Two-thousand years ago Christ addressed the problem of the poor. There are no doubt hundreds of institutions in operation today with the sole aim of feeding and caring for the poor. The number of poor has reached such heights that an entire country can be at risk of starvation for years without end.
How has this simple problem continued to grow and thrive in a world with so many people (and lots of them wealthy) trying so earnestly to end famine and homelessness and sickness and misery? Christ proposed that when someone asks for your coat; give him your cloak also. After decades of people giving away free turkeys on Thanksgiving and blankets to the shivering homeless on Xmas Eve, we see no reduction in poverty—but rather expansion, as if our very civilization were a culture for its growth.
So many people are digging wells in drought-ravaged communities. So many people are trying to spread literacy to the third world. So many doctors and nurses, clergy-persons and philanthropists strive to alleviate the preventable diseases and hunger pangs of the needy. What makes the situation an unshakeable constant in our global community?
There is no obvious answer—third world famine is a starker illustration of the problem than the developed worlds’ own citizens—but we can see poverty and homelessness in Appalachia, a not-so-long drive away from the center of commerce, the Big Apple itself. Even on the streets of that city, and most others, we can find deprivation and suffering.
By this we can see that the poor are not from some well-spring deep in the poorest, least-developed nations—the poor come to be everywhere. The sophisticated man-about-town, leaving his Fifth Avenue townhouse, will only walk a few blocks before he must step over someone who is sleeping on the sidewalk.
So the poor are always with us. Despite centuries of well-meaning charitable activism, the poor abide. Why?
They are the price we pay for having the luxury of becoming millionaires. The design of Capitalism is to compete in the marketplace, to outsell, to outdo, to win at all costs and thus become a ‘master of the universe’. That 99% of us are not millionaires (and have no foreseeable prospect of becoming millionaires) yet remain loyal to the idea of dollar-Darwinism is a marvel of misdirection. We are raised to be proud of our nation’s openness to a sharp operator’s victory against the established businesses—the iconic entrepreneur who plows through the marketplace unopposed due to our amazement at an unprecedented operation’s swift encroachment on established culture. A new marketplace to sell a new something that we poor sods didn’t even know we had to have!
But marketing is a side-issue, a symptom rather than a cause. For Capitalism to retain its power to elevate the odd Titan of Industry, it must have an environment of competitive struggle. Ideally, Capitalism would control the elevation of the few through a series of economic levels that never fell below subsistence. In that happy dream-world, the poor would simply be the least rich, the least pampered—the last place finishers in a sporting event, rather than the wasted, diseased, and tortured casualties of all-out, bleeding warfare. But that is an ideal that only the Canadians have manifested in our real world.
For economics to be stable enough to allow such immense disproportions as there are between billionaires and homeless starvlings, it has to be a blood sport. If any legislation were ever enacted that overruled the rules of finance in favor of humane re-distribution of some of that wealth to the ‘inactive players’ of the sport of Capitalism, the rich would simply block the legislation, or shoot the legislator, or (most likely of all) besmirch the bona fides of the proponents of humane reform of Capitalism. We have been victims of lazy thinking—the triumph of the Free World over the Soviet Union is not proof of the unleavened goodness of Capitalism—it only proves that you catch more flies with the honey of personal liberty than with the coercion of a police state.
Das Kapital is just as merciless and bloodthirsty as it was when Karl published his precious treatise. That soviets and red Chinese were perhaps guilty of trying to implement idealism with all-too-human humans does not change the fact that Capitalism is still the foot on the throat of human civilization it has always been, since it replaced monarchies (the only stupider form of society there is for comparison).
The solution, poor, naïve Karl supposed, was to give power back to the people—in the Iron Curtain countries this was ‘collectives’ and non-currency oriented culture; in the United States we thought labor unions had succeeded in stemming the predation of the owners upon the workers that made them rich. In neither case did any real change result. The soviets lost the majority of their internal economy to the black marketers (who had no objection to cash payment for goods). But here in the States, we had the illusion of equity among workers and owners/management—and union workers’ salaries, benefits and working conditions began a steady climb. But there’s more than one way for the Fat Cats to skin the Hoi Polloi.
And the most successful one was Lobbying. When WWII ended, the nation strode towards what we hoped would be a new age, with Fascism vanquished and the Communists content to regroup from the War’s devastation—and with civil liberties growing to include Social Security, Medicare, the right to form unions and to strike, the right to travel the country from coast–to-coast—and the shiny, new means to travel it.
Our country’s laws reflected a sense of fairness and protection from abusers of personal rights. But now the money began to roll in—and not all the hundreds of federal legislators in both houses were sterling saints of their offices. Eisenhower’s valediction to the people, as he left his presidency, was a warning against the ‘military-industrial complex’—a cadre of business moguls who saw huge riches in keeping our country on a war footing, just to create the demand for the arms manufacturers, and every army base, and all the boats, jets, and bombers we would need to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.
So, cutting military funding is the most unpopular idea for a politician to mention aloud. Second to that is speaking in favor of regulation of Capitalism. Those two ideas together will get a politician zero votes—in any state or county in the nation. I am suggesting that our rabid, knee-jerk response to either of those concepts is an attitude that has been carefully cultivated by our Capitalist media-moguls. Hitler, famously, invented Kindergarten as a way to reach his citizens with propaganda at their earliest possible age. And in our schools we have traditionally indoctrinated our American children with the ideals of the United States of America. But now we live in a time where policy-makers and tycoons have discovered that Skinner’s behavior-modification techniques continue to work on people of all ages, not just the innocent tykes of Kindergarten.
Competition is so much a part of who we are that the idea of turning our backs on it seems outright psychotic. But my thought is that competition exists all by itself—and we will always have to struggle to have the lives we work towards. If we placed some regulatory boundaries—not on a cap for fortune-makers, but a minimum for Capitalist-last-placers—then the players could all knock each other around all they liked. But the ones who have lost, the ones who are unable to function in that rough-and-tumble, could be assured that their society would not make them starve to death because they failed at the American Dream. Is the American Dream any less a dream if we admit that it doesn’t always come true?
Why should we? I hear ya. Who says we have to build decent housing and give free food and clothes and furniture and plumbing to a bunch of lazy, no-good goldbrickers? Who says we need to educate their children and give everyone free medical care? Well, the answer is—you do. Think about this—when you go out for a walk, is it nice and clean and peaceful and decent? If you had a choice between giving that up to live in a commercial ‘war zone’, or paying extra to keep everybody’s suffering to a dull roar, which would you pick?
If we want this country to be a nice neighborhood, we have to spend some money on maintenance. The rules of Capitalism insist that winners win at the expense of the losers—so, do we want our society to operate like a casino and try to take everyone’s last dollar before they leave? Or can we adjust Capitalism, as we did, after much violence and struggle, when we realized that it is only fair to let workers unite to protect their interests against the owners?
We should take that concept a bit further and resolve that Capitalism is only suitable for a decent society when it draws a line beyond which we will not sink, a line that guarantees no one will die from being poor—that losing in the marketplace doesn’t condemn a person, or an entire family, to slow, miserable death. We like to look back in horror on the old practice of keeping a Debtor’s Prison—but are we any better for letting our poor starve in broad daylight?