Saturday, January 11, 2014

I Have Had Enough of This Economy (And the Society It Is Producing)

I am reading Ruskin again, his not very famous"Sesame" lecture, delivered, I believe, around 1865. Its main theme was about the value of reading, with much emphasis on how few people had any conception of what that actually meant. By way of example he broke down a couple of lines of "Lycidas" word by word, considered the roots, the relations of each word to the others, how those derived from Greek had been used in the Bible and other classical literature in different senses than their usually English meanings, and so forth (This poem was frequently extolled in my 1940s and 50s reference books as perhaps the greatest short poem in the English language; I don't think people changed their minds about this so much in recent decades as that it is not the kind of thing any significant people deeply care about anymore).  Anyway, upon doing this, Ruskin proclaimed to the assembled audience that:

"...we have done enough by way of example of the kind of word-by-word examination of your author which is rightly called 'reading'...putting ourselves always in the author's place, annihilating our as to be able assuredly to say, 'thus Milton thought,' not 'Thus I thought, in misreading Milton'...You will begin to perceive that what you thought was a matter of no serious importance;--that your thoughts on any subject are not perhaps the clearest and wisest that could be arrived at thereupon:--in fact, that unless you are a very singular person, you cannot be said to have any 'thoughts' at all; that you have no materials for them, in any serious matters...Nay, most probably all your will have no legitimate right to an 'opinion' on any business, except that instantly under your hand."

That noted, I am going to unburden myself of some of the impressions that the ongoing weirdness of our economic state has produced in me.

It is become almost a proverb that lotteries are a tax on stupid people, or at least people who have no understanding of math. Is not the entire economy for the bottom half of the wealth distribution pretty much a similar tax. And 'tax' is a polite way of putting it. Working a dismal job, without full time hours, and those not at set times, with no prospects for advancement, for eight or nine dollars an hour, is scarcely less pointless and absurd than buying a lottery ticket if one's intention is to live by working. The idea that doing some kind of approved work, or at least behind forced to show up and pretend to do so, as opposed to sitting around idle, is a virtue and reward in itself, even if it is separated from any pretense of making a real living, apparently remains strong, though it does not make much sense to do something unpleasant for someone else's profit if you have no hope of even being paid enough to support yourself. Our supposed societal revulsion to slavery, or at least that of our economic leaders, consists solely in the ownership by one person of another's physical body, as if that is, and only ever was, the whole of the cruelty.

The distortion at the higher end and the widening ranges of income between various positions and fields of work have impaired my ability to perceive any kind of true value of money or the appropriate compensation for labor. My sense of value, my own or most other people's has little to do with real production or contribution to the economy, if there even is any of this. In coldly rational economic terms, yes, I probably deserve to be even poorer than I am. Indeed, I often cannot think of any compelling reason why anyone who works at anything should be paid less than I am. Yet I am still arrogant enough to think it is my birthright to live in a pleasant house in a not completely ramshackle town and for my children to go to nicer schools than other children go to even though there is nothing in the world I can do particularly well that creates any wealth. Why? Because I am taller and paler and probably would still score higher on academic exams than most people (even though I can't talk), and because the idea of having to live among people with whom I have socially and culturally nothing in common even though it is the level that my actual skills and abilities merit is just too unthinkable. I could not claim it was unfair, but I would think it very hard.

The opportunities for the already extremely wealthy to make massive amounts of additional income contrasted with the limited opportunities for ever-increasing swathes of the population to substantially improve their very modest amounts of wealth seems out of sync to me and has distorted society to the point that it needs some kind of corrective, whether via regulations, or oversight, or what have you. 'Redistribution' is an ugly word, and I don't really like that concept myself, but the access that a relative few have to absolutely immense streams of income, greater, in some individual instances, to the combined sources of income of millions of people, has to be reigned in. People were aghast that Wal-Mart was taking up collections so its employees could have Thanksgiving, but many large companies have hardship funds set up for their own low wage employees to apply to if they are in need. It is considered normal.    

I read a story about Bloomberg in New York, that when he trimmed the budget, which included cut the public funding for a number of cultural institutions, he replenished, or partially replenished, much of this lost funding out of his own fortune. The writer of the article seemed to think there was nothing bad about this, but it seems wrong to me. You can't have a strong publicly supported institution if your population of millions can't generate enough tax revenue to support it, but are dependent on wealthy individuals acting as wealthy individuals and not as part of the tax base to support it.  In his campaigns for mayor he also was able to use his personal fortune to overwhelm many times over the amount of money that the opposition party was able to raise. Is this indicative of a healthy body politic?

In light of all of the Catholic schools that are closing I recall that in my parents' day the Church maintained a standing army to run their schools and I suppose other of their enterprises, who I am guessing did not cost quite so much to maintain as regular full time employees are nowadays. They were called nuns. The economy of nuns seems like an interesting topic to look into. At one time there must have been tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of women employed and sustained in this occupation. They worked hard, lived very modestly, and were paid little, yet the position required education and seriousness, and obviously had a sense of purpose about it. The life was one that many people found to have dignity. I know that in our time the mere idea of nuns is fraught with myriad issues regarding people's intense feelings about the Catholic Church, hierarchies, gender roles, and so on, and I am not suggesting that people adapt to the economic situation by refilling our abandoned convents. I wonder if some aspects of this model for economic purposes could be revived. Modern Americans, it is widely agreed by the experts, cost too much to maintain in the manner to which they are accustomed, and the lifestyle for many has to be downgraded. Certain nun qualities, such as plainness of dress and diet, as well as self-discipline and purposefulness, has to be a more attractive alternative than much of what passes for life in this country nowadays, and these habits would not be incompatible with family life, for I am not suggesting that people would have to forgo sex and parenthood to adopt some of these habits...

3:23am, I have to go to bed. I had more on this too, but I've forgotten it...

No comments: