Jan. 25th, 2012

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(The February 2012 synchroblog asks us to look at the extreme inequality in wealth in many areas of the world. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I know the U.S. may be better than many places, but I still see a real issue in the power gay this wealth creates - it dehumanizes people on both side of the divide. That inspired this post.)


Over at FaceBook, [personal profile] celandineb posted a chart:

Read more... )

Tl;dr version: it compares states' political affiliation on the one hand, and whether they got more or less out of the federal government they put in. Cue condescending laughs, eye-rolls, general disdain, etc. Those stupid red-staters, railing against government largesse at the same time they're getting fat off it.

Now, approaching this from a political science angle, there's a lot about this chart's analysis that could raise an eyebrow or two. The stats are from the 2004 election, when you had the post-9/11 nationalism and the fact that Bush was an incumbent. Plus I don't recall states' rights or debt being anywhere near the issue they are today. There's also no way of knowing what the funds are going to programs some people but not others support. Like in South Carolina, where we lived when I was younger, where there's a real race divide over how supported taxes full stop are.

But what really interested me isn't the reality behind the chart (and I promise, the rest of this post isn't political, or I hope not). See, when Cel posted this chart my first thought was how this didn't surprise me or strike me as hypocritical in the least. See, the way I see it, the poorer you are, the more out of control you feel. We all like control, or failing that the illusion of it. So I don't think it's any great surprise that the people who need government-orchestrated aid the most also want it the least, in an emotional sense at least. Doesn't mean they won't take it, and it also doesn't mean they're any worse than the rest of us for that inconsistency. In their case, it just shows up. And I think in many cases it leaves them (us) a bit gnarled inside. To quote my favorite green-skinned philosopher:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.


I see this same dynamic in individual poor people, not just states. At the grocery store, the embarrassment people show when their Food Stamps card doesn't work or they have to work out why this brand of cereal and not that is covered by their WIC supplements. Here are people trying to feed their family, and all I can do is smile patiently, maybe laugh it off and tell them not to worry about it. They're embarrassed, yes, but I also see anger and frustration because these people don't know what they did wrong that means they have to stick out like this. Often these are your working class poor, and I can't emphasize work enough here. I'm thinking of people with two, often three jobs, who still couldn't make ends meet without the help our rather pathetic social safety net provides.

A lot of people (myself included) get frustrated with the inefficiencies of government. They don't like being told what to do. Taxes are presented as social justice: people cannot live off their wages even though they're contributing to society or unable to contribute because of lack of opportunity, so we "owe" them filling in the gap. Charity is all about you doing something good, going above-and-beyond the call. And you ultimately get to decide what your money goes to. You are thanked for it, even courted. But most of all, it's still *your* money what you choose to give up. It's not society's way of saying that we gave you too much of the resources and this school janitor or bus-driver too little, so all that money you thought was yours, it's not really yours by rights.

To be sure, there are concerns with "social justice." Does the government use the money effectively? (Often: no.) Do they involve the taxpayer (née donor) thoroughly enough, at a hearts-and-minds level? Again, no. But I think the charity model lets people hold on to too much control. Since this post is written for SynchroBlog, I'll use a Biblical example, and really we don't have to go very far. God created the Garden of Eden and puts Adam and Eve in it, and the one thing he tells them not to mess with, Adam and Eve make a bee-line for it. Yes, eve was tempted. Yes, you could make the case that Adam ate out of sympathy for Eve's plight. But the bottom line is, limits seem to beg out to be broken.

And God saw what we had done, and behold, it was not good.

The Bible is full of such examples, from Abraham keeping his tents open at all four corners to the teachings about the year of Jubilee and perhaps most profoundly the teaching of the Sabbath rests. The world is not finished, but we recognize with humility that we are not designed to arrange it all just-so. There is humility and acceptance that there are things beyond our control.

I always think about that whenever I hear of what I call in my mind civic paternalism. I'm talking about the regulations we put, the way we judge those people who receive public assistance. That food stamps cannot be used on soda, or that you lose public housing if your family members are involved in gang activity. Or even the dirty looks we give these folks at the checkout line if we see them buying things that are seen as luxuries. I spend money on things I don't need, and I'm not rich – apparently it would take me over nine hundred years at my current salary to earn what Mitt Romney managed in 2010, according to a calculator someone posted earlier tonight at FB – but because I'm paying out of the salary I've earned, this is seen as my money to waste. If someone is spending out of public assistance they've received, we judge them all the time, in little and big ways.

That's dehumanizing. One common definition of a human (one that I find – basically! – convincing) is the idea that man is a rational animal. Meaning that in a certain circumstance we have the freedom to choose what we want to do. This attitude that everyone who is completely supporting him- or herself has the right to make her own decisions but that those on public assistance can be judged by the rest of us… it's infantilizing. I know I'd resent it if people treated me that way.

In fact, I know I have resented it. I'm a graduate student with meaningful work and a scholarship and a stipend, but occasionally I've had to turn to my own family for help – health expenses, or because I hadn't saved enough to get through the summer, or a plane ticket to my sister's wedding. I appreciated the help and it was always offered in an extremely non-judgmental way – I'm honestly not complaining! – but in my mind there was often this niggling thought that I could be more independent if I just had it together more. I think we've all had that experience. I honestly can't imagine working all the time and still having that judgment, and not just inside my head either.

The weird thing is, though, that this idea that the wealthy have a right to their wealth is dehumanizing to them, too. To explain that fully, I'd need a whole other post. The short version, though, is that when you hold on to control like the rich are able to do, you effectively make it so the only people who "count" in your world are those with power and the ability to give favors. That's pretty superficial compared to the real beauty of what it means to be human – to not be swept away by events and have the ability to make a choice. What matters isn't so much the true humanity in us all, but the fact that you're rich and powerful. I personally find that sad.

I don't have a solution to this whole mess. Obviously we should give our money where it will do the most good. We have a duty to do that much, I agree. But I think there's something to be said for giving generously and doing it in a way without strings. That may or may not involve the government. But this current emphasis on "charity" (religious or otherwise) doesn't cut it, either.

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(I will add links to other Synchroblog participants here once the full list is compiled. In the mean time, check out the participants listed in the comments section of this post.

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.

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