Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Banner for Losers to Gather Under

“You have a funny look on your face, Ace.  What’s up?” asked Patty.

“I don’t know,” I told her.  “I guess I’m still thinking about my stop at the library at lunchtime.”

She gave an exaggerated look of surprise.  “The library?  What were you doing in the library?”

“Come on, Patty,” I said, “quit pulling my leg.  You know darned well I read sometimes if there’s not a good game on.  But I went today because Kevin had a book due, and he asked me to drop it off while I was downtown.”

“So what got your attention there?”

“I just wasn’t expecting the place to be so full,” I said.  “There were people at all the computer stations, most of the chairs were filled, people were at the newspaper rack... it was a bustling place.”

“Huh,” she said, “that does sound a little odd.  We have a great library, but I don’t remember its being that busy when I used to take Kevin to the children’s room.”

“I asked a woman at the desk if they were having some kind of event or giving away prizes to draw so many people, and she told me it’s like that almost every day now.  When I asked her why that was, she whispered that a lot of the folks there come in almost every day.  Either they’re homeless or they’re out of work.  For the homeless it’s a warm, safe place to hang out that will also let them use the restrooms.  For the unemployed folks, it’s a place to check the Help Wanted section of the newspapers, fill out job applications online, or use the printer to run off resumes and cover letters.  Others have given up, and are killing time there instead of sitting around the house trying to find something worth watching on daytime TV.  They still have lots of other patrons, but they’ve also become a kind of adult day care center.”

“Gee,” Patty said, “I knew things were getting worse for a lot of people, but I didn’t realize they were that bad.”

“It’s not just our library,” I said.  “She told me that it’s like that in libraries all over the country.  I had about the same reaction you did, and she asked me if I’d seen the new Oxfam report, Working for the Few.  When I said ‘no’ she told me I ought to read it, so I waited a few minutes until one of the computers came open and googled it.”

“What’s it say?” asked Patty, curious.

“It’s a 32 page pdf file,” I said, “so I didn’t print it all off, but here are the highlights.”  I skimmed through what I’d printed.  “They report that 70% of the world’s people live in countries where economic inequality has increased over the past 30 years.  They also say that ‘The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012’.”

“I guess I’m too focused on our own country,” said Patty.  “But really, what they’re describing is what you’d expect with multinational corporations getting a stranglehold on business worldwide."

 "What kind of stranglehold are you talking about?"

  "Oh, you know.  How all these trade agreements paved the way for companies to send jobs overseas, to poorer and poorer countries with pitiful wages.  First to Mexico, then to Taiwan and India and China.  Companies like Walmart squeeze their suppliers to make stuff cheaper and cheaper.  That’s all got to add up to something.”

“It sure does.  More profits for the big boys, more pain and less freedom for everybody else,” I said. 

"You know, we used to think of ourselves as the land of opportunity, where each generation could work and educate itself toward a better life than the one before," Patty mused.  "That looks as remote as the Garden of Eden now.  No more upward mobility; it’s downward mobility in high gear."  

"You got that right," I told her.  "The report says that ‘In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer’.” 

“Whoa!  Are you serious?” said Patty.

I kept on skimming the report.  “Listen to this.  The 85 richest people in the world own as much wealth as... take a guess.”

“Oh, you know I’m no good at this kind of thing, Ace.  Let me see.  Eighty-five people.  Hmm.  I’m going to guess they own as much as ... I’ll say the poorest one hundred million people.”

“You’re too kind, as always,” I said.  “The richest 85 own as much as ... the entire bottom half of the world’s population.  About 3.5 billion people.”

Patty gawked.  “Three and a half billion?” she exclaimed.  “Can I use your pencil and grocery bag for a minute?”

I watched while she did some quick division.  She looked up at me with a shocked expression.  “Ace,” she said, “if you average it out, each one of your  85 richest people has the same wealth as 41,176,470 poor people combined.”  

“One person’s wealth is equivalent to that of more than 41 million people?!” I asked incredulously.  “No way that’s fair or just or humane or right or democratic or .....”  I realized I was sputtering, and stopped.

“It’s wrong,” said Patty.  “It’s immoral.  It’s evil.”

“You know,” I told her, “even if the size of the actual numbers shocks us, it’s not as if we didn’t already have a pretty good idea that most of us are getting screwed.”

“That’s true,” she said, and we stood there for a moment.  

“Maybe people think the game’s already decided,” I said.   “It’s March madness, it’s the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, the NBA champion, the Super Bowl.  At the end of the season, there’s only one winner. Everybody can’t be a winner.”

Patty got a glint in her eye.  “You mean all of us except maybe 85 people are losers?  Seven billion of us are losers?  That’s what you’re saying?  It doesn’t matter to you that the game is rigged?”

“What do you mean, it’s rigged?”

“Oh come on, Ace.  Think about it.  The rich have the law on their side; they write the laws.  They own the courts.  They own Congress.  Now they’re buying up state legislatures.  They own the media that report the news--that decide what gets reported and how it’s reported.  They own the corporations we work for.  They run the universities our kids attend.  They see and hear everything we do or say on computers and telephones.  Doesn’t that sound like a stacked deck to you?”

“Remember that old American saying, ‘You can’t fight City Hall’,” I responded.

“Oh, great,”  snapped Patty.  “That’s a real banner for losers to gather under.  Give up without a fight!  That’s a sure-fire guarantee you lose.  What about those other old American sayings?  Where’s that land-of-the-free-and-home-of-the-brave-don’t-tread-on-me-government-of-the-people-by-the-people-for-the-people-all-men-are-created-equal spirit when it really matters?”

“Well, I’m no Crispus Attucks and you’re no Betsy Ross, but what do you think we ought to do about it?”

© Tony Russell, 2014

[Note: Readers who would like to see the full Working for the Few report can see it here.


Amber Snider- Bonitatibus said...

great post, loved it, hope many more people will read

Tony Russell said...

Thanks, Amber. Great to hear from you!