Monday, July 18, 2011

Wealth Is Not Free

Let's talk about wealth and taxes.

Survival is a personal thing.

Survival is a community thing.

Survival is a planetary thing.

Greed is when a person endangers the systems by which other people, the community, and the planet survives, in pursuit of more than they actually need.

(When a person endangers systems in pursuit of exactly what they need, in the absence of a less destructive way, it is called desperation.)

Personal survival may seem the most natural pursuit of any person. But do we need to choose between personal and community survival? I think we are asked to think so, by persons who have what they need and don't care to share. They reckon it helps them to keep theirs if everyone else believes that personal resource security is the only form of security.

Or, as the political right tells us, "Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem." (Try interchanging "community" and "government".) They want us to believe that using the government to solve broad, shared problems is a danger to personal solutions.

Which is true if a pipe that leads to your bank account is under the spigot of wealth. If you have managed to exclude all of the people who usually just wait at the edge of the fountain pool, you certainly would not want to be told you must also wait for the pool to fill and to take your share with everyone else. You would want the police to protect your right to take more than your share, and you would promote the idea that survival is strictly a personal problem. "I got mine. You can have yours if you can get yours." Convenient for you.

Bad for everyone else. In a hunter-gatherer society, this behavior would be severely constrained. Personal survival does depend on community survival, and greedy behavior can endanger the entire group. That selfish behavior would be unsustainable in the group, and would be stopped. (See Colin Turnbull, The Forest People) In fact, such selfish behavior still is unsustainable. But now the scale of survival is planetary and epochal. Big lag time on accountability today.

And it is not true that personal security is an individual problem, if you are willing to wait for your share at the edge of the pool. Then you do need the authority of community, of elders, of the community council, or your government, to protect you, and to force that big-wealth-bully to conform to community norms. You need full mutual accountability. You need fairness, sharing, and cooperation, at the pool of wealth.

So yes, each of us must seek personal survival, even prosperity, and we can survive, even prosper, within the limits of what the community and the planet can sustain. And no, we do not need to choose between personal and community survival. We can have both, we must seek both, and we must seek harmony of both. As we have always, in ways that define our humanity, over tens and hundreds of millennia, balanced these interests. And certainly we cannot choose between personal and planetary survival.

But we must re-imagine what "prosperity" looks like. We must combat the fallacy of individual resource-based security (money, property, and investments are ephemeral) which militates against community-based security. We must remind ourselves of the prosperity and security we derive from relatives, friends, community, and from the state whose officials we elect and hold accountable, and that these relationships require healthy and sustainable systems. We must work to protect and enhance these systems. We must be willing to let some of our wealth be taken by the community for community goals, such as grouting the fountain of wealth. We must seek sustainable ways to get what we need, ways which are not stained by the impoverishment of others. What is not sustainable on a systems level is not prosperity. Nor is it survival. It is an illusion of prosperity. It is poisoned water.

So no, this is not about the end of ambition. Ambitious people seek solutions. Not greedy ambitious people seek solutions which are of benefit to everyone and the planet. We need creative, ambitious, community-minded people to do their things. Let us design appropriate rewards for our innovators. How about a sustainable planetary eco-system, healthy communities, good schools and medical care, the highest esteem of neighbors, and healthy children? Does any one need more?

And no, this would not be the end of prosperous living. This would be the end of unsustainable excess. This would be the beginning of sustainable abundance for all persons, of healthy habitats for all life, and of a planet glowing green and blue with healthy living systems.

Help debunk the lies. We do not need to choose between personal and community prosperity. We do need to say that the systems of community, of democratic self-governance, and of planetary health, are the best pathways to personal prosperity. People of great wealth do not have an automatic privilege to keep their wealth. Harm comes to people, communities and the planet, when that wealth is not put to work through projects the community values.

There is plenty of wealth out there to pay off the national debt, especially since much of it was gotten from lower taxes during a time of war, when those who wanted that war were not asked to pay for it. Let them pay for it. And then tax them until they begin to feel a real need for the security of healthy communities and a healthy planet.


Stephen Alrich Marshall said...

Your metaphor is totally wrong. Super rich are not taking more than their share. They earn their share.

Stephen Alrich Marshall said...

Then why do they work so hard to persuade us that security is through wealth and community is powerless?

Stephen Alrich Marshall said...

Jamal Kheiry
July 19, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink | Reply

Mr. Marshall,

Your equating “government” with “community” is incorrect in most cases. On the scale of Vermont towns, I can see how this could be true; low population density, everyone knows everyone else, a high degree of shared values all contribute to accountability when it comes to what our elected officials do in our name.

But beyond that, in particular at the Federal level, government is no less a cesspool of moneyed interests than are the “greedy” corporations – grasping, groping and grabbing all they possibly can at the expense of the rest of us. The primary difference is that at the very least, corporations have to convince people to give them their money by providing goods and services of value; the federal government need not even meet that basic requirement before extracting dollars from us.

Lofty rhetoric about a utopian society that can be achieved by government action doesn’t change the fact that power corrupts, and your suggestions would route more power than ever through decadent halls already long-defiled and long-disconnected from the needs of the masses.

Mr. Kheiry,

I am puzzled and disappointed that you characterize my vision as utopian. We (humanity and life) are not facing a choice between long term sustainable misery, to which a utopian vision might be an attractive answer. We (humanity and life) are facing near term unsustainable climate rearrangement, cataclysmic ecosystem degradation, a mass extinction event (in progress), sea level rise and climate change refugee crises to dwarf any mass migrations in human history. I suffer from human misery. I panic in worry over the destruction of the systems which support life. I regret that some of us are impoverished by the unjust distribution of wealth, but I worry about survival, and I condemn people who have resources and refuse to share those resources to protect life and the planet they live on. I condemn people who are so short sighted and selfish that they disparage the idea of climate change because it would cause them economic loss. Greed on that level is evil.

So sure, my state does not always function like a community, and Washington is a cess-pool of corporate special interests. What do you think I am condemning? I do not support the idea of community in my state and community in the nation as optional luxuries. The concepts of levels of survival and prosperity, and of systems, of which community is one, are intended to frame the discussion of what we must do to preserve life. For life, our lives, to be sustained in any thing like the world we know. It is not that the nation is a community, it is that we must demand from our leaders and those who control the vast wealth of our country, that they start acting like we are a community, and to invest in the systems of planetary and community survival.

Community is ephemeral. I must build community at every turn.
Greed is pandemic. I must fight it at every turn.
We shall all die. I must act as if life matters.

Of course, Mr. Kheiry, you are free to disagree that life is in danger. But there is no excuse for not fighting corruption, no excuse for not using the democratic ideals of our nation to force politicians to resist special interests, and no excuse for excusing the destruction of the systems which support life. If my approach does not meet with your approval, why don't you articulate your vision of how to prevent planetary ecological calamity?

Stephen Alrich Marshall said...

As published on

Simha Bode
July 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

You seem to generalize the “rich” as a group of greedy people who have just reaped their wealth from within the confines of a capitalist system and wish not to help the little people… The Richest of the Rich, this is like 1% of the top 1%, are the real issue.

This is not an imbalance caused by a functioning capitalist society. This is the effect of people who have an “upper hand”, the insiders and manipulators of the “free market”. These “people” are literally syphoning off the money in this…repression… I mean recession while a large portion of society is loosing their homes and jobs they are reaping record profits.

The tools of the trade are little understood by regular folk; Naked Short Selling, Derivative Swaps, Hedge funds and Trust funds tax loop-holes. Of course these people go hand in hand with our Mega Corporations and their pocket-lining persuasive lobbyists. So is it really about “shared sacrifice” or is it about purging the system?

Stephen Marshall
July 20, 2011 at 8:14 am

When I am in a crowd of socialists, I oppose the entire dismantling of the capitalist system, and I advocate for components of the capitalist system. I believe that diversity is essential in our economic, political and social systems, and that one source of diversity is found between the pursuit of prosperity – effectively through an entrepreneurial and market style of economy – and the pursuit of shared well-being – effectively through arrangements made through democratic processes. Any monolithic ideology will damage the systems of survival (an assertion which deserves an extensive conversation), and that goes for extreme left ideologies as much as extreme right ideologies.

But at present we are not combating a systems-damaging push from the left. From the left the push we feel is to restore community, reduce inequality of income, build the systems of climate change mitigation, etc. It is from the right that the pursuit of self-interest is threatening the systems and therefore the survival of life. So I push from the left. As hard as I can.

On the topic of over-generalizing, I think I have defined greed, and condemned the consequences thereof. Wealthy people of good will know who they are and know they are not the subject of my definition. Any who are unsure might ask themselves “Beyond the money I need to maintain modest prosperity, am I using my wealth to build the systems of shared and planetary well being?” Discharge of excess wealth to help build these systems would be the anti-thesis of greed. How much? I should not begin a new essay right here.