Friday, October 24, 2008
Understanding Wealth...and Poverty
In light of current market gyrations and swift fluctuations of wealth and status, both for countries and individuals, I feel it time to air out a discussion on wealth and poverty. This has taken quite a few days of reflection and writing a little bit at a time. I should begin with the premise that I am a philosopher at heart, a sociologist in practice/observation, with roots in Judeo-Christian ethics while pursuing human reason and objectivity. Yet I aspire to be scientific and rational regarding my absolutes in life...so to understand me and my thinking is to start with those complicated parameters for discussion :).
During the course of my "blogging", we have had a number of postings and comments regarding the economic problems that confront us. We have discussed a lot of politics as it related to our pocketbooks and tax consequences. We have discussed religion and how it shapes our outlook on social and economic issues. We have touched on causes and solutions for the various economies from first world to emerging markets. I mean, if you look back at these past months of blogging, we have covered a plethora of significant topics and agendas related to money and economics. This past week’s blog on "Obamas New Tax Plan" elicited some of the most heated comments so far, so I thought maybe a direct blog on wealth and poverty along with our personal roles and responsibilities in the economic world might merit some comments and continue a hearty and hopefully helpful discussion.
Philosophically and politically, as many of you know by now, I lean heavily towards Libertarianism. I am not a card carrying member of the party, am not much of a "joiner", and would hold suspect any such organization that would have me as a member. I am more about individual rights and responsibility...which includes a strong respect for "otherness", a healthy regard for those whose opinions differ from mine, and always attempting to see the whole puzzle of how our varied thoughts, beliefs and opinions combine in actions to move humanity one direction or another. One of the most perplexing aspects of putting the puzzle together is understanding how such a large percentage of humanity can be so poor while such a SMALL percentage control the vast majority of the world's wealth and resources. Let’s look at some theories or philosophies that might help explain this perplexity.
Free Trade and Laissez-faire capitalism: Those of us who grew up in the breadbasket of USA democracy have pretty strong roots in believing this form of economics to be the most sound and productive form of economic theory. The problem is, as we grew up and experienced the real world, we see how this has been more a doctrine than a practice. Many people say they believe in free markets and capitalism until they lose a battle or two in the marketplace. When people, or organizations, or countries find themselves losing or broke, their pure thinking about a competitive marketplace go out the window. Most humans in the shadow of failure will adopt any new idea that helps them get quick access to security and/or pleasure and away from the stark pain of failure.
We see this behavior acted out in children at an early age. When one kid is picked on by another kid, you often see the underdog resort to recruiting friends, and maybe even their parents, to combat the threat and losing proposition against a larger, more experienced opponent. While this reaction is understandable and seeming smart on the part of the weaker kid...it truly changed the conflict from one on one competition/combat to "who can gain the largest following and popularity to support his image and agenda". We learn gang warfare at a very early age, and now we know where the fundamentals of the world's arms race began.
Capitalism and Free Enterprise to me should be about individual and business behaviors, not a statist or political position / theory. It is not even about rich/poor or a belief system. It should just be a common sense approach within humanity that determines how we interact, trade and exchange goods and ideas. There should be no borders or complicated trade agreements to initiate or sustain free enterprise. The problem is, we now have centuries of statist governments indoctrinating the masses that somehow they know better how to maintain trade relations with foreigners on our behalf...and the masses capitulate to the state. In return, the masses have forgotten how to take care of themselves and pursue individual goals and dreams. Instead we have traded for some "corporate" approach to health and happiness.
In my observations and reading of recent history, I don't see positive results from this statist, corporate approach. Most of what I have seen is one historically free, capitalistic, democratic society (USA) on one hand become the wealthiest nation in world history, only to quickly be taken down by expensive expansionist political thinking by its leaders and lazy acquiescence by its relatively wealthy constituents. We are now seeing this watered down version of democracy and free enterprise implode under the weight of unbridled expansion and commercialism provided for by unrealistic national and individual credit. Our economic system has become anything but “capitalistic” or free/fair trade. Our laws and economic practices have gotten so out of whack that now we have the major political parties of our country talking about "redistribution" of wealth and government takeovers of private industries. We refuse to let large institutions fail or accept the hard medicine of their folly. We refuse to let capitalism and free enterprise take its course where the successful prosper and the foolish fail. We are now entreated by our governments and religious institutions to be patriotic and charitable in bailing out those government and large corporate institutions that have set themselves up for such dismal failure and mismanagement. Everyone seems to have "golden parachutes" from their failures...accept us middle class working people and the poor. Somehow we small businesspeople and entrepreneurs have never considered the concept of "golden parachutes". We have always had to face the joy of success or bitterness of failure on our own two feet. The more we have succeeded, the more that has been asked of us and the successful have often been despised by those who failed. The more some have failed, the more society has felt sorry for them and offered them "welfare". The world as a whole has rewarded the wrong type of behaviors and efforts.
Let’s look at the core of poverty for a minute. Most of the ancient books of religious or philosophical persuasions somewhere imply that "the poor will always be among you". One has to ask if this is based on some missing gene in the majority of mankind, or is it a mindset that has been propagated and instilled over centuries of programming and planning by a FEW powerful influential parties.
Just like economics, I think there is a micro and macro aspect to this puzzle of poverty. On the micro level, it is obvious to me that there are individual traits and values both positive and negative that contributes to every individual's status in life related to poverty. Just like the spate of "get rich" books in this century opine that we should "think positive and grow rich"...the reality is that most people read or get messaging throughout their whole life that they are destined to be poor and locked into the system or demographic they were born into. This programming starts in families and the earliest messages to our psyche as we are growing up. The smart, studious, disciplined kid is looked down upon by a majority of his lesser classmates while the majority idolizes the big, attractive, athletic kid who can beat everybody up. From there, our whole society learns to idolize the athlete and sport while ridiculing the "geek" who is too smart for his own good and “has all the answers”. This is the core of the "micro" reality that keeps people in a mindset of failure and poverty. We just can’t measure up if we do our own thing and don’t conform to the norms of our peers. In my own life history, I have observed this from the kids I grew up with...many of the popular jocks or pretty girls of childhood who got caught up in their own hype and adulation turned into dismal failures as adults with no imaginations and living on their past memories of better days for their self esteem. Meanwhile, some of the "geeks" and misfits I came from have turned into quite successful and self sufficient winners in life. Good educations, strong family values, and strong sense of identity and direction. For some reason I have always liked those surprises and supported individualism over conformity. I think eventually the individuals dominate over the conformists...which is one explanation for the differential numbers of wealthy versus poor.
That is the core of what I think we see in the macro aspect of poverty. Most conformists are controlled by their peers and "the rules". The rules are laid out by the individuals who rose to the top and then "lorded" their positions over the masses. After a few generations of imposing behaviors and attitudes under the authority of religion or government, it is no wonder the masses of people have lost any sense of hope and potential for self achievement. Centuries of statist governments and fanatic religiosity have shaped our world into segregated groups. Our world is segregated by race, religion, wealth and poverty. Some countries are very wealthy, most are very poor. The poor ones depend on the charity of wealthier neighbors...or if charity is not given the poor masses rise up and take what is not theirs. Most institutions, governments, or religions on the "giving end" represent some form of the philosophy of give to us and it will be given back to you. Give us your taxes; we will look out for you. Give us your vote and we will be your voice at the leadership conference table. Give us your allegiance and we will give you something to believe in and live for...because somehow WE ALL MUST LIVE FOR SOMETHING HIGHER OR GREATER THAN OURSELVES. That is usually interpreted to mean self comes into play at the back of the line after God, country and others. This is the macro spirit in play that I believe keeps the worlds progress in check, keeps the rich in power, and keeps the poor in their place.
The debate on what to do about the chasm between wealth and poverty obviously touches on many sensitive issues in life. Our core beliefs about religion, government and rights of the individual can get easily confusing and paralyze our thinking to the point of inaction or inability to function as individuals. Most humans in the world I am quite convinced live lives of quiet despair, feeling locked into a set of circumstances or geography that is totally inescapable in their minds. Most resign themselves to living their whole lives "as they are, where they are"...even if they are miserable doing so. Societies teach us to conform, think "humbly" of ourselves, and "behave". And while one would think that with the modern advent of television, the internet and all types of ways we can better interconnect and get educated and expand our horizons...that we would become more productive and knowledgeable...I'm not convinced that is really happening. Instead, the "culture" itself has taken over these vehicles of communication and cultivated the old stereotypes of conformity and distortion of truth. In my lifetime we went from two television channels to HUNDREDS to choose from, yet I think there was more content on the original two than all the rest combined. On the internet, you have to sort through hundreds of wasted, empty websites on most any subject to find one of merit and non distortion. So, instead of sorting it all out, most of us simply resort to what entertains us...and to a scary level that is primarily porn sites and MTV type of music. Information and "truth" sites are just not as profitable or popular.
So, in essence I am seeing the world at least through my eyes as not moving forward very quickly in solving this conflict between wealth and poverty. "Supply side" and "trickle down" methods have not worked in the long haul to meet the challenge of poverty. Communism or Socialism models have not succeeded in bringing wealth or sense of fulfillment to the masses. Every pure model or philosophy for growing wealth or success ends up mired down by mass appeals for "fairness"...for protecting the losers from the winners. Governments in wealthy nations put up walls and borders against poor nations. Wealthy neighborhoods are getting gated and walled in more and more in order to protect the haves from the “ have nots”. Money hangs out with the money...the poor hang out in their barrios and ghettos. These walls and borders simply perpetuate the continued persistence and growth of poverty.
For me personally, I live pretty well in the small, emerging growth country of Panama. Every day I see, touch and feel both ends of this spectrum. I am glad that I do...I WANT to feel the heartbeat of the whole of mankind. I WANT to feel thankful for what I know and have...and at the same time I WANT to touch the poor and destitute. Not the professional beggars in the streets and elsewhere. Some of these people are beyond help...lost in a lifelong mindset of entitlement and handouts. But, a majority of the poor I see are working the best they can to get by...and in some cases to get UP.
I believe in the potential of every human being to elevate their level of thinking and livelihood. It starts with willpower...which has to be encouraged and instilled from a very young age. If we want to reduce or have a vision for eliminating poverty, we must start with educating the youth. Not just book education and institutional degrees...but educating their hearts and souls as well that they are valuable and have great potential. I'm not sure how we teach "desire" and "fortitude"...but I think it starts with just being an example of those qualities...and then reaching down in our immediate world to help bring some others UP with us. It is my opinion if we don’t bring the poor UP, they will eventually bring us DOWN. So to an extent, helping the poor can be a very selfish exercise. But, if it takes selfish motivation to value and preserve what we have, and taking PRIDE in helping others less fortunate, then let's have a little more selfishness around here. In the end it will help our own survival, and be the best answer to providing a bridge between wealth and poverty. I hate to sound redundant, but it starts with the “power of one”, each of us first taking responsibility for ourselves, and THEN pulling up others in our immediate reach. Only this over time will truly overcome the chasm between the rich and the poor.