Intermissions For Thought Police (Lockdown Journals III, IV)

Vera Rima 2020

**I don’t usually tackle such topics here — before reading please see the intro for this project, from first section (Lockdown I, II)

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Part III

REALLY BAD THOUGHTS FOLLOWED BY ACCEPTABLE THOUGHTS

If we could just set party affiliation completely aside for a moment, completely aside.  Clearly the most troubling aspect of this pandemic lockdown situation is addressing (or avoiding) certain ethical, moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions haunting the whole affair. Deciding as well, what ought to take priority.

There is the simpler question – not easier but more simple – the most practical question.  Experts and politicians essentially pleading with the public — how can we get people to understand, internalize, and accept the fact that this is considered the worst epidemic in 100 years and that is why we must all each take action and participate in a solution?

Then there are the questions that curiously reveal flawed and hypocritical value systems within parties.  Such as, how much is the actual or de facto “sanctity of life” worth?  Why do some groups value it above all else in certain situations, such as the abortion question, but not in other situations, such as the pandemic question?  Or the reverse: why value it above all else in the pandemic question, but not in the abortion question?

Who reads confirmed cases as an approx. 1-4% death rate, and who reads them as a 96-98% chance of recovery?  And how does that basic difference in perception influence their perspective?

And then there are the really really taboo questions.  How much can we reasonably expect from someone, from a whole population, to sacrifice for another, for a stranger, or even for ourselves in this exact scenario?  To what extent exactly do we ask them to suppress their own needs, goals, principles, beliefs, liberties, mental health, future, in the harsh reality of this system so contingent on self-reliance, in which people have little to no safety net outside of what they build for themselves in their lifetime? 

Self-sacrifice is generally a choice in this system.  But in this system, forced economic self-sacrifice appears to be flirting with tyranny.  Flirting.  If you don’t like something, normally you could bail, choose another path, if you have the courage.  But there’s no leaving this.

Nobody wants to hear it but the fact is that you can not save one group in this situation, without sacrificing another.  Especially with regard to health, safety, and economic pain.  The question is who is it ok to sacrifice versus not sacrifice, and under what circumstances is this actually okay – where do we draw that line.  Who or what is worth more, in this country?  As reported in numerous articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Politico, and many others, we already know that those losing the most are the ones who already have the least to lose.  While the bottom 25% of earners who are already the most economically unstable and insecure demographic upend their lives, those who keep their jobs and their futures relatively intact are already among the highest earners.  And does it make us selfish to even draw attention to this cold hard truth?  I think it is only the responsible thing to do.

We can not pretend that the impact of this reality doesn’t deserve our attention and care.  Yet we expect these people to take the hit quietly.  Even those whose jobs go away and do not come back, or whose jobs return in far limited capacity, or those who return to work with less quality jobs than they had before, starting over now from the bottom.  There is in fact a human price to pay for this plan.  Not only economic, but everything else that goes along with that such as mental health, addiction issues, relationship struggles, and indeed poorer physical health in the long term and less financial resources to deal with these issues.  Yet the attitude is that it’s ok to disregard the suffering caused to these people because if they don’t accept the terms given then they are immoral, greedy, callous, selfish, anti-science, and don’t care if people die of coronavirus.  To question the chosen course of action at all is to offend humanity itself.  The protocol is assumed to be worth it.

But such a position is, I’m afraid to say, not only manipulative, but also beginning to look like an abusive one to take.  It’s not quite because we are shutting things down.  It’s because of this casual disregard toward the have-less, an attitude so neglectful and dismissive it would suggest a deeper contempt built in to our cultural values.  It’s a trend that’s become a runaway train, and now finally backfires in a big way.  As reported in the New York Times piece I’ve mentioned already, since 1980 the after-tax income of the bottom half of earners has risen only 20%, and the middle 50%, while the wealthiest has risen 420%. The Economic Policy Institute reports that CEO pay has risen 940% since 1978, relative to “typical” workers who only saw a 12% rise.  As Vox bluntly puts it, “the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else.”  Yet even in a pandemic, debates abound on the extent to which the have-less take advantage of the system, live off the state, expect something for nothing, expect special treatment on someone else’s dollar.  

Indeed, it is not only the lowest classes who are being squeezed.  I’ll add to this essay now (that I actually wrote back in May but frankly didn’t have the courage to post) that more recently on 12/8/20, a news program on KQED radio reported on research about the income inequality gap that basically started 45 years ago in the 70s.  They said that the cost to the bottom 90%, to make the top 10% richer in this time period, is over 2 trillion dollars.  I believe in the range of 2.4 trillion (but don’t quote me on that exact figure — to be real, I heard it just as I turned on the radio in the car).  And if this gap had never started in the first place, then today the median income of around $50,000/yr, would today be $92,000/yr.  Over $40,000 more per year.  

Is Giving Money Away “Unfair”?

Imagine if we said to the wealthiest 10% of Americans, I’m sorry but we need you to contribute to coronavirus relief also, so we need to tax an extra 10% of your income this year, and next. No.  Surely this would not fly, were the wealthiest Americans comprehensively required to give up their money in the same way the less fortunate classes are required in this scenario.  No, instead many wealthier Americans are enabled to further increase their assets, buying up property and other investments at the lowest rates, moving money, or at the very least recovering loses rather quickly.  Surely we couldn’t get away with expecting them to surrender their own paychecks, surely we do not expect the same selflessness.  Giving is a choice — a luxury.

All this would seem to highlight wealthier Americans as an unofficial “protected class” in a collective crisis. While service industries are shut down by order of the government, no less.  And to those billionaires who do voluntarily donate to relief — before we get too misty-eyed about their heroism — I wonder why employees couldn’t have all been paid a little more to begin with.

Do those affected employees and small business owners who resist the shut down “only care about money”?  Well, how about the wealthiest Americans, do we think they don’t care about their money?  Let’s try it.  Let’s see how “selfish” they may become, when their own checks are involuntarily cut by those in charge — no choice in the matter.  Let’s see how righteous and altruistic we can ALL be when it comes to the coronavirus.

It would seem that when wealthier Americans “unfairly” benefit, it’s not only par for the course, it’s, well, simply a byproduct of our action plan, which was the right thing to do for the good of all.  But when the less fortunate “unfairly” benefit, suddenly it’s “socialism.”  Political gaslighting at its finest/worst.  Problems in the system, it would seem, are only created by people make too little – not when they make too much.  

Discussions on this deep double standard hardly even exist.  Reportage on the wealth gap is rarely engaged by the public in any kind of meaningful, lasting way.  Because for some reason it is not even worth talking about.  It seems to be, not very interesting.  As we attempt meaningful conversations about race and gender, the conversation about institutionalized economic inequality remains an elephant in the room.  It’s no wonder that in this moment, one’s level of income and access to resources determines not only where their livelihood, quality of life, and future lie in the social and economic spectrum — it also determines where they lie on the political priority list.

I have heard one person say, “I guess I just care more about old people than poor people.  I guess that’s just the truth of how I feel about it.”  Based on how things are going, I suppose we could say that this is a value judgement that’s not unpopular. Now, I’ll be the first to say that the people I’m most concerned for, the people I hope most to be protected from illness, are my two elderly Grandmas. Of course I don’t want my Grandmas to get the virus, certainly not to die of it.  We know that our elders are among the most vulnerable to covid fatalities. 

Yet, let’s also consider that while there are indeed many poor elders, by and large the elder generations are already known to be among the wealthiest, and they also hold a great deal of political power and influence. We know that they are on their way out of the workforce or already out of it, while the most economically vulnerable who still need to work, are asked to risk everything they have to protect others.  We know that we can’t have overfull hospitals to the point that there’s not enough space to treat people. We know that a certain amount of shut down is inevitable, as leaders see fit. Will it really “cost too much” to assist those of working age who do make this economic sacrifice, for the health of others, many of whom are of retiring age? Is this generational inequity another cold hard truth we simply bypass, in favor of the cold hard truth of “saving lives”? 

Here’s why lower earners need help, generous help, not half-assed help.  Because if we don’t, then we are literally asking them to fund the cost of saving lives.  We shut down, by order of the government – ultimately at their personal expense.

Why? Because debt is inevitable as a result of the pandemic and consequent shutdown.  So do we, collectively as a country, take on the burden of this responsibility for the greater good of all?  Or do we demand that certain individuals will — in fact the individuals least equipped to do so? 

The long-term ramifications of the disease and the shut down remain to be seen, as are further actions taken toward a greater good in future.  Greater good for whom?

May 27, 2020

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Part IV

The Luxury of Giving, the Price of Philanthropy, “Just” Poverty

Q: How Noble Is the Luxury of Giving?

At a certain point, don’t the wealthiest Americans — let’s say the top 2% if not the top 5%, and especially billionaires– kinda have to donate some money, to get rid of some of it before it starts to work against them? Sure they don’t actually have to, and some argue that they don’t contribute enough in recent years. But for those many wealthy who do, giving is largely to their benefit. Mass sums donated means tax-free deductions. Courtesy of a certain policy critics believe to be outdated, the wealthy are shown to receive the most generous deduction for charity–even if donating a more modest proportion of earnings than many lower income doners who receive little to no deduction. For the wealthy, charitable contributions could also enable tax bracket manipulation. So, I wouldn’t assume an entirely altruistic motive for charity on their part, although I don’t doubt that they may enjoy it too.

Q: Aren’t Massive Donations By the Wealthy Kind of, Problematic?

In theory, with the largest quantities of giving increasingly concentrated among the wealthiest, don’t we end up with too few people deciding where all this wealth goes? Aren’t we supposed to be able to vote where mass sums of money in our society get prioritized? Isn’t that theoretically what would happen, for example, if monies from mass donations were collected through taxes instead? Isn’t that what would happen if more people were all paid a little more, who in turn paid higher taxes on their earnings, and then those extra funds were divided up according to the will of voters and elected representatives? Instead of excess corporate profits disappearing into tax loopholes, bloated salaries at the top, and then a few select people paid exponentially even more than that? And, incidentally, an inconspicuous “budget vote” for those few that essentially “counts more” as far as how to spend unfathomable sums in charity? Not to mention that charitable donations concentrated through the wealthiest ensures that the interests of the wealthy are, by and large, prioritized.

And what about how much buying power the richest may enjoy when it comes to actual voting — essentially, direct sway over elections?

Q: If the Wealthiest Can Afford to Give So Much Away, Why Is Pay So Low in Lower Tiers?

Now keep in mind that I am just a layman on these topics, so I pose this more as a question, but I’m also not an idiot. And these things just don’t make sense to me. In the case of Amazon – let’s get real. $15/hr is a total joke — and not just in California where I live but in plenty of other places too — and people are catching on to the ways in which Amazon exploits its labor and undercuts a whole industry. People who work there are so busy that they barely have time to go to the bathroom, so it’s not like the company can’t afford to pay them more. Wouldn’t it have been better to pay employees a billion dollars more, and increase their standard of living, instead of ending up with so much money yourself from the success of your businesses, that you can afford to give dazzling amounts of it away to some choice groups or causes?

In the Amazon example, I get it that Bezo’s personal wealth is not the same thing as Amazon wealth as an entity. However, even as a layman I assert that it would be dumb to think that your personal wealth has nothing to do with your business entities. I’m a videographer and I work for myself, and somehow the money from my business ends up in my pocket. One spends money growing their business, but how much money is spent on growth in any given year is a choice. And I don’t really want to hear what Bezos claimed income is, considering the tendency of such magnitudes of wealth to be tied up in investments everywhere for a beneficial reason, among other reasons that all the numbers are highly manipulatable. But maybe I’m just not rich enough to understand how you can be so rich yet somehow boast of a relatively piddly income.

Anyway, it would make sense that you can donate to the homeless, OR, you can help prevent homelessness — by paying and benefiting people little more than the least possible amount that you could possibly get away with (and then acting like you ought to congratulated). You can also donate to early childhood education, but a lot of good that’ll do if their undervalued parents are overworked, stressed out, and can barely afford to feed and clothe their kids properly, let alone have much time to actually parent them.

Isn’t it an odd thing, generally speaking, to direct corporate entities paying bottom dollar to workers, make billions, and then donate a billion dollars to some special interest thing, when if all this wealth were spread out more in the first place, then everybody’s life could improve instead of select few? Select few, who then select remote beneficiaries of their fortune, totally alienated from their means of production?

And no, just because I used the phrase “means of production” doesn’t mean I’m a Marxist, ok? It just means I went to college. All this just means that I think we could probably do better. Ok? Couldn’t we do better? And it’s quite possible that we must do better. After all, people like William Graham Sumner warned us in What Social Classes Owe To Each Other, too much power in the hands of too few is a great danger to our system. I’m not diving deep into that – I read the book in college. I’m not a scholar on this subject, I’m a citizen with questions.

And again, maybe that’s part of my problem. Maybe I’m just not thinking like a rich person. I’m thinking like a concerned citizen. Does that make me an idiot? Naive? Or do I legitimately wonder what it means to really “only care about money,” as we sit here in a pandemic?

Do I just, not know how it all works? And if not, then why? How can I live here and be a college educated citizen and not know how it all works? Is there something I’m missing out on, as an average person wondering what the fuck is wrong with this picture? Why does nobody seem to care that much? Are we all just, too burned out? Is life too exhausting to even ask the questions? Will people hate us, if we dare? Or are we just, lazy as fuck?

And fearful?

Tell me this isn’t how it works.

One thing that paying workers less and donating billions to special interest groups instead, is it makes you look good. You get to play hero… once again quite possibly, albeit rather indirectly, at the real-time expense of the lowest-paid workers in companies who scrape by paycheck to paycheck, probably with little to no savings, and have barely any future. And it makes you look good in the sense that the richer you are, you can secretly compete with the other richest people in the world for the title of who can be the richest one of all. Or as a company, secretly compete with all the other most powerful companies, to see who will make headlines for the top spot.

So if you’re going to be in this game, I guess you better be a little parsimonious, at least until that crown is yours. Am I wrong? Or am I starting to think like a rich person? I’m not sure, maybe. Maybe you kinda have to, to get it. But who am I to say.

But the bottom line is, it’s a choice what to pay people, right? From top to bottom. Can’t act like it’s not a choice. So what are the reasons for that choice?

Q: Do Underskilled Employees “Deserve” To Be Paid So Little?

There’s always the argument that lower-tier employees are paid so little, because their skills aren’t worth very much. But even if unskilled or underskilled labor doesn’t require much more than showing up, does that mean that such employees don’t deserve a true living wage? Do we really think it is “just,” in America, for an underskilled laborer to work full-time, and yet still live in relative poverty?

Maybe it’s just me, but something must be wrong in our evaluations.

Are CEOs just not, doing well enough yet to justify paying more at the lower tiers? As affluent Americans’ wealth skyrockets, why would it seem right that lower tier pay profoundly stagnates? When growth happens, and the cost of living rises, doesn’t everyone deserve to be getting more? I don’t get it, or I’m missing something. Or worse — this is actual reality.

More to the point, is it really so fair that the upper tiers should be worth SO much more? Is the exponentially higher pay of a CEO really, so earned? So justifiable? Research indicates that it is not. But if they don’t really deserve to be paid so much for just showing up and having a certain title, then explain to us now why anyone at all in the lower tiers should still need food stamps and other assistance, for just showing up?

It’s time to call bluff. When somebody opines that underskilled employees deserve to be paid so little, we ought to point out that the upper tiers are paid well too much more, than they deserve.

December 14 – December 21, 2020

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