Because It's Right

A couple of days ago, in conversation with my husband during the news, he said these words. "We are going to have to start doing some things in this country, not because we can 'afford' it, but because it's right." We were talking about the bogus fear mongering over social security, and how fouled up our healthcare delivery and payment systems are, and all the rest of it. (You know, cheerful, dinner hour conversation, 'specially chosen to aid the digestion with calm and happy thoughts. ... e-hem!)

Apparently, we stopped talking about this topic before I was done running on in my own head. I suspect this to be the case because when I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep at 3:00 this morning, I was thinking of more and more to bring to the discussion. So ... I got out of bed, took a few notes so I wouldn't forget the main points in my head, reminded myself that black tea is a bad idea in the late evenings, and finally went back to bed. This is my answer to the question, should the tax advantages currently being extended to the wealthiest members of our society be stopped? Is it fair to charge the wealthy for being wealthy? Is it fair to make them more responsible for the expenses of our government, more burdened with the cares of others than their less prosperous neighbors?


That's my answer. If you don't really want to fiddle about with my reasons, you can pretty much stop there. That's my actual answer. But if you're interested, these are my reasons.

1. Yesterday, all across our land, the plain speech of Elizabeth Warren made headlines and facebook conversations and editorial columns. In case you missed it, here is what she said.
I hear all this, you know, "Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever." No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there-good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea-God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
I agree with her. I think we do have an obligation as a social group, a civilization of humans, a nation and a people, to uphold that kind of social contract. Basically, her position is, "We're all in this together, and we ought to act like it."

2. Now, the chief thing I am hearing in opposition to her position of the unity of our people is this: But that's not fair! People who've earned their money have a right to keep it and do what they want to with it. You can't penalize people just because they have money! That's not fair!

This is what I call, The Argument of the Fourth Grade. This is the sense of "justice" and "fairness" that we are supposed to grow out of. It's adolescent and silly to pretend that all men being "created equal" means that all people are on their own to make their way as best they can, and if the starting gun goes off, and that kid didn't make it to the finish line first, then he's just the loser and that's all there is to it. Never mind that he has only one leg. Everyone gets to run, and so it's a completely fair race.

Fourth-graders are also outraged when they don't get to spend their allowance on whatever the hell they want and still expect other things to be purchased for them. Fourth-graders believe that all money that comes to them through their own lawn mowing, babysitting, trash removal, and garden weeding is discretionary income, and that they should be able to buy what they want and then someone else ought to make it possible to give them what they cannot buy on their own. That's how life works in fourth grade. We're supposed to grow out of that. We're supposed to learn how to be responsible for more than our own pleasures. (And don't say that the rich dude has to use his money to re-invest in his business. That money isn't subject to income taxes. It doesn't count in this matter.)

3. Then there's the argument about a "free market." We cannot restrict the money-makers in a free market, the argument goes, or they will become so discouraged in the making of money that they will stop and the whole thing will collapse.

The problem with this argument is glaringly obvious: there is no such thing as a completely "free" market economy in the civilized world. Further, being a "capitalist" society does not exonerate us from all other moral concerns, and unrestrained profit-making has the potential to turn into a humanitarian assault, as we have learned to our grief and peril on many occasions.

We have child labor laws (and we should); we have anti-slavery laws (and we should); we have laws about overtime and working conditions and sexual harassment. We have also had tariffs on foreign goods in order to protect our own workers and industries (we should). Yes, those laws are a pain in the arse sometimes, and sometimes they go too far and have to be corrected, but we don't really want a free-for-all. We do, in practice, recognize that there are less powerful people in the vast machinery of wealth and business who must have legal protections, lest they be used as machinery.

For a truly eye-opening, forehead-slapping, c'm'ere-and-listen-to-this, learning experience, find and view some video of author and Cambridge professor, Ha-Joon Chang, promoting his book. He's amazing. And he's right.

4. Old-fashioned "liberals," of the sort my parents warned me about ... the Kennedys, for instance, with all their brazen robber baron behavior and profligate use of hookers and the other perks of power, at least understood the concept of noblesse oblige. This concept is a better starting place than "every man for himself," "you make your bed, you lie in it," and "the self-made man." However, I would like to see us get past the power of patronage and the demeaning acceptance of a handout, and graduate all the way up to an understanding of Equitable Load Sharing. Here's why.
  • Acceptance of reality helps everyone do what is possible. It is an opportunity to avoid everything from greed to envy because no one is asked to be other than he is. (A person who cannot afford health insurance is not asked to be healthy and report to work or else lose his job, this demand made of him as if he had adequate healthcare. Pretending poor people are rich doesn't make it so; pretending makes it mean.)
  • Rather than a power relationship of haves and have-nots, benefactors and recipients, oppressor and oppressed, the paradigm becomes that of a functioning body, or, even better, a choir of voices. A good choir needs chorus, soloists, and all the parts being sung well. Asking the bass to sing tenor is a disservice both to the tenor part and to the sad, embarrassed bass straining for the high notes. In other words, to each as he is able, for the health and success of the whole.
  • When the rich carry more of the financial burden of society (more in total load, and more in percentage of income), the poor are free to become better, healthier, more enthusiastic wage earners; without wage-earners, the empires of the rich will collapse. We ignore this basic principle to our peril.

5. The Bible has so many injunctions (and I do mean injunctions - God wasn't giving a helpful hint) for the care of the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the blind, the lame, those who have no voice of their own ... the gleaning in the fields not picked too clean, the offering of a cup of water to a child, the clothing of the poor because this is clothing Jesus ... well, all there is to say about this is that if anyone uses the Bible as a reason for a nation to become heartless (and "nobody can tell me how to use my money or who I should spend it on" is heartlessness in the guise of 'merican Ind'pendence), that person is using the Bible improperly. I'm not going to belabor this point.

6. The Peter Parker's Uncle Argument: "With great power comes great responsibility." He was right. It is true. If you have much, of you much shall be required.

We know this! We understand that the abuse of power is an evil. We say things like, "pick on somebody your own size," and we address the problem of bullying, and we have finally learned to make laws stopping bosses from passing out favors in the workplace based on favors in the hotel room. We Americans have a long tradition of giving astounding amounts of foreign aid - because we have it to give - and so we should. We understand this basic idea.

Warren Buffett has said this stuff. Elizabeth Warren has said this stuff. My husband and I have discussed this stuff. Now that I've written it out, now that I've said this stuff, maybe I'll be able to get back to sleep at three in the morning. Thank you and good night.


Against the Silhouette of the Towers

And I turned and saw, and the whole of human history spread out on the vast plain. Behind me, in the darkening mists of time, all was frozen. Still. Set in place, and unalterable now because that is the past. If we will go and walk among the monumental statues, if we will explore the bends and twists and look behind the hidden corners, we may see the undiscovered, but we cannot change it.

Ahead of me, there are only dreams and expectations. Ahead of those, there is the mountain of God. And all of the people in all of the times have been walking toward it.

That is how I think of moments such as the destruction of the Twin Towers, a decade ago. There they are, in their molten, exploding devastation, frozen in time. They sit in the place on the plain which was then our Now. Here is ten years later. Here, I can sit at my desk and look out the window and see the little plane flying up the Gorge, reveling in the last shreds of summer. Then, no planes flew.

That is what I remember about that eerie day. I remember the silence. I heard no trains. On this side of the Columbia and on the Oregon side, the track were silent. Empty. Still. I heard no aircraft, except the military helicopter, flying low at regular intervals. The highways, too, seemed to have stopped. Thousands of miles away, on the other side of the continent, the towers fell and the government was attacked by forces outside our own and one airline passenger changed the possibility of hijacking forever when he decided to do something in the skies over Pennsylvania. And here, at the opposite ocean, all the sounds of careless freedom stopped.

My first baby and only daughter was about to turn seventeen. She was not here. She had moved to the city to go to community college. To live with friends. To start the adult life she didn't want to wait for. The day the planes stopped flying was already surreal for me. My family was in a tectonic shift. The day of silence thundered in my ears as they were already straining for the sounds of danger in the air.

My young teenage boys, sleeping in their beds when I turned on the television to see what the web was buzzing about. It was not yet time to wake them for breakfast and morning routines. It was not yet time to start our school work. Our math and history books were still on the shelf, and in the new day on the other side of the country, history wrote a shocking chapter in clouds of debris and dust and shattered building chasing people down the streets.

Ten years later, these teenagers have begun their lives as adults, and I have learned to pay attention to my own work because they are paying attention to theirs. Their work is no longer my work. This morning, when the small plane flew below the cloud cover, passing from the east and flying toward the ocean on this side of the world, I turned and looked at the moments and days silhouetted against the broken towers. On that day, no school work was done in this house. The television played the images over and over. The news kept rolling in. Outside, there was an eerie silence. Inside, there was immobilizing shock.

And in the days and years that followed, my life has held shocks and cataclysms, deaths and births, grief and joy. The seasons have turned. Our ferocious firstborn spent nearly half of the decade in the army. A year in Afghanistan. A personal decade of change and exploration with which I could do nothing but watch and be ready to listen. Her brothers have taken their books off the shelves and set out into the wilderness on their own paths, and they, too, have adventure stories to tell. They, too, have planted the years with shocks and recovery, fear and courage, people and relationships and loss.

When I see this decade against the backdrop of that silent day, it is easy to pick out the shapes of the darkness and the shadows they have cast. Easy, but incomplete. The darkness of the decade is not the truth because the truth is bigger than that. Turn. Look. See that the lines and shadows and defining shapes have made a form. The towers fell and the earth was changed. Now, here, in this place where the plane flies in the morning sun, the lines hold the blaze of autumn again. Here, now, we can take the books from the shelves and we can explore the shadowy past and we can look to a future no one has yet touched. A decade ago, we buried the innocent. Since then, millions of resurrections have replanted the earth. Since then, my children have been seeding and reseeding, and I have learned to pray.


by: Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

      ILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
      Shovel them under and let me work--
      I am the grass; I cover all.

      And pile them high at Gettysburg
      And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
      Shovel them under and let me work.
      Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
      What place is this?
      Where are we now?

      I am the grass.
      Let me work.


He called me!

1981. The year of Crazy Faye, our new roommate. Eventually, they kicked her out, but only after she staged her own stalker episodes and blew off the "social" rules of the school in a few other ways. Since there were no locks on our room doors (only on the building's main doors, and only the floor leaders and dorm supervisors had keys), my roommate and I got a little nervous about messages scrawled in lipstick on the mirror and notes and weird packages arriving with a knock at the door and no one there. Although I'm not really sure why, my roommate lost more sleep about it than I did, but still. It was weird.

And it got into my letters to my new friend, Impossibly Smart David.

* * * * *

He had my address. I'd made sure of that. But I did not have his, and besides - I was the girl. He could write or not write, but I was not going to write first. The girl can't write first

... read the rest over at my new blog, Not Exactly Unnoticed