Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Party of Evil?

I happened to be reading Ecclesiastes this morning, and I was struck by the relentlessness with which not just wealth, but the creation of wealth was being condemned.  The story on this particular section of the bible is that it is a radically un-capitalist treatise.  One certainly has trouble reconciling our modern free-market system with lines like this:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. ...Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.This too is meaningless.  As goods increase, so do those who consume them.  And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?
Now, Ecclesiastes is said to have been written by King Solomon, and kings can hardly be said to create wealth.  At least, not in the Republican sense.  Maybe all of this was the talk of a man's guilt over not having truly worked and created something.  After all, in modern times, according to the mythology of Democracy, Private Property and Meritocracy, every man can now rise to the level of king.  Maybe had the king really had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, then he wouldn't be complaining so much.

But that wasn't what he was talking about.  He was talking about existence, and the idea that meaning comes not from spiritual things but - in his case - a higher power.  The argument was that true peace in life is to look away from worldly things and towards spiritual matters.

But aren't the wealthy the job creators, the doers and growth makers (the dreamers of dreams!)?  How could we disparage such noble pursuits?  Well, there has always been a tension in society between the sacred and the profane, especially in matters of economic activity.  And there has always seemed to have been an understanding - at least among those whose souls have not been completely lost to greed and avarice - that there is something inherently wrong with inequality and completely selfish pursuits. 

Historically, it has always been clear that inequality was the direct result of explicit privilege.  Enlightened democracy has slowly been able to enforce some measure of economic justice.  But we seem to have come to point in history where half the American population - belonging to the Republican party - seems to believe that privilege has been eradicated to the extent that inequality is now merely a measure of individual worth. 

As Kevin Drum writes today,
Republican economic policy has always promoted the interests of corporations and the rich. Once upon a time, this wasn't even an issue of contention. Everyone knew it and acted accordingly. The GOP's great triumph over the past three decades has been to gull the American public into believing that it's no longer the case. Their success has been nothing short of astonishing.
Language like "Job Creators" illustrates this perfectly.  To be obscenely rich is now not only something admirable, but something positively charitable.  To attack inequality, and ask the rich to pay more in taxes is actually an attack on everyone else's chances at success - unpatriotic even.  Republicans have been able to sell ordinary, non-rich Americans that whatever policies are good for the rich are actually good for the country too - even if they end up being worse for the country in the short-term. 

And so instead of holding the rich accountable for their share, their social and economic responsibility, we are asked to treat them like kings, and instead force the common man to make all the sacrifices - less resources for schools, infrastructure, criminal justice, public works, etc.

Would King Solomon have approved?
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.  The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields..... I have seen a grievous evil under the sun.

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