Comparison is the thief of joy. ~Tattoo on one of my favorite pop stars.
Sometimes you really have to think about things before they make sense. Just yesterday, for example, I was reading up on the Andrea Doria, a passenger liner that collided with another passenger ship, the Stockholm, in 1956, in the last major collision between such cruise ships. The Wiki on it is rife with angry, un-cited accusations that the ship’s crew saved themselves first. When I read the first such accusations in the article, I too was outraged, but I quickly asked myself: why? Of course my initial reaction was a consumer reaction, but digging deeper I had to ask myself a human question: why would I think their lives would be less valuable than the passengers on a sinking ship in the middle of the night? Answer: they wouldn’t be less valuable, so I should stop thinking that.
The same is true for so much of what we take for granted as truth. The tattoo quote above is another prime example. It’s a nice, feel-good quote, but its purpose is to jettison jealousy, regardless of whether or not that jealousy is just. It does not allow for the examination of the feeling itself; it simply denies the feeling and subsumes it under some foolish notion of what it means to be a more perfect human. It forces a fake positivity that trivializes our very real problems surrounding survival and wealth, and makes the person with less the automatic sinner for daring to resent material uncertainty. Much as I love the pop star, I have real problems with the simplistic point of view that would promote such platitudes.
It would be different if the vast majority of Americans weren’t being robbed blind by the rich every day. In a just world, where everybody had enough to survive, that quote flies like fairies on a moonlit night, but we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where Americans, who comprise just 5% of the global population, hold and consume upwards of 25% of the world’s resources. Within our rather large slice of that pie, about 20% holds 80% of the wealth. That means that 80% of Americans are fighting for the remaining 20% of our pie–4% of the global pie. And 95% of the world is fighting for just 75% of the whole pie, though most of that goes to their rich too. It’s worth pointing out here that the poor—and the rest of us are poor compared to the very rich—consume in proportion with our numbers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said to Ernest Hemingway: “The rich are different than you and me,” to which Hemingway replied, rather impatiently, “Yes, they have more money.” If only it were this simple, but it’s not. The rich are very different than you and me, so different that they have their own moral code and have invented other moral codes for those who aren’t in their club, just to make sure those pesky underclasses rarely make it in.
See, if you shared the morals of, say, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you could use that shared morality to fight him on his own terms and win. But you can’t, because you believe vastly different things than he does. You have different morals, and thus different dreams, drives, and decisions to make. And even though the top 20% sold you on those ideas with their marketing techniques and their elaborate noise machines, you still hold yourself to a different standard in the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, one day you can be wealthy too. Continue reading