What half-way thinking person doesn’t frequently sigh these days, wondering what t’ hell is going on. One big sigh for me is how rapidly America is transforming into the economic demographics of a developing country, with a small percentage of super-rich and a vast majority of people — including much of the middle class — not doing well at all.
In most Latin American countries, that middle class makes up at best fifteen percent of the population which has to scratch and claw to keep their noses above water. America’s middle class is bigger than that, but the scratching and clawing to stay afloat applies here too. For the poor there’s simply no room at the inn. Meanwhile personal affluence for the one percent, and especially for the .01 percent has skyrocketed to dizzying heights in recent years, to the point that now one person in 10,000 has more wealth than the bottom 90% altogether, 9,000 of that 10,000.
Wealth in the U.S.A. has always been ridiculously (and immorally) concentrated in the hands of the few, but even in the robber baron days of the late 19th century it was nothing like today. So much for democracy, as if we ever really were one. Whatever we once were, an oligarchy is what we are now, or more precisely, a plutocracy, a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Yet we go blithely on referring to America as the world’s oldest practicing democracy, as the leader of the “free” world, etc, ad nauseum.
Even halfway thinking people should know that you can’t have a political democracy without something resembling an economic democracy. That you can have one without the other is a delusion. And since delusions are by their nature difficult to confront, we look the other way. We entertain ourselves to death. We continue to rise for the “Star Spangled Banner” and put our hands over our hearts. We call it business as usual when a new war increases the already bloated coffers of the rich, or when a so-called populist president appoints a cabinet whose collective wealth is equal to a third of all American households combined.
Thoroughly brainwashed to fret about foreign enemies, we the people can’t yet see that America has been hijacked from within by the super-rich. Maybe a few are starting to get the picture, but they are mostly too busy and worn out making ends meet to think through the implications of so few having almost everything
To the huge advantage of plutocrats (whose money controls both political parties alike), thinking is far from a purely rational process, but laced with emotionally laden prejudices. Far too many people “think” that the wealthy are superior people who deserve what they have. It’s along the same lines as “thinking” that white people are superior to brown people, or that men are superior to women — except that for those more commonly known prejudices a lot of people have done considerable work over the last couple of centuries to get to the root of them.
Not so in reference to the imagined superiority of the rich. We the people have been deeply programmed to believe that those who go to expensive schools, wear expensive clothing, live in mansions and jet around the world are also rich inwardly, i.e. that the wealth we see on the outside is indicative of inner wealth, such as intelligence, wisdom, graciousness, honor, courage, and so forth. And, by extension, we are programmed to accept that they have earned their ruling class status.
That programmed pre-judgment (prejudice) breaks down very hard, even though a central theme of the New Testament is that the opposite is true. How much more clearly can the adored Jesus have stated it. It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (to be rich on the inside) than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. He tells the rich young ruler that if he wants to follow Him, as he professes to want to, to sell all he has and give the money to the poor.
The rich young ruler then turns away sadly, the story continues — of course, because he knows that his very identity is tied into his treasures, which he also knows is not the substantive him at all (or why would he have longed to follow Jesus in the first place). His treasures are, in short, the vehicle by which he day by day feels good instead of bad about himself. Important instead of unimportant.
The clear thinking Jesus knew that the real significance of excessive outer wealth is that it serves as a compensation for a person’s interior poverty. Has that ever been clearer than with our current president. As a widely admired-for-his-wealth-no-matter-how-he-got-it-person, he has escaped the hard and humbling work of confronting that poverty, the first step necessary to rise above it.
Indeed, wealth worship is as pronounced as it’s ever been, if not more so. The teachings of Jesus haven’t made a dent in it. How many examples do we need. A recent presidential candidate, John McCain, when asked, didn’t know how many houses he owned. (Seven.) A more recent presidential aspirant, Chris Christie, when asked what he wanted to be, now that his term as governor of New Jersey was up, said “I want to be rich, like that guy (Trump).” Such examples of crass rich people are so numerous that they carry no punch. They go in one ear and out the other.
So much for clear thinking. Bernie Sanders, with only three houses himself, can shout about gross wealth inequality until the cows come home and make no impact, because the average American has very little awareness of how he or she has been shaped by the culture (cult?) of wealth worship.
The teachings of luminaries such as Socrates in ancient Greece, or Thoreau in 19th century America, or Gandhi in 20th century India, have likewise not made a dent in it. Those clear thinkers all saw that material wealth, beyond what is needed to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself and your family (and in colder climes, to heat your shelter), ends up owning you more than you own it. Property has to be looked after, maintained and protected. Excessive property either exhausts you or leads you into the exploitation of “lower level” people to take care of it for you for lower level pay.
But for all three of these men, their deepest motivation for living minimally was to keep their lives uncluttered of false identities and thus available to live maximally for higher purposes. One of those higher purposes was to challenge corrupted power — or as the current expression goes, to bring truth to power. And since power is almost always connected to excessive wealth, the expression might as well say, to bring truth to wealth.
Gandhi had it right: be the change you want to see in the world. How can a wealthy person bring truth to wealth! Obama’s first post presidential speech will earn him a close to half a million dollars from Goldman Sachs. How much truth will that speech bring to wealth?
It was not mere whimsy that prompted Gandhi (and Thoreau and Socrates, and, yes, Christ) to live in voluntary poverty. It had to do with not being owned. It had to do with their desire to closely observe what was important in life, and to think clearly about what made for true wealth, and then to manifest that clear thinking in their everyday lives.
Big sigh. Awareness that our country has been hijacked by the superrich is slowly gaining some traction, but far too slowly, and by far too few. I’ve got a bad feeling about where this ends up.