Monday, February 03, 2014

A free agent in a bag of skin

I have reached a conclusion after years of observation. The only way one person can think of and execute an act that hurts someone else, is if they are sure that their fates are not tied together. How can it be that any crime is justified in the mind of any man or woman? They would have to believe that they can do it without harm coming to themselves.

I'm particularly focused on the titans of industry in my country. I see how easily they lay off thousands of workers. How they live in gated communities. How they accumulate wealth even when they're not working while almost everyone else is too busy to notice. It's as if they truly believe that by accumulating all that money, living in a separate community and exercising the power, they can actually separate their fate from others. Are we now ruled by an upper class of sub-clinical psychopaths?

Alice Walton, heiress to the Walton family fortune, and one of the wealthiest women in this country is a case in point. Officers testified in court that at the scene of her car accident, Walton said “Do you know who I am?", as if that would absolve her of any guilt in her actions. She refused to take a breathalizer thinking that she didn't have to like anyone else. Here is a woman who doesn't believe she should share the same fate as the rest of us by virtue of her inherited wealth.

We see acts of economic violence every day, and often it is subsidized. The people who commit such acts seem not to think they are connected to their victims. They act as if they are a free agent in a bag of skin. Such a person cannot see his fate as being even remotely connected to anyone else's. This is a term I got from a book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. In that book, Alan writes about the free agents in a way that puts everything in perspective. He shows how everything is connected. It's actually a very insightful and well thought out book by an active alcoholic at the time. But it points out something else I've noticed.

Once a man has a taste of wealth and security, he wants more, and that will never be enough. There will always be some other weakness he will spend money to sew up and secure. A free agent in a bag of skin will never see himself as one of us again. He used to, but now he's different. Now that he has wealth, the world is against him and he must do everything he can to loosen or eviscerate the ties that bind his fate with others. Maybe he was born with wealth and never saw anything outside of his coddled existence.

So he lives in a gated community, away from us. He works in secured buildings, with cameras everywhere, except his office when he's working. He builds monuments to remind people of him and his greatness, afraid that everyone else is out to get him. A free agent cannot imagine a world where the world isn't out to get him. He needs to be sure that he is free to act upon perceived aggressors and be able to snuff them out without complaint or revolt. He buys cooperation from officials with money. He thinks love is something you earn or buy, not a gift from God or someone who happens to love him.

A sober man who has little money and power, on the other hand, needs to cooperate to survive. He is sure that what he does affects the people around him and makes nice to ensure that his needs are met. He is exposed to all sorts of danger and inconvenience and knows it. He shows up for work as a worker among workers. He is faithful to his family and friends.

Now this isn't to say that all wealthy people are paranoid and seek to distance themselves from others, and that all poor people are nice to others. However, today's billionaires are not that far off from Howard Hughes and William Randalph Hearst. Once in the stratosphere, it's hard to come down to be with the rest of us again. It's hard to see how connected we all are when there is little incentive to see it.

I have observed enough to see that, when you push on the universe really, really hard, be prepared to duck. Like it or not, the fate of all of us is tied together. Global warming is a case in point. The titans of industry have insisted for decades that carbon fuels were the trick and have succeeded in convincing many of us that it's OK to foul the air with carbon dioxide. The earth is now warming, and will probably cool down once enough fires have filled the air with soot, but the trend has set in.

The wealthy need to understand, at some point anyway, that what they do affects all of us, including them. There is no "there" out there. Either you're a part of this community and respect it, or you're going to get noticed for not playing nice with everyone else.

Fortunately, there are some who do understand. Examples are peppered throughout our culture, and maybe there are enough of them to make a difference. The CEO of Costco believes in paying a decent wage. There is Nick Hanauer, a wealthy and successful linen manufacture who understands that the middle class are the job creators. And there is Dean Baker, a noted economist who believes in free markets that support the middle class. So there is hope.

But until we learn to spot the psychopaths running the businesses that in turn subvert governments for their own purposes, it will be slow going. Once we can replace the accepted wisdom that business owners are job creators, we can once again make government work for everyone, not just the 1%. Perhaps one day, the titans of industry will notice that they are not free agents in a bag of skin.
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