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2020-05-03

The Haves and Otherwise

Human beings have divided economically, socially, and politically ever since we left the veldt and stopped living communally. By that I mean that some have more––food, shelter, comfort––than others. These differences often come with more freedom and power conferred to some than others.

As societies grew, those with more took these differences to mean that they deserved this higher material and social status with its ultimate expression in the divine right of kings. For those who may have dozed during that lecture, it means that the king asserts that God gave him the power to rule over all others. No one elected him. His power is conferred from above and therefore to oppose him is to oppose God's chosen one on Earth. It took some balls to make that assertion, but if you can put your rivals and whose who complain that your rule sucks to death, it's not that surprising.

You may think that we have matured beyond such fantasies, but if you ever wandered into a sermon on the prosperity Gospel, you get an updated version. For those with more secular frameworks, we celebrate the self-made billionaire as somehow deserving of those material riches. One of them, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, wrote a self-serving essay that came to be called "The Gospel of Wealth". It was a meditation on the responsibility of the wealthy to become philanthropists because they were wiser than the common folk and could put their wealth to the best social use. Bill Gates provides a 21st Century version of this idea through his philanthropic foundation that tries to address global health issues.

This is not to say that such foundations are mere ego-fluffers. Gates, Rockefeller, and many of the rest do valuable work. (Some of my work has been supported by them.) But they are still private and accountable to no one but their leaders. If the leadership is wise, like Gates, you get forward thinking programs and explorations on the issues that plague us. Carnegie endowed libraries in many small towns across the US (including the one where I grew to love reading). Gates has tried to address global health in general, malaria in particular, and now offering support for vaccine production if/when we come up with a candidate to fight SARS-CoV-2.

But should we need these private individuals leading the way? No one elected them. Nor do they assert that they are God's vessels, at least not publicly. Making gobs of money does show the results of energy and intelligence, but a huge dose of luck is necessary as well. Does that make one wise?

Well, not necessarily and not always. We tend to conflate wealth and wisdom. When the rich person speaks in the noisy room, everyone quiets and strains to listen. People even engineer audiences for such individuals so the rich person feels favorably to their host. Some even offer honors in the hope of future beneficence. But that's not evidence of wisdom. Nor should we offer the rich a megaphone larger than the one they can buy.

The problem with the rich having the first and last say is that they don't live with the rest of us. They are not in existential danger if they miss a paycheck or if a family member needs a trip to the emergency room. They don't have to worry if there will be dinner or a warm, dry place to sleep tonight. Their material abundance insulates them, and isolates them, from the troubles and worries that vex too many of us.

The current pandemic is exacerbating these differences. Testing is an issue in the US right now. We are far from getting the number and frequency of tests to detect COVID-19 that we need to re-open our society even a little bit. At the same time, everyone at the White House is getting tested frequently. Every visitor to the executive mansion is tested at the perimeter with results in 15 minutes. That is not happening at the grocery store, much less the hospital.

While the best policy to dampen the outbreak is to retain social distancing and remain at home, for 30 million of us that is not economically possible. That's the number of unemployment claims we have accumulated in a month with the expectation that the number will continue to climb. Our national leader gets all the testing he needs and seems to extrapolate that to the rest of the country. The rest of us are not so fortunate.

We need to grow out of the notion that wealth confers anything beyond money. At best, it may reveal wisdom (Gates), but at worst it also reveals folly (Trump). We are currently ruled by the latter.

We're in trouble.

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