Use what’s in the jerry can
Some of the richest people on the planet anchored their floating condominium off the breakwater the other day, and seemed to spend the weekend there swinging back and forth at anchor.
‘Twas a ship fitted out for permanent habitation in luxury style, and the publicity I saw about the occupants described them as philanthropists and others of similar financial means. One is never quite sure what to make of such phenomena, and must resist the temptation to be simpleminded about them.
Meanwhile ashore, I came across a lady whose habitation extended no further than her car which, having broken down, left her in quite a difficult situation. It is not uncommon to hear of people who are reduced to living in their cars. It is nothing new, here or in the balance of America, and the other day National Public Radio broadcast an interview with a mother who sleeps in the back seat of her Toyota, while her children occupy the front seats each night.
The world has always worked out quite well for people who do not have to worry too much about where their money is coming from, while for others life is a daily struggle in which, to remain sane, they have to tell themselves it is not really such a crushing problem to live in a car. In the end we adopt their point of view to avoid dealing with it, and find ourselves agreeing with them.
If we really wanted to organize America differently, I think we would have already done so, don’t you agree? Clearly, then, we do not. Instead we have become comfortable with certain familiar ways we have of telling stories about it all. As long as we provide one Thanksgiving meal each year, and take pictures of the poor and the solitary sharing that meal, we can assume all is generally well in the kingdom.
The general point of view of our many leaders tends to be that we will always have the poor with us, so why vex ourselves too much on their behalf? In the modern Darwinian way, we quietly assume that those who have few or no resources have obviously not put in the necessary social effort to obtain them.
Those who more closely read historical material, such as Dickens’ Christmas novel, will find evidence that this point of view has quite a pedigree. Over the last half of the last century it seemed we had developed an increasingly helpful point of view that opposed such crass determinism, and had helped move important things in the direction of improvement.
But now the debate has broken up, yet again, into its fundamentally contrasting parts. I completely understand the truth that all the resources we might have to assist the helpless comes, in one way or another, from the labor and industry of those fortunate to own and participate in the means of its making. It is simply a fact, inevitably as true as the fact that day follows night.
But there is no comparable truth, no inevitable nature, in the way we divide up our resources. These are human decisions, made wherever people are powerful enough to make them, and humans are therefore accountable for them in a way that we are not accountable for the way day follows night.
Notice, will you please, that the decision about how to apportion our resources is often pitched these days as a simple matter of the rightness of a person being able to retain all a person possesses. Taxation is still a barb in the hide of those who were once not taxed, and now and then that may be how all of us feel, but you see the point I am aiming at.
However, taxation is simply a realistic acknowledgement of the fact that mere possession of money is not the point of money. Taxation is an attempt on a civic basis to make us accountable for the use of it. It is the object of electoral politics to make us temporarily forget this.
Back at the dawn of America somebody (I cannot presently remember who) said the problem with giving the ordinary people the power of government is that eventually the people will vote themselves more and more money, to the point that the whole economic enterprise will collapse.
It turns out to have worked almost entirely the other way around. What has happened is that the people who have the power of government have found ways to vote themselves less and less taxes by telling everyone they need to hold on to their resources so they can benefit the entire enterprise. As a result the economic enterprise is in danger of collapse while we are being told it is being saved.
If you need a metaphor, it is as though we are trying desperately to drive across the desert on the few drops of gasoline that are in a rusty jerry can strapped to the fender, while the main gas tank is brim full but not connected to the engine. Each night when we pitch camp someone sneaks up and siphons off gas from the main tank, and uses it to go joyriding in the sierras.
Confronted by this selfish behavior in the morning, the joyriders simply declare that we cannot afford to connect the main gas tank to the engine because we need every precious drop of fuel to get us across the desert. We must conserve fuel, they say. Use what’s in the jerry can.
It is an old game rooted in eternal human self-centeredness, and to be honest we all know how to play it, if only on a modest domestic scale. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," so to speak. What worries me is that some people play this game on a vast scale where it has serious effects on us all.
David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.