Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Value of A Life

We are all, at the core, of the same cosmic substance. Should one man be worth 100 times or more than another? The Mayor of New York City is worth many hundreds of times more than most of the citizens who pay his salary with their taxes. Mind you, he's not a bad man, as plutocrats go: he accepted the disappointment of being blocked from handing over New York City property to one of his billionaire friends for a football stadium. Yet still, he did have to be stopped, and in that lies the danger of plutocracies.

We could make a long list of far more malevolent and costly problems that have beset us as a result of allowing plutocrats into Washington. $45 million inauguration parties; a $300 billion war that is being raged straight into Hell; no-bid contracts to the corporations that fund the plutocracy—in Iraq, in post-Katrina New Orleans, at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas, and even in Alaska.

In her book War Talk, Arundhati Roy shows us the extent and the cost of plutocracy with some numbers:

In the last ten years of unbridled corporate globalization, the world's total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of the poor in the world has increased by one hundred million. Of the top hundred biggest economies, fifty-one are corporations, not countries. The top one percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom fifty-seven percent and the disparity is growing.

Yet our government here in America has gotten elected, and re-elected, on the strength of its professed values: we value life, we are compassionate conservatives. So what, I wonder, is the value of a life? What is the value of your life? Is your worth a hundred, or three hundred times less than that of the CEO of Bechtel, Microsoft, or Citibank? Are your needs that much fewer and cheaper? Have the old white men who rule the corporate global economy given so much more to the world than you and I that they have earned this excess that places such a gulf between us and them? Are their actions that much more beneficial, their work that far more efficient, than our own?

Well, if you've ever worked with the windows operating system for computers, or tried to get through to an actual human representative at Citibank, then perhaps you already have an answer to those questions. That answer, which I am guessing is similar to the one I have formed about these corporations and their leadership, suggests another point that I have observed elsewhere with respect to our government in Washington. The problem with wealth is not intrinsically moral as much as it is practical: organizations and people that become drunk on excess tend to become unfathomably incompetent. The $250 operating system is so flawed and defective that it requires near-daily patching to merely keep it running at a borderline level of functionality; the only human presence at the bank is a talking machine that will take you along an infinite loop of phone menu options. The plutocrat hires a horse show judge to supervise the disaster management agency, and ends by exponentially compounding the disasters that come.

My point here is that wealth and plutocracy are only unfair insofar as they are incompetent. They get tangled in their own excess, which they then kick carelessly away to others who are unfit to perform the mandate they have been given by customers, citizens, or taxpayers. Wealth is impractical: it kills the host while feeding a few tiny parasites that are attached to the whole organism. The body may be a person, a family, a city, a company, or a nation: the result is inevitably the same—slow and agonizing death by incompetence.

So it must be our most emergent priority as a people to see wealth rooted out of power in our corporations, our media, and our government. I would suggest that every time you walk into a voting booth; every time you write to your Congressman or your local newspaper; every time you decide where to do your shopping or your banking (or your computing); you think about this overriding priority of our times—the dissolution of the cult of wealth, and the enduring separation of excess and leadership.

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