as we pick our way along and make the meaning that we do.
I guess I’d feel guilty if I thought it would really solve anything, but it doesn’t seem to. Too many Vietnam veterans I know never managed to overcome their guilt and were permanently damaged by their experiences there.
I struggled with that guilt for about three months, turned down a job in a bank and became a caseworker. The amount of suffering I saw as a caseworker didn’t do much to assuage my sense of guilt. It did depress me to the point where I suspect I would have become an alcoholic if I hadn’t quit and become a high school teacher instead.
Perhaps guilt can help us to live better lives, but I don’t recommend it long term. Instead, focus on tying to make this a better world any way you can and be grateful that you’ve been given the chance to do so.
I fully agree Loren. I also laud your decision to become a teacher rather than alcoholic—sounds like an infinitely wiser career path! :-)
I think yours and others’ comments help me see that my headline got me in a bit of trouble, and I didn’t explicate it well enough. So perhaps I should clarify that “We ARE all guilty” does not mean “We SHOULD all FEEL guilty.” I definitely do not think (or feel!) the latter.
The fact that we ARE guilty is our existential situation, built into the structural reality of life. It’s unavoidable, because life isn’t fair or equitable in its distribution of luck and resources. But FEELING GUILTY for our good fortune is useless, and leads to distortions along the lines of Simone Weil, who came to loathe her body and physical life. My plea is only to be conscious of the choices we are forced to make, but not guilty for having made them.
Back to John Calvin: The first sentence of your last paragraph, “The fact that we ARE guilty is our existential situation, built into the structural reality of life,” sounds like a restatement of one of Calvin’s principles, as you formulated them for me last summer. That’s what I was getting at in my previous post. With regard to “feeling guilty,” I agree with both of the previous posts that there is not much point about feeling guilty for things we had nothing to do with and don’t control. But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Feeling guilty” is also positive, beneficial stage we pass through when we discover that we have done something that needlessly hurt someone else. If we react in a healthy fashion, we “pass through” this stage rather than getting mired in it, and go on to make amends, if possible.
One difficulty of modern life, which your original post alludes to, is that we in the developed world are all mired in systems, which we have little control of, which create pain for other people. We consume more than we need while others struggle to fulfill their basic needs and some starve. We pay taxes to support a war machine that often kills & maims people needlessly. Etc. To repeat what you wrote, “[being] guilty is our existential situation, built into the structural reality of life.”
It is a truism that “life ain’t fair.” But Americans, if not the whole world, have come to believe in the “American Dream.” There are two things people typically want from life, happiness and fulfillment, as if those aren’t the same things anyhow. The problem is that this “happiness and fulfillment” is sought after in the outer-world in Western Culture. This seeking after our bliss in the outer-world has not only created a society of psychological pathology, but a complete loss of soul in the religious realm.
The problem we face is power, which lies at the heart of ability to be fully human. Whether we are talking about the soul of the inner-world, or happiness and fulfillment in the material (outer) world, power is the critical element. In power of soul is consciousness. The power of the material world is force. Obviously, the goals of such differing kinds of power can only be described diametrically oppositional.
The goal of consciousness is individuation, while the goal of material power is control. The latter is ultimately unattainable because it demands perfection, which is neither spiritually nor materially attainable. But consciousness of one’s inner-world not only does not seek perfection for fulfillment, it is empowered by the continual encounter with the unconscious. The more I become conscious of my unconsciousness the more conscious I become. Thus both the power and the goal of the soul is to become more of that which causes my consciousness to continually evolve. If this sounds philosophically circular, it’s because it looks to the eternal, which is the realm of the soul.
The Apostle Paul addresses the dilemma we suffer living this paradoxical life with one foot in the outer and one foot in the inner world. Jesus refers to the same problem when he says we can’t serve God and the world in a satisfactory way. Therefore, living a meaningful life as humans would seem to involve a choice. Do we seek to find our fortune in the soul or the material world? We currently live in a culture that has little interest in the inner world, which is in large part evidenced by the violence and pathological behavior we see all around us. I do not think we will find peace until we find our souls.
Thanks for all this food for thought, Robert, and I will fight the impulse (at least for the moment) to fashion an entire new post just to address it all! So this point only for now: I find myself intrigued by a third dimension of power in addition to the inner & outer, and it would be in the place where those two intersect.
Picture one circle for inner, a separate circle for outer, and a third in between those two, intersecting both. This would be a highly conscious inner power focused on the most benevolent use of outer power in order to change the world. Because ultimately, refining the inner power of soul has to lead outward to the larger social world, otherwise we’re just manicuring our own souls, shrunken and hidden away from our brothers and sisters.
But seizing outer power without inner power shaping and restraining it with some element of humility is an invitation to grandiosity and guruhood, which I explored in my more recent post and which is an ever-present temptation for all those trafficking in power and influence. Notably, even the giants who did the required inner work—Gandhi, MLK, Lincoln—were still flawed figures (as you say, we can never become fully conscious; it is a lifelong task), but their flaws didn’t paralyze them from doing what they knew to be right, their humility notwithstanding.
More and more, I think benevolent dictatorship by conscious leaders with feet firmly planted in the intersecting circle would be our most effective form of government, but human nature being what it is, such leaders find it extremely difficult to remain incorruptible, particularly through the generations of succession. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” remains as true today as it was when Lord Acton uttered it in 1887. His next line is most always left off in that famous maxim, but it is worth noting here: “Great men are almost always bad men…”
I think I understand the desire for a “third dimension of power”. I have listened to others speak about the possibility. My philosophical/theological/psychological view, however, is that it is the paradox created by the oppositional inner and outer worlds which make for the possibility of soul. Because soul is created out of consciousness, and consciousness required opposition to singular will.
In this sense, I suppose, the soul would play something like a “third dimension of power”. The soul contains the power to hold an overlapping consciousness of both the material and the spiritual realms. Thus, virtues are neither the exclusive power of one world or the other. Virtue, love, spirituality are ultimately the evolution of consciousness created in the crucible of the paradox of the soul vs. the material universe.
The conflict of duality ultimately avoids the power trap of perfectionism. The paradox avoids the evil of one realm or another doing what kingdoms or realms inexorably do, and that’s to eventually attempt to become the most powerful within them -or it self(s). Ultimately, the greatest power must be based on love, which can not be dictatorial or one sided. It must be by consensus.
Marvelous piece–you took my tossed-off little musing and developed it so thoroughly, with so much to ponder. I’ve also traveled in a wildly different economy (Bihar, India, in 1988) and it shaped my thinking on these issues for life. But globalization is for another long post . . . one that you can write, because I’m definitely not up to it.
One intersection where I think we of the global 1% could turn in a more promising direction is to try not to think in terms of “how can I redress the imbalance by giving away some of the things that have, through no merit of my own, flowed my way?” but in terms of “why is our system so unjust and how can I make it more just to begin with?”
Of course we could. We might even tip the scales permanently–we certainly would temporarily. But wouldn’t it be much more useful to look at the ways that our wealth truly did arise at the expense of others? If my goods are relatively cheap for me because the workers who dug the materials out of the ground, planted and harvested the crops, smelted the iron, etc., were exploited (and indeed they are), then we could redress the injustice by ensuring that the workers are paid well and treated fairly. Since more of the money involved would flow to them and from me the consumer or investor, this would incidentally redress the imbalance in wealth, but not via charity–via justice.
This is a very simplistic example, of course. But look at it in terms of world history and you begin to make sense of phenomena such as Africa, so incredibly rich in human talent and natural resources, being the world’s slave market and favorite theater for violence and oppression. So much of it comes down to colonialism: theft on the grandest scale. The north and west literally became rich at the expense of Africa. If we actually added it all up and paid it back, that would mitigate the wealth imbalance in a hurry. But even the much milder step of pulling the knife out would make a radical difference. Much more productive than feeling guilty.
Thanks for the refresher in this conversation, Amy! Your point about addressing the structural injustice in our economic system rather than wallowing in individual guilt brings to mind perhaps the most intractable problem in capitalism: how we ensure economic justice for those who work primarily with their bodies, with skill sets for which there is too much competition, which allows employers to grind down wage scales and keep them ground down because there is always another body desperate and hungry enough to fill the spot. (And another consumer demanding the cheapest possible goods.)
Our cheap food and cheap computers are due to lowly paid ag workers and miners and store clerks, and moving up the economic chain, we see the same selfish-is-good ethic at work, asking the same (wrong) question at every step: How cheaply can I get this person to perform this service for me? Rather than the right question: What is this service worth? And does it constitute dignified, adequate compensation for the worker I am paying?
I’ve long considered it a moral evil that the Waltons are among the wealthiest people on earth, and their employees are all paid jack. Why is this? Because the Waltons can get them for jack—so they do. However low the market will bear is what they will pay. That’s how the game is played. But they’re an extreme example of the conundrum played out in all our own shopping decisions.
Very few of us will voluntarily pay extra for our goods so laborers can enjoy a living wage. Voluntary compliance—me spending more and thus reducing my net worth so yours can increase—has about as much chance of catching on as voluntary pollution controls for industry. That suggests a more interventionist hand needs to come into play, creating equity where very little exists. But whose hand would that be? Government’s, in a more centralized economy? With strong union protections? We seem to be going the other way in this country—I see just today Governor Scott Walker signed a bill to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, after previously banning collective bargaining for government workers. Dog-eat-dog in a race to the bottom is what that’s all about.
Ultimately, I think whatever justice we can scratch out in this matter will probably come from the tax system, in the form of progressive rates that help restore some sanity to middle class/worker wages, along the lines of what we had in the Eisenhower and Kennedy and even Nixon years. Workers have been taking it on the chin ever since, with low tax rates and “trickle-down economics” a colossal, total and repeated failure that inexplicably lives on as a core belief in one of our major political parties.
Taxation is a part of it, but I think the most important single change we could make would be to mandate a minimum wage that’s a living wage and index it to inflation. That way there’s a solid floor under all workers and the companies that wish to do the right thing by their employees aren’t at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their less scrupled competitors.
Yes, federal minimum (living) wage would be the key second half of that equation. Seems to have been some occasional stirrings in that direction—I see even Walmart recently discussed raising its wage scale, be still my heart—but sadly, nothing definitive in the year and a half since this: http://andrewhidas.com/15-an-hour-hell-yes/