Saturday, July 09, 2005

Spread the Wealth

I saw an interesting movie this past weekend called Cinderella Man, about a boxer named Jim Braddock who rose from the soup lines of The Great Depression to win the heavyweight championship in 1935. It’s a pretty heart warming story and I recommend it on entertainment value alone. The thing that struck me about the film was not the boxing story, but it was the backdrop of severe poverty of the 1930’s.

When poverty and despair run rampant, there is a profound effect on society and individuals. In Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he outlines how much the depression shaped the youth of America at that time, who later went on to fight in World War II. Brokaw believes that the hardships that this generation endured were the foundation of their exemplary values and achievements, however many critics of Brokaw’s book describe Brokaw’s appraisal of this generation as faulty. They point to the evils of McCarthyism and ambivalence regarding civil rights as evidence that this generation suffered from paranoia, racism, and zenophobia as a result of their hardships.

I think it goes without saying that the Great Depression had long term effects on those whom it afflicted, but whether that effect was good or bad is debatable. I have to say that I’m in agreement with Brokaw that hardship can purify one’s character much like heat is used to remove the water from alcohol in a distillery. However, if that hardship lengthens and worsens, it can eventually destroy the character of the individual just as the still would blow up, if it got too hot.

The scenes in Cinderella man demonstrated both purification and destruction of character, and that desperate people do desperate things. Although Jim Braddock himself remained honest and upright throughout his hardships, many other characters compromised their morals under the strain of the economic downturn:
In the movie, Jim Braddock’s son, Jay, steals a salami, because he is afraid if the family can’t afford food, they will have to send him away.
In another scene, a gentleman turns off the heat and electricity of the Braddock’s home knowing that children live there. Mae Braddock, Jim’s wife, pleads with him to not turn off the power, but the man insists that he has no choice, because he needs his job. He tells Mae that he has kids to feed too, and the company fired another guy for not obeying orders to cut off a deadbeat’s power. His fear of reprisal, and not being able to care for his own family led him to coldly (no pun intended) turn off their utilities in the dead of winter.
Another fascinating window into the era was the view that we get of one of the “Hoovervilles” which was basically a shanty town of cardboard houses that sprang up in cities across the country as the poor congregated at night after a day of looking for work. I have been to Central Park on several occasions, and its beauty in that concrete jungle called New York City is striking, but to see what it was like in the 1930’s littered with makeshift shacks was mind blowing. The men in the Central Park Hooverville tried to “organize”, and a riot broke out. Brokaw does not highlight rioting, burning, and looting in his description of this great generation
Finally, the movie does allow us to see that not everyone was suffering during the depression. The ultra rich remained undaunted by such abject poverty surrounding them as they would step over malnourished children to make their way to their Manhattan town houses.

After I left the theatre, my mind was trying to process what that period of time was like, and I began to think about how much poverty can strain the character of a person. When you take away a man’s ability to feed his family, he can become extremely volatile. For Jim Braddock, that meant he unleashed his frustration in the form of violence in the boxing ring, but for many other men, they had no outlet for their despair, and they would lie, cheat, steal, or kill if they had to. Poverty has a way of eroding morality. Poverty is the acid that dissolves men’s souls in the cauldron of society as they struggle to maintain their humanness.

The Hooverville riots reminded me that the maldistribution of wealth leads to anarchy. There is no way that someone can watch you eat filet mignon everyday, while he is starving, and not rise up to redistribute the resources. If justice is not shared by all, riots usually ensue. While it rarely achieve any creative goal, rioting is the voice of the voiceless who have nothing to lose. The races riots of the 60’s (not to mention the Los Angeles riots of 1992) were caused by people who witnessed disparities in justice for so long, that they eventually spoke in the only voice they felt they had.

Throughout civilization’s history, the maldistribution of wealth has led to varying degrees of social chaos to redistribute that wealth. As long as there have been monarchs dining at vast banquets of opulence, there have been murmurs from those with little to eat. Any king that was foolish enough to believe that his power was absolute no matter how he treated his subjects, would soon find out the power that a people with nothing to lose can wield. Whether it was revolution and a public beheading of the king, or if it was a conspiracy to steal the royal treasure, poor people have long demonstrated that they are capable of suppressing morality for the sake of survival. Although we often celebrate the men who like Robin Hood steal from the rich and give to the poor, we must not forget that ultimately, no man wants to make his living as a criminal, and that loss of morality rarely ends well.

Today, we continue to see many examples of the social fabric being strained by ignored poverty. In Central and South America, kidnappings have become almost a commonplace game, as the loved ones of the wealthy are ransomed to redistribute the wealth of those rich men into the hands of the “less fortunate”. Millions are spent on security and body guards, but occasionally someone is killed in this redistribution game. And the game only worsens with time as the standards of human decency fall by the wayside, because a society that loses it moral compass has a hard time finding it again. Africa is yet another example, where corruption has become so commonplace, entire justice systems operate on economies of bribery. A friend of mine from the Ivory Coast told me that if a woman is raped there, she could not get justice without the finances to bribe the police to arrest the rapist, bribe the judge to find him guilty, and then continue the bribery to keep him in prison, because the rapist would be raising funds to bribe his way out prison. My friend says that things have been like this for so long that no one even questions the system anymore…moral compass gone. Do you wonder why Latin America and Africa suffer from such moral disorientation? I believe the corruption is a remnant of the desperate conditions of colonialism (which incidentally has only ended politically, but is still present economically).

We in America have been relatively immune to this social malignancy, especially since World War II. The living conditions of most Americans improved during that time, and the opportunities for upward mobility remained greater here than in any other country in the world. However, we are by no means safe, and the primary reason is globalization. Other countries, namely Japan, Taiwan, and China have caught and surpassed America’s manufacturing capacities leading to a trillion dollar trade deficit. Also, computers, the internet, television, satellites, jet airplanes, fiber optic cables, cellular phones, instant messaging, and multi-national corporations have shrunk the world into a single global economic community. Witness the outsourcing of technical jobs, where educated English speaking men and women in countries like India and Indonesia are doing jobs for $20K per year that would have paid $60K per year in Western Europe or the US. Some argue that outsourcing is a benefit to the US economy in that we are able to free up American labor resources to do more sophisticated work. Only time will tell if this is true or not, but beyond outsourcing and the trade deficit, the other effect that globalization has had is the spread of terrorism. The terrorist is the ultimate example of the voiceless individual with nothing to lose who through the internet can learn to make weapons, communicate with other like-minded destructive individuals the world over, and exact calculated violence against targets anywhere he chooses. Even if America prospers in the face of foreign manufacturing and outsourcing, we are not beyond the reach of any disenfranchised people. The terrorist attacks September 11, 2001 were an initiation of America into the globalization of terror, and last week’s terrorists attacks in London are only a reminder that this trend does not appear to be changing soon.

In the setting of this new global community, Americans must think beyond their borders to make the world prosperous and safe. Anytime justice and money are only held by a minority in a community, there will be unrest, and our global community is witness to that unrest. Anyone who is systemically denied the right to live, to feed their children, or to pursue happiness will eventually become unpredictable and often in destructive ways, and as stated before, once the moral compass is lost, it is hard to regain. Christian missionaries have understood this. That’s one of the motivations behind evangelizing the poor and disenfranchised, so that the "have nots" will have the moral vicissitude to resist the temptation to strike out at the "haves".

The world has become a small place, and in order to maintain a moral, prosperous, creative civilization, the most disenfranchised individual will have to be given a creative way to be heard. No longer can America only focus on domestic poverty. In order to maintain the economic system in which America has flourished, it must contribute to the maintenance of the stable global community that the system is founded on. Intelligent monarchs understood this. They new they had to keep their subjects happy to retain their power. Super rich philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and more recently Bill and Melinda Gates understand this…that’s why they donate millions to the disenfranchised to stabilize the contemporary political and economic system that their wealth is based in. If society undergoes a revolution, then their wealth becomes meaningless. I think, even the Group of Eight (G8) nations understand this. They understand that they will only remain the wealthiest nations in the world, if they can maintain a stable global community, and thus we have 50 billion dollars per year in African aid being pledged at the close of the G8 summit in Scotland this last week

However, I don’t believe it stops there with Bill Gates and the G8 nations. We all have a responsibility to distribute wealth, rights, and opportunity in a meaningful way, if we ourselves enjoy any substantial amount of wealth, rights, and opportunity. You can pay $200 for sunglasses, so that you can feel and look successful, or you can buy a $20 pair that protects your eyes fashionably and donate the other $180 to an orphanage in Africa that can enroll a child in school for a year with that small amount of money. The distribution of education, housing, healthcare, and civil liberty is essential if our global society is going to continue to evolve and grow. Without it, the moral compass is lost, corruption becomes the rule, terrorism and violence escalate, and chaos will reign.

I must admit that I can write all of this without feeling any fear. That’s the benefit of faith in God. I believe that simple song I learned as a child is true: “He’s got the whole world, in His hands…” If society disintegrates for a time, God remains lovingly in control. If we as a society can not redistribute wealth and justice to “the least of our brethren”, God can. And although violence, terrorism, and social disintegration are not in themselves good things, God clearly has no qualms using the destructive forces of men to usher in redemption (e.g. Jesus' crucifixion). So while it is frightening to think of what can become of the world if we collectively are unable to do the right thing, it’s comforting to me to know that “He’s got you and me brother…in His hands...”

Anyway, check out Cinderella Man, there are some good boxing scenes too.

Tangentially yours,

"I have to believe… that when things are bad… I can change them."
~Russel Crow as Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man


At Thu Jul 14, 01:36:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

You are brilliant and soulful. Touring the palaces of the czars in Russia, it made perfect sense why the Bolsheviks said enough is enough. Regardless of religion, suicide bombers are the result of oppression and deprivation.

Given that the divide between rich and poor is only increasing in the world, it should come as no surprise to see an increase in violence. The two correlate.

Thank you for being you.

At Thu Jul 14, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

One more things, since I have been reading Proverbs and really enjoy the many paradoxes, I had to add something relevant from it:

"He who gives to the poor will lack nothing. but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses."

"The righteous care about justice for the poor. but the wicked have no such concern."

At Thu Jul 14, 10:10:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

good shit...well thought out and said per your usual...

i just wish more people thought in this should have gone into pyschiatry and you could have done some benevolent hypnosis;)

you know what my thought is about most of what you said though Chad? I don't think anyone wants to be a self absorbed unconscientious person, but we are all products of our experiences...few of us (rich, poor or middle class) is as tirelessly charitable and compassionate as we could be, but i really think we are simply reacting to our emotionas realities. don't get me wrong, i think ever cognizant person has decisions to make and a personal karma to deal with but its so hard to figure out the balance between self interest and the interest of mankind. me personally, i have always felt that i rationalize my self interest and continually build up a bigger debt of effort owed to society. (hell the whole idea of a middle class is a rationalization that those of me. i have some economic power, but I am NOT rich and easily tripped up by anxiety about being dangerously close to being a completely unprotected member of the proletariat, thus giving me exemption from the kind of charity I expect of the rich.)

with that said, i try to make better decisions. i just hope i live long enough and the world stays stable enough in the meantime for me to truly mature beyond my own hypocrisy.

gotta go


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