In the Harper’s Index for March 2005, the amount of Federal Assistance that Wal-Mart employees qualified for in the past year was given. Guess how much?
Yep. Over two billion dollars of federal subsidy to Wal-Mart. God knows how much state and local subsidy, and how much Wal-Mart gets in tax breaks. All so Wal-Mart won’t have to pay its employees a living wage. All so Wal-Mart can sell you cheap teeshirts. Except they’re not very cheap, are they? Not when you figure in the extra federal, state, and local taxes…not to mention the human misery that goes along with them.
It’s the first law of thermodynamics, folks: no such thing as a free lunch.
(Okay, okay: the first law of thermodynamics is actually energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it means the same thing: if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you’re going to end up paying Ed through the nose down the line.)
This is the hardest thing, I find, to get my students to understand. I teach it in all my classes, because it is, after all, an integral part of literature: the web of connection.
Ahimsa, says Indian philosophy: do no harm; and since everything you do does harm, do very little.
(It’s like that study they’ve been doing that’s tracking the damage done by drive our cars on the Interstate. We’re killing so many bugs that way that birds are going hungry. Birds get less to eat, so there are fewer birds. Fewer birds mean less prey for bird-eating varmints, creating a hole in the ecoweb…)
Right living, says Buddha, and consider all the connections to your actions – not just what you do, but what the thing you have done will do, and what that will do, and so on, and so do no harm.
Is the world better or worse when you have harmed your neighbor? asks Socrates. Well, obviously it is worse, Socrates. And will you be better off or worse off if you have to live in a worse that is worse? Obviously I will be worse off. So do not harm your neighbor, you lunkhead, says Socrates, what were you thinking? Do no harm!
And the thing is, we are all connected.
Americans like to yap about rugged individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism, but, listen, it’s all one big web. If Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its worker enough, those workers don’t just go away and live quietly and miserably on insufficient funds.
Those workers show up at ERs. Those workers show up needing food stamps. Those workers need emergency housing because they can’t make their rent because they tried to pay their medical bills or they tried to buy their prescription medication or they tried to make their car payments.
Who funds all that stuff? Do we just shrug and say, hey, tough, starve? Hey, tough, die? Hey, too bad, be homeless? You can’t buy antibiotics, learn to like coughing?
(I bet Ann Coulter says we should.)
Here’s why that wouldn’t work, though, folks: the underclasses? They don’t just quietly shuffle off to starve. They don’t just quietly let their kids starve, either. You want to look into just why the New Deal got set up before you go shuttling the sucker, IMHO.
Society is a web. It sounds very pretty to be all libertarian and say that capitalism can regulate itself and people should be responsible for their own outcomes and everyone should look out for his own end and if we just leave the market alone the invisible hand of the market will work things out – but we aren’t individuals. We’re a society. We all live in the same place. We all breathe the same air. We all drive on the same roads. What happens to your kids will have an effect on what happens to me, and what happens to me is, in fact, going to effect you. The food I eat matters to you. The movies I let my kid watch shape your future. (You’re lucky, by the way: I’m very selective about what I'm letting her watch.) What car I drive does make a difference in your life. Yes, it really does.
So you can say it’s up to every parent to see to the education of his or her children – but that’s just not so. If we don’t pay to educate kids today, we end up paying, as a society, down the road: for them as non-productive citizens of one stripe or another.
And we can say it’s your business whether you wear a helmet on a motorcycle and whether you drive a Hummer and whether your vehicle is polluting the atmosphere or not – but again, not so. Those things affect all of us. When your motorcycle goes down and your skull fractures and you end up needing a million or more dollars in medical repairs, who’s going to pay for that? (Hint: it ain’t the insurance company.)
And if I’m neglecting my kid, or smacking my kid around, is that any of your business? Why, yes, it is. Because that makes my kid much more likely to end up a danger and a cost to society, down the road. You had better step in.
We are all each other’s business. This is why “It takes a village” was not nonsense. This is why the “It takes parents” rejoinder is nonsense. Of course it takes parents. Guess what? It also takes a society.
We are a village. This is why Socrates was right when he said he was a citizen of the world. We are all the same thing. Smart folk realize that. Blind folk pretend they can separate themselves off, pretend that it’s possible for one person to act alone and for his actions to effect no one but himself – but that’s a lie.
Wal-Mart can’t underpay its employees without damaging this country.
You can’t have cheap teeshirts without having high taxes.
Somewhere down the line you’re going to pay.
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