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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Poverty and Equality

In my June 6 Blog I identified some of the "momentous decisions" facing humanity and began the process of thinking about them using my theory of ethics I call Integrity. One of those momentous decisions is dealing with the poverty and equity both in the US and worldwide.

The shrinking of the middle class along with the rise of wealth among those who have the most wealth in the US has been well documented. Even though the middle class seems to be growing or at least stabilizing in many European and South American countries and in Mexico, China, and Italy, and world poverty is ameliorating, it still is abysmally high. The consequences of stagnant and growing poverty while more wealth accrues to the richest, even if equity is not a concern, is social instability.

If large numbers, even if not large percentages, perceive that they do not have the necessities of life for themselves and their families, they will take them by whatever means. Despite the development of the human capacity to recognize universal human rights, to achieve empathic civilization, and for world order under the rule of law, people will revert to their tribal instincts including the use of violence to preserve themselves. And so it is to everyone's self interest to overcome poverty and deal with inequity.

Many solutions have been tried and failed.  The last century (we hope!) has dismissed the options 1) of a fixed aristocracy by heredity, by class, by wealth, by ownership, 2) of violent revolution or radical redistribution that destroys the upper and middle classes, and 3) of a totalitarian fascism or bolshevism which destroys the unequal (e.g. lower educated, races, sexes, religions).  Some would argue that trickle-down free-marketism and socialist welfarism have also not worked because they either take away the incentives to increase wealth in general including for the poor and middle classes or because they simply continue the prevalent redistribution of wealth to the wealthy.

A conservative progressive solution in line with my ethical model I think would be to 1) accept inequality, including that of wealth, as part of the human condition (that's the conservative tenet) while 2) not sacrificing the dignity of any human person (that's the progressive tenet). More positively put, it would celebrate diversity and act to ensure all persons in every place and time have what they need for full human development.

So what would this mean theoretically and practically?

My theory is the Integrity Model. I measure human dignity by the person's and community's ability to be present, now, here, with. A person can be totally present when she can innovate while appreciating her tradition. A person can be totally present where she can have an impact on the world while enjoying her self bodily and spiritually. A person can be totally present in public action and private life.  A person can be totally present at the time, space, and association in which she envisions her bliss conditioned by her reality.

I would argue that people and their communities do not have dignity if they do not have this ability, if they are excluded from the pursuit of happiness which is the fulfillment of their ability to be totally present. But I also do not see that people must have great or equal wealth to be happy and present.  They simply need to have the necessities of life--nutritious food, decent shelter, health care, continuing education, transportation, safe environment. When these necessities are there, persons have options and can make choices about who they want to be, what they want to do, how they will follow their own bliss.

I would also argue that we need to toss out the old Calvinist and modern industrial age mentality that says "he who does not work, does not eat."  We are living in an age of geometrically expanding technology and a "normal" unemployment rate of up to 10% where all need not work for income; and indeed it would be better if many who did not want to work for income would not.  It is also an age where we could have enough food, shelter, health care, education, transportation, and safety for everyone.  All people should be expected to take care of their homes, their families, their communities, and participate in the life and action of the community at least through volunteer work. (See my blog on the circles of citizenship.)  But only those who want additional income or who simply love their job and want the monetary rewards of work or those who want to get rich should be expected to work for income, i.e. have a job.

Why not let people choose to try being an artist even without getting paid for it.  Why not let any person (not just those who have inherited enough security) try to write that novel or poem, to take care of kids, to build homes for themselves and others, to work in their neighborhood, to discuss philosophy in the market place, to invent the latest labor saving gadget, to come up with the best theory on black holes, to go to school without having to worry about gaining income for the necessities of life?  I know that seems to be the socialist welfare approach of the Scandinavian countries.  I know we have to see how to practically make it happen as a nation and a world.  But let's not let old ideologies and beliefs hold us back from figuring out how to do it.

A personal note: Once I was a communist. I was a member of a religious order (the Jesuits) and took the vow of poverty. With that membership and vow, I was assured a great education of my choosing, I was assured excellent shelter, food, health care, transportation. I was also assured I would be taken care in my old age. Within some limition of my own choosing, I could pursue almost any career I wanted. Any income I earned teaching or writing went to the Order. I was also in communication with a wonderful and dedicated group of men and women in and out of the Order.  It was a great deal!

I know my father contributed much to the Jesuit Order because he was able to and also got a tax exemption doing so.  I was happy he did.  But it made no difference.  I was treated no differently than anyone else.

When I left the Order (let me say I never left the Jesuits or the Society of Jesus because I have stayed in close communication with them), I took a $100 a week job by which I was able to afford a $24 a week apartment for me, my new wife and child without all the insurances of the Order.  I experienced what most people mean by poverty, but at the same time was happy doing what I wanted to do.  I worked primarily with nonprofit organizations having no desire to get rich. With non-profits I could not save much, but did put all I needed to in Social Security and all I could in 401Ks. Today I am retired (from jobs that make money) but have enough to live on and am most grateful for my life and my choices.

I am also grateful to a nation that allowed tax exemptions, 401Ks, Social Security, and now health care.  I am able to keep reading, keep learning, keep traveling (frugally), keep thinking, keep writing, keep volunteering in community activities. I am not as wealthy as Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, young Wall Street computer markers, or even my children, but I am very happy--even when I am dissatisfied, even when I yearn for a more just and equitable society.

I am also an optimist.  I know our species can and will do better.

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