Democracy, Money and Community
I was taught it’s not polite to talk about money, so here goes. Honesty, however, requires context.
I grew up in a middle class family in Vermont. My stepfather’s family lived on what they earned. My mother came from a wealthy family that had inherited money earned by the prior generation. My father, who died before my birth, came from a family that earned its own wealth. They did not believe in inherited money, however, and gave what they had earned to charities when they died. From my two families of means, I eventually inherited an amount equal to half my annual compensation when I retired.
My stepfather taught me never to expect any inheritance at all but to plan my life with the understanding that I would live by what I earned. He also taught me the intrinsic value of working, first for another and later possibly for oneself, and that work annealed one and readied one for life, regardless of means. Both lessons have turned out to be true.
Devised originally as a uniform surrogate for barter, money is now a computer virus in our democracy, infecting everything. It buys not only goods and services now but also legislators, judges, politicians, regulators, sports competitions, and even educational degrees. Our Supreme Court has even extended certain human rights to corporations.
Though the pursuit of wealth has always been a facet of history, I wonder at the Olympian status we accord vast wealth in our own culture. I wonder why those with the least so vehemently revere, defend and trust those with the most. The current polarization of wealth in America is again what it was in 1920, the beginning of a long period of social and economic distress.
To complicate matters further, we with less have developed a media-induced sense of entitlement that expects government largesse to continually accelerate to meet our desires, not simply our basic needs in times of stress. This sense of entitlement combined with our belief that the rich’s ability to further enrich themselves should not be inhibited by taxation, has now completely beggared us.
Where does this lead? Do we end like King Midas, who was granted his one wish of vast wealth, and ended up begging for his humanity?
I take some heart the in the increasing failure of consumer companies to enlist our children in the material feast. From the anarchy of the Internet, many of our children are forging their own medium of communication and self-expression that is not defined by what they own or wear. They’ve left TV, radio, magazines and record companies behind. They seem oddly unimpressed by their parents’ determined efforts to amass ever more money and things. Instead they find their own way to the human spirit and to build and live in their own communities, which may or may not include us.
I spent the first half of my life amassing things I wanted, but now find I must give many of them away to achieve any peace.