Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupying Utopia?

Over lunch the other day, a friend and I were discussing the Occupy Movement and its primary concern, the equitable distribution of wealth. I wondered aloud which communities throughout history have successfully spread the wealth around instead of limiting its control to a privileged few. My friend immediately brought up the early Christian community. As a persecuted minority their very survival depended upon the cohesiveness of the group. That cohesiveness in no small part can be attributed to Jesus' words to the rich young man who wanted to know the key to eternal life. He told the man to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor.

Christ's early followers did just that, they pooled their resources, and gladly gave to those who had not, just as Jesus had suggested.

Collective communities have existed throughout history, generally as small groups of people with shared beliefs who by and large separated themselves from the body politic.

In his blog Life's Private Book, the author, David T. describes the most successful collective communities in history, monasteries. His post; The Occupy Movement, Sin and the Monastery, asks the question: "Why do attempts at creating progressive utopias always fail?" His answer is basically that human nature always gets in the way. We simply don't accept the idea that life is not fair. Instead of grasping justice the author suggests monks "embrace injustice", not for others but for themselves:

Rather than fairness, the monastery demands obedience, piety, chastity and humility. The modern world, of course, sees in this nothing but the purest form of oppression. It pursues fairness through the assertion of rights and demands, the louder and more uncompromising the better. The active embrace of meekness and submission can only be understood by it as an invitation to slavery.

Well, for those of us who are not cut out to be monks, this seems like a pretty grim prospect indeed. For hundreds of years, the values of our Western society, with a few exceptions have evolved in the direction of personal freedom and individual rights. We vehemently reject slavery and oppression of any kind. Yet the essential requirement of the collective is that the rights of the community usurp the rights of the individual. Clearly, in order for a collective to work, everyone in the group must be in accordance with the plan and agree to subordinate themselves to the community.

That's difficult enough in a small group. In the case of a typical family, there is at least one parental unit keeping things in line, who is more equal than the rest. In a small group, any member not willing to play by the rules either gets punished, or leaves, willingly or not. The larger the group, the more complicated the egalitarian goal. Extended over an entire nation, a collective society must impose rigid rules, usually handed down from a central (more equal) authority, to insure that everyone stays on track. The most dramatic example was East Germany who was forced to build a fortified wall around Berlin to keep its people from leaving to the West.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is the indelible symbol of the failure of Communism.

So are the occupiers really seeking to turn our society into a utopian collective? Well the Movement is made up of a diverse lot and I'm sure a small minority sincerely believe in bringing a form of Communism to this country. Much fuss has been made since the movement began a few months ago about the 1 percent of the richest Americans controlling roughly 50 percent of the wealth in this country. But let's face it, how many would really care about that if the economy were robust and everyone was working? I think the 1% vs. 99% argument is merely a rhetorical bullet-point intended to rally people to the cause. Beyond that, there are plenty of meaningful issues that the movement has going for it.

For starters, our current economic situation is largely the result of wildly uncontrolled, unregulated markets. The Libertarian point of view to which I subscribe up to a point, suggests that markets should be self-regulating since their very success depends on control and restraint. Where the argument falls apart is the assumption that the players in the market are driven by long term success rather than mercenary short term greed.

Another issue is the trend in this country toward outrageous compensation for corporate executives combined with little if any accountability for mismanagement or malfeasance.

In government we have the partisan stalemate that has prevented Congress from taking any real steps to get this country moving in a positive direction. Then there is the regrettable Supreme Court decision that removed limits to campaign donations from corporations, citing them as a violation of free speech. From hereon it appears, those with the most money will have the most freedom of speech, at least as far as governmental representation goes.

The issue that we will be hearing about ad nauseum in the months leading up to the presidential election next year, will be taxes. No one likes to pay taxes, that is certain, Yet all of us reap the benefits of government in some way, even those who express disdain for it.. The money to pay for government has to come from somewhere and President Obama wants to raise the tax rate of people who make over one million dollars a year. One could argue that the people in the highest income tax bracket pay an unreasonably large chunk of the money they earn (35 percent) to the government. Well they used to pay a lot more. Couple that with the smorgasbord of tax breaks available to them and the fact that capital gains, which typically represent a significant proportion of income for the wealthy, are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, means that rich folks are often taxed at a lower rate than the middle class. The Republicans in Congress, not surprisingly are against raising the tax rate for the rich. The president would also like to extend the Bush era tax breaks for the middle class. Guess what? The Republicans are against that too.

One has to remember that no fortune, great or small, comes out of thin air, it is society that provides the means by which fortunes are made. Philanthropists believe it is their duty to give back at least part of their treasure to the society that made it all possible. For them, great wealth means great responsibility. Andrew Carnagie stated that a man who dies with his fortune intact, dies disgraced. For the great Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, it went deeper. Unlike Carnagie, Rosenwald was an active philanthropist for most of his working life, not just during his retirement. For him, giving his wealth back to the community was a moral imperative.

Since the opposition of taxing the rich has been taken on by many groups who claim to espouse Christian values, I think it's perfectly justifiable to bring up morality in the context of public policy. Christian “Fundamentalists" have a penchant for using biblical quotes to support their agenda opposed to big government, taxes, rights for gays and immigrants, universal health care, and the rest of the litany of right wing values.

Yet you seldom hear right wing Christianists quote the pasage I alluded to about selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor. Nor do you hear what follows in that story found in the Gospel of Matthew. After the rich young man dejectedly leaves, Jesus tells his followers that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.

Listening to the Christian Right, you'd think that Jesus was a gun-toting, white bread, all-American capitalist. Now I'm not in any position to tell anyone what they should believe, in my faith I'm taught not to judge others, lest I be judged. But it seems to me that the Christian faith is about community ("For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them"), more than it is about individualism. It was Christ afterall who said:“Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” To the best of my knowldge he never said: "Show me the money."

Julius Rosenwald who was not a Christian, got it. So does Warren Buffet who is leading the call to raise the taxes on the very rich, himself included.

Higher taxes for the rich certainly won't solve all our economic woes. But I think that a willingness to contribute more to the public pot, along with a spirited movement of new philanthropy from the well off, would go a long way to help bring this country back together and move in the right direction.

Like I said, the Occupy Movement is a diverse group with many different agendas, some of them silly and irrelevant, others with tremendous merit. By and large they see this country, and the world as headed in the wrong direction and they are simply trying to right the ship. In that vein I liken their movement to mariners guided not by GPS, but a rusty old sextant on a cloudy evening. However as the movement grows, more and more people are there grabbing at the ship's tiller, slowly coaxing the old boat on a new course.

You won't see me camped outside the NYSE or the Chicago Board of Trade anytime soon. I'm a little like Groucho Marx who would never join a club who would have someone like me as a member.

But I'll be there on the sidelines cheering them on just the same.

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