Our worst unacknowledged evil: Part 1
Two weeks ago, I discussed what I called our worst unadressed evils, "unaddressed" meaning evils of which we are aware yet persist because we continue to fail to address them seriously. Those evils, I said, are racism and sexism, with racism being the worse of the two on this score, that is, as unaddressed, not because racism is worse or more pervasive than sexism but because it is just so painfully obvious.
This week I'm going to address our great unrecognized, our great unacknowledged, evil, the evil that all too often we don't even see an evil.
That evil is the sickness of being rich. Because to be rich in our society, to have wealth, is to have power. And as the man said, "power corrupts*."
To be rich is to be sick. Yes, that is a sweeping statement, and I have to amend it slightly by comparing being rich to obesity. Obesity itself is not a sickness. You can be obese and be quite healthy. But obesity is rightly considered a not healthy condition because to be obese is to be at greater risk of a variety of conditions that are themselves damaging: heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and others.
In the same way, being rich is not itself a sickness; you can be rich and still be a decent human being. It's just a lot harder and a lot less likely. Because being rich puts you at a signifcantly greater risk of the true social sicknesses of moral and ethical corruption. And just like the greater the degree of obesity, the greater the risk to physical health, the greater the wealth, that is, the greater the power, the greater the risk to moral and ethical health.
There is an enormous amount of psychological research showing this, showing the corruption of power. Just by making people feel more powerful in comparison to others, not even making them more powerful but just feeling more powerful, you can affect how they deal with those others and how they react to moral and ethical questions.
Just by making people feel powerful in comparison to others around them you can create in them a sense of entitlement, a sense that "what I want is simply more important than other considerations and I deserve to have what I want." Again, there is a boatload of psychological and social research showing this.
So imagine the impact when you live that day to day, when you live that sense of power, of entitlement, every day, when you've been brought up to feel that sense of power, of entitlement - imagine the potential for moral corruption. Because in our society, wealth is power. And power corrupts.
So just like being obese doesn't mean you have heart disease or diabetes or whatever, being rich doesn't mean you are a callous, amoral, sociopath with an inflated sense of your own significance who has contempt for those less rich, that is, less powerful, than you - but it does mean you are at genuine risk of becoming one, a risk that far too often comes to pass.
Because wealth is power. And power corrupts.
Do you want to see that sense of entitlement in action? Here are two recent examples.
You know that California has been experiencing a severe drought, one likely connected to global climate change. Last fall, California Gov. Jerry Brown called for austerity measures and in April, he urged people to cut their water use by 25%.
Okay. There is this ultra-rich enclave in San Diego county in southern California called Rancho Santa Fe. This landscape of ranches, gated communities, golf courses, and country clubs already uses five times more water per capita than the statewide average. After the call to conserve water, consumption there went up by nine percent.
But the drought continued, the drought got worse, the drought got more damaging. So on July 1, Rancho Santa Fe, along with some other equally wasteful areas in the state, became subject to water rationing.
According to Jessica Parks of the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which provides water service to Rancho Santa Fe and other parts of the county, "It’s no longer ‘You can only water on these days.' It's now more 'This is the amount of water you get within this billing period. And if you go over that, there will be penalties.'" Fines can up to $1,000 a day and if residents don't comply after being fined, the water district can place flow restrictors on individual meters, which simply would reduce the water supply to them.
And the residents of Rancho Santa Fe, whose response to calls for conservation was to waste more water, are whining and blubbering like the self-centered two-year old screaming "Mine! Mine!" that their wealth has, in an ethical sense, turned them into.
The Washington Post quoted resident Steve Yuhas weeping that people like him "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns or golf on brown courses" because "no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water." That is, "I get to have what I want and if that means your lawn is brown or your golf course is brown - wait, forget that last part since you can't afford to play golf all the time which is why you don't matter anyway - well, if your tap runs dry, who cares. Well, you probably do but you're a nobody so that doesn't count. Only I count."
Resident Gay Butler, for her part, got all petulant: "We’re being overly penalized and overly scrutinized. People aren’t looking at the overall picture. What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?"
No, what you're supposed to do is conserve water in the midst of what by a number of measures is the worst drought in the state's history, you selfish twit.
That inability to see the actual "overall picture," that defining of the "overall picture" as her desires, her preferences, that right there is that sociopathic sense of entitlement that wealth - and the power thar accompanies it - bring. It is the sickness of wealth, the sickness of being rich.
Again, not everybody falls prey to it: The same Washington Post article refers to other area residents who are adapting to the drought by adopting what's called drought-tolerant landscaping, such as replacing water-hungry lawns with crushed stone pathways amid succulents or other low-water plants.
But that some escape the effect doesn't mean that wealth does not remain morally and ethically dangerous any more than the fact that not all obese people have heart disease makes obesity a sign of peak condition.
Here's another example, partcularly pointed.
Right now, in order to quality for federal housing block grants, local and state housing authorities must have plans showing they are "affirmatively furthering fair housing." In other words, making sure their communities offer affordable housing opportunities in all neighborhoods, not just the poor ones, and do not discriminate. (Affordable housing is generally defined as housing that costs no more than a third of a family's monthly income.)
HUD is planning to issue new regulations to require those authorities to conduct five-year assessments that would be more revealing of the pattern of affordable housing in each area to see if those communities really are trying to make affordable housing available everywhere rather than just concentrating it in poor neighborhoods, leaving the rich to live with the rich without having to see any icky poor people anywhere nearby. That is, to see if these communities are trying to do what they are supposed to be trying to do.
And of course this is outrageous! How dare they! How dare those heavy-handed meddling government bureaucrats try to find out if this program is actually working! Because the attitude is, "They should just give us the money and be quiet! We're entitled to the money without being told what to do with it! Put conditions on it? Outrageous!"
But - and here is the point - Debby Goldberg, vice president at the National Fair Housing Alliance, said this is the way it works: Jurisdictions are not required to comply with the law. They're not. They don't have to take part. But they won't get the federal grants if they don't.
That is, you want the money, you accept the conditions under which it's given.
And while for the rich this is an unconscionable assault on their God-given right to free money, the fact is, that's what we tell poor people all the time: You want the help? You accept the conditions.
No matter how inane, humiliating, degrading; no matter how arbitrary, pointless, irrelevant; no matter how much they appear consciously designed to see you fail; you will comply and do it without complaint or you can just go sleep in the streets as you family goes hungry and your children have no medicine if they get sick.
Don't imagine that's an exaggeration. Because when it comes to the poor, the attitude is like it or lump it. Put up with whatever we put you through or else.
We'll talk more about that in Part 2.
*The phrase "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is often attributed to John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, usually referred to as Lord Acton, from a letter written in 1887. But the meaning, expressed in somewhat different words, dates back to at least 1770.
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