Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Arriving in a Lear jet

Sometimes an image jumps out. Here's this from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/opinion/28iht-edcohen.html?hp):

The share of national income held by the top 1 percent of American families has doubled in recent decades to 20 percent. That’s a huge shift. I spoke to Doug Severance, a Vietnam vet who’s a hotel employee in Aspen, Colorado. "When I moved here in 1984 we were all family,” he said. “Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

“Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

Unfortunately, this seems all too true. I've thought about this often as I ponder the state of air travel ("as if" I do much of it) and wonder if it would be in this state (even first class, I hear, is a mess) if the rich actually still flew on commercial flights.

In Maryland, our family lived in Columbia, a planned community developed by James Rouse, a visionary who wanted to mix all races and economic classes, back at a time when segregation was still legal, and who thought, rightly, that this could be done by the private sector at a profit.

A few years ago, the Columbia Historical Society (Columbia goes back all the way to 1966!) had a tour of early homes, including those of James Rouse and one of his corporate cronies (and neighbor) Padraic Kennedy. They moved to Columbia in the 1960s. Their houses crystallized the opposite of the image of the rich arriving in Aspen in private jets and the rest of us (and it IS the REST of us) arriving as the "help." Rouse and Kennedy lived IN their communities, in houses that were slightly (but not much) bigger than the average single family home, beautifully custom designed and on a lakefront--but a block away from townhouses and apartments. These "big executives" were not removed from their communities in gated enclaves. They were not living in MacMansions. By the standards of today's rich, their homes were beyond modest--small lots, four bedrooms, a combined living/dining room in the Rouse home--comfortable but not ostentatious. And the Rouses opened their home frequently for parties to which the entire community was invited. This was just 40 years ago. Even 35 years ago. Black women my husband used to ride the commuter bus to Washington to work with joyfully remember attending these parties.

It's almost unimaginable now that chief executives would live that way. Now they seem more like royalty, completely removed from everyday life and the average trials and tribulations of the rest of us. I remember the heads of the auto companies flying to Washington two years in private jets to receive their bailouts. They seemed entirely clueless about how this level of privilege might look.

This kind of disparity in wealth does not reflect the Quaker equality testimony or simplicity testimony and ultimately sows the seeds of war. Yet there's a rhetoric that supports this inequality running through our culture that we need to push back against. It's not "socialism" to ask for social justice. How do we, in the words of Dorothy Day, create a society where it's easier to be good? How do we sow love (not fawning) for the very rich and in the very rich?

John Woolman writes:

When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labor of their slaves I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labor moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labor, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once, nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind.

Woolman's point is that a few living in too much ease on the backs of the miseries of others has a corrupting effect on the rich that makes them unhappy as well.

And this, which speaks to our condition of high unemployment today:

In my youth I was used to hard labor, and though I was middling healthy, yet my nature was not fitted to endure so much as many others. Being often weary, I was prepared to sympathize with those whose circumstances in life, as free men, required constant labor to answer the demands of their creditors, as well as with others under oppression. In the uneasiness of body which I have many times felt by too much labor, not as a forced but a voluntary oppression, I have often been excited to think on the original cause of that oppression which is imposed on many in the world. The latter part of the time wherein I labored on our plantation, my heart, through the fresh visitations of heavenly love, being often tender, and my leisure time being frequently spent in reading the life and doctrines of our blessed Redeemer, the account of the sufferings of martyrs, and the history of the first rise of our Society, a belief was gradually settled in my mind, that if such as had great estates generally lived in that humility and plainness which belong to a Christian life, and laid much easier rents and interests on their lands and moneys, and thus led the way to a right use of things, so great a number of people might be employed in things useful, that labor both for men and other creatures would need to be no more than an agreeable employ, and divers branches of business, which serve chiefly to please the natural inclinations of our minds, and which at present seem necessary to circulate that wealth which some gather, might, in this way of pure wisdom, be discontinued. As I have thus considered these things, a query at times hath arisen: Do I, in all my proceedings, keep to that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness? And then there hath some degree of sadness at times come over me, because I accustomed myself to some things which have occasioned more labor than I believe Divine wisdom intended for us.

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

One of numerous ways in which Woolman was wise was in understanding that the privileged as well as the under class are harmed by gross inequity. This understanding certainly helped him carry out the ministry to which God called him.

I was at the dentist today and somehow we got to talking about the plight of young people who grow up very rich just expecting everything to be given to him. He had grown up knowing some of these.

Last week on vacation we visited the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, NY. This was built by the 3rd generation, after the 2 in which 1 Vanderbilt was the richest person in America.

The Vanderbilt who built this mansion was one of 8 children. Each got a share of the family fortune, the one who built the mansion getting the smallest share. He was the only one of the 8 who went to college and actually held jobs. The rest, we were told, just frittered away their inheritances. One imagines fairly empty lives, and one can also think of contemporary people who grew up filthy rich such as Paris Hilton & the trouble they often have in getting grounded.

Few Friends have anything like the wealth of the Vanderbilts. But the large majority of North American Friends are reasonably affluent, and rich by world standards. They need to be concerned about not being too indulgent with their children, and inculcate in them a sense of responsibility and pitching in to do work not getting things easily due to parental affluence.