Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's not his problem, so he says

I've met a man with no social conscience.

I don't mean he has no conscience at all. He would never intentionally harm anyone, and he may even be capable of compassion for victims of crime, disease, or natural disasters. I don't know whether he gives money to any non-profit organization or charity, although I doubt that he does; someone else’s misfortune isn’t his business, and for every dollar he pays out, he demands something tangible in return.

When I say he has no social conscience, I mean that he cares little or nothing for people put out of work by the ongoing recession. He sees nothing inequitable in the fact that the chief executive officer of a major corporation gets to keep his obscene salary and perquisites while overseeing the financial ruination of hundreds of people whose work earned for him the obscene salary and perquisites. Rather than bemoan the loss of hundreds or even thousands of jobs and condemn the idiocy of CEOs whose bad business decisions led to the layoffs, my acquaintance believes we should rejoice that some people got to keep their jobs.

This attitude is not a "glass is half full" optimism, it is a myopic view of a world seen in black and white. A person makes a choice to work for a company and must then endure the consequences without complaint, regardless of what those consequences are. A person who has no job is unemployed because of choices he or she made, pure and simple. This man's belief system is simply that people are destitute, hungry, sick, addicted, and oppressed because of choices they made. The world in which young teen-age boys are given the "choice" of joining a gang or being beaten up is foreign to him. He knows nothing of the world in which teen-age girls are raped and then forced into prostitution, or given a choice between selling their bodies or slowly starving to death. There are laws, he says, there are tax-supported entities for these people to go to, and if they choose not to go, well, that's their choice. Never mind that the entities are grossly under-funded and over-worked and that there is never enough money to adequately police them. He sees only the lazy and the spoiled accepting money taken away from hard-working men like himself; to him the welfare queen driving a new luxury car (the model changes from season to season) is an article of faith.

I've known this man for years. We aren't close, but we do see each other and spend pleasant time together a few times a year, and over all those years I have tried to persuade him that, as citizens of this world, we affluent, middle-class Americans have a social obligation to help the less fortunate. And over all of those years, he has obstinately clung to the absolute denial of that obligation. Even after being laid off himself in the recent lending/banking/financing debacle, he refuses to believe that the chronically unemployed do not choose to be chronically unemployed. Of course, after being unemployed himself for several months, he used his personal fortune to start his own business. Would that it were that easy for all of the laid-off administrative assistants, production workers, clerical staffers, and gofers that make business possible in America today. Too bad for them that their cardboard boxes don't contain a small pile of cash with which to start their own businesses.

After a recent and long conversation with this new entrepreneur I came to realize that he literally does not care that the vagaries of life can turn well-intentioned, hard-working, law-abiding Americans into victims with no resources. He chose, as a very young man, to begin saving and investing, and if others his age have nothing to fall back on when finding themselves unemployed, unemployable, and far too young for retirement, well, that was their choice. Never mind that the very industry that paid him so well all those years actually discouraged saving and encouraged life lived on the plastic card at around twenty percent interest.

This man's lack of social conscience wouldn't disturb me except that I see it more and more among people I know. The urban legend of massive waste in government has taken on almost religious significance among neo-conservatives and self-styled libertarians. They ignore the reality that the most massive waste in government is that caused by private industry gouging the federal government. Budgets get cut, sure, but that only results in government workers joining the ranks of the unemployed, not in crackdowns on or prosecutions of contractors who bilk the Treasury. Like a Scientologist espousing the ideology of Xenu, the new conservatives preach that slashing taxes and cracking down on government will prevent government workers from wasting all of that money and allow free enterprise to better enrich all of us. Or, at least all of us who choose to join in the prosperity.

This blind faith will continue to assure that money spent on social programs is largely wasted. Erosion of the American social conscience means a declining willingness to help our fellow Americans who fall on hard times. Refusal to even recognize, let alone act on, our social obligations to our fellow human beings can only worsen the political polarization and growing class struggle that, unabated, may well consume our civilization.

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