I was on a subway in New York City when I first realized something for myself about the concepts of good and evil. There was a man asking for money. In his grip, just so you’d notice if you took a good look at him, was a box cutter.
While he rattled off his spiel about needing to take care of his kids, money to get around and so forth, that box cutter was in his hand. I met eyes with him for a moment. I registered one simple fact: he meant to use that blade if it came down to it.
People on the train were giving him money. I don’t know how many of them saw the box cutter or how many were just offering up alms out of habit and not really paying attention. I saw the knife. When it came to me, I gave him the few dollars I had in my pocket.
After I got off at my stop, and over the next several hours, days, weeks, I found myself contemplating the nature of good and evil.
The guy had been scary. His eyes were menacing. Yet I believed his story about his kids was legit. If it had sounded rehearsed, that was likely because he’d reiterated it hundreds of times. If he’d really just meant to take money by force, why the story? Maybe it was just a two-pronged approach and had been working well for him. Maybe the story about his family was rhapsodic bullshit. Maybe he needed the money for alcohol or drugs.
I began to wonder if that same man would’ve been on the train if he already had money. Seems like a no brainer; he wouldn’t have been. But what if he’d had mental illness? It would stand to reason that if he had money, he would be on medication or in treatment. But what if he was one of those types who didn’t know he was disturbed and/or refused help? It was possible. Possible that the man in the ratty coat with the box cutter talking about his mother and his kids and how they needed him and so please could you give him a little money, that this guy was just perfectly well-off and yet mentally disturbed and refusing treatment.
Possible. But, I think, not likely.
More likely he was just what he appeared to be; sane enough, knowing what he was doing, trying to appeal to his fellow human beings’ sense of compassion and equity, but keeping that knife there as an extra measure of persuasion.
I rode that subway frequently and never saw him again, nor did I ever read or hear about someone getting slashed with a box cutter by a panhandler on the 6 train.
So I was left deducing that the whole thing was a product of this man’s socioeconomic status; he was low-income. You could argue that he wasn’t brought up right, or that he was lazy and could’ve gotten a job, or that he was crazy after all, or just a bad seed, and I don’t have the tools to prove you wrong. I just had a sense of intuition that the whole reason he was there, and I was threatened, was because of a thing called money.
We have, in our Western world, many issues which really split the room. Gun control, abortion, gay marriage, etcetera. But the mother of all of them, in my opinion, is money.
On the one hand there are people who believe that the current system in place is working. That corporate / big business money “trickles down” to the lower classes and increases the general wealth. That the globalization of money is good, too. An investment manager in emerging markets in Singapore, for instance, located abroad because of the low tax rate, is obviously apt to think that the globalization of money is positive. Perhaps he or she will point to the money cycling back from the emerging markets and feeding the pension funds of the West.
On the other hand, there are people who think the current system is flawed. That trickle-down economics is a fallacy, and that what’s needed is middle-out economics. More small businesses and well-paid workers that are happy workers who turn around and buy their company’s products because they make a livable wage.
One thing is for certain, no matter which side of the issue you fall on, the statistics show that the wealth disparity in the U.S., and in the world, is a wider gap than it has ever been. And the statistics also show that while the cost of living has risen dramatically, earnings for the middle and lower class have not risen commensurately.
It makes sense; it’s logical: Large corporations are prone to sheltering their money offshore to avoid taxation, to pay their employees as little as possible while their CEOs are earning more and more. This is not conspiracy; in fact, it’s perfect legal. No U.S. tax laws prohibit a corporation from making its money in the US and then moving it overseas to low- or no tax-rate countries to avoid paying taxes, which would then go back into the U.S. economy. And we’re talking billions and billions of dollars. Manufacturing, too, of course, has largely moved offshore; what hasn’t been automated has been outsourced to China, India, Pakistan, et al where factories can pay workers a pittance. Meanwhile, the middle class in the U.S. has withered, bearing the brunt of taxation in the void left by the rich and the fiscal inadequacy of the poor.
What’s ironic is that there have been studies which show that having more money does not actually make a person happier. One MIT study illustrated how, in a rigged game of Monopoly, players who garnered the preponderance of assets actually began acting less compassionately toward the other players, while the players not doing well tended to be courteous and empathetic towards one another.
We’ve all heard stories about how the poor, whether in the rural south or in third world countries, entertain a bounty of rituals full of spirit and family and togetherness. Surely the rich also have their traditions, too, and there are doubtless happy rich people out there.
But one allegory of the wealth-and-happiness correlation about a lost hiker and a cabin illustrates what the studies have uncovered. There is a ceiling to the happiness we can feel based on the wealth or status we have acquired. The allegory tells the story that a hiker is lost in the woods, cold, wet, and hungry. Upon finding a cabin with a crackling fire, a towel, and a bowl of soup, the hiker becomes a lot happier. But if that hiker were to transition from the cabin, with its meager offerings, to a five star resort, the happiness of the hiker doesn’t become much more enriched. And if the hiker was to move from the five star resort to an entire mansion in a villa he owned, there is no more happiness to acquire.
In early cultures there is a common link to how members of a society looked upon a person who took more than their share. Someone who had hoarded twice as much or ten times as much as the rest of the tribe was considered to have a disorder.
There is just so much that we can acquire before our happiness peaks. Our basic needs met, we are able to go about fulfilling our self-actualization, to become what is in us to become. Sure, some people want to self-actualize as a millionaire or a billionaire. And it’s their right to do so. It’s just interesting how many millionaires and billionaires we now have, and how the population of the lower class has increased right along with the upper class while the middle class has become more and more burdened.
In thinking of this process, one could picture a sphere, with a thin slice at the top as the rich, and the thin slice at the bottom the poor. That sphere has become an hourglass, with a bulb of rich at the top, a hefty dollop of poor at the bottom, and that reed-thin central piece the middle class.
It would seem then, that in order to achieve that dream of money, there are people’s backs you have to stand on. And for those backs that break, those people then slip into the lower class. This is not something that happens in a day, or exactly in an overt way, it happens over time, and it is revealed through the statistics and through the collective sentiment of those people who feel that the system is flawed.
So what do we do? If you’re rich and avoiding high tax rates, you don’t want to do anything; you want to keep things status quo. If you’re poor, like the man on the 6 train, you might not even know what to do, so you take a box cutter and go out panhandling for cash. If you’re middle class, you’re likely in one of two camps. Camp One, you’re miserable because of the taxes you have to pay, so you blame the government for taxing you in order to hand out welfare to the lower class; you may even blame the lower class for being lazy. You wish for less government and more privatization. Let every person do what they want to do, and let the market (now the global market) keep prices affordable and competitive and the wealth will trickle down and spread around.
Camp Two, you’re miserable because of the taxes you pay, and you’re angry at the corporate subsidies you see in the world around you. Mega-corporations like Walmart that take huge tax breaks, pay their employees as little as they can, and then their employees need food stamps to buy from the store they work at. It’s government assistance that comes out of your hard earned tax dollars; so somehow your tax dollars are indirectly subsidizing an already billion-dollar, highly profitable company. And the market isn’t deciding squat, except to cede more of its share to Walmart, which is ubiquitous and offers rock-bottom prices because of products made in China, a country our own nation is now financially indebted to after huge borrowed sums of money.
How much money does a company like Walmart need? How much dough does a CEO have to rake in to be comfortable?
Of course, it’s Walmart’s right to behave as they do. Yes, it’s a CEO’s right to amass a fortune. Thing is, the ways to improve the situation for the middle and lower class aren’t about suspending rights or upending capitalism or blighting the Constitution. Naysayers needn’t fold their arms and set their jaws and talk about “the American way.”
What we need to talk about, if we want true prosperity, which comes from a healthy middle class and greater parity of assets and resources, is how to amend the system so that there is less government dependency, both on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and at the top.
Higher wages for workers is one way to help move in that direction. The age-old argument that higher wages shrink job growth and cause layoffs is just not part of the current data. It’s an argument that goes back seventy-five years to when ardent capitalists first moved to block the institution of the minimum wage, equal pay for women, and child labor laws. Each time it was the same worry that businesses would have to close or go bankrupt, massive layoffs would ensue. But this has never actually been the case. Instead, time and again we see examples of businesses adapting to new models, which either profit-share with their employees or pay them higher, and that ends up coming back to the businesses.
And that’s where it’s all at. That’s where the “good” comes into the discovery of the truth behind good and evil. Good is giving. Good is when you offer your employees something better. It ends up coming back to you, time and time again. But then that other G-word so often gets in the way. Greed is a complex element of psychological and cultural factors. Some would say it has wended its way into our system like a snake in the garden.
Greed says to take, to hold on, Good says to let go. That’s why the money at the top is sheltered, stuck away; it does not flow down into the American economy like the Milton Freidman disciples say it does. We’re just not seeing that proof. Good is in-line with the way nature works, one big giant cycle of sharing. You share time, you share resources, you share the wealth of the kill, the bounty of the forest. When your time is up, you die. How you lived is measured by what you gave, not what you took.
So whether we want to stand behind the old Economics 101 argument that wage increases will be ruinous, which has no basis in reality, or we want to embrace an enlightened version of capitalism that puts a stop to corporate sequestering of wealth, tax breaks, and the ensuing middle class burdens – if we want this country to be more like “the way it was,” then we need to move forward towards a robust middle class once again.
Because the man with the box cutter on the 6 train is emblematic. There are more of him every day, not less. How far do we need to go until we see him everywhere? Until “evil” has completely taken over our society? When all we had to do was just uncross our arms, unset our jaw, and decide to give a little to our neighbors.
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