Some 5,000 years ago in what was once thought to be the centre of the earth, the lands of the medi (middle) terra (earth), humans recognized that some things were unfair. Sometimes rain fell in such abundance that fields became swamps. At other times, rain failed to fall, and crops crumbled into desert dust. Those who prospered, those who had grain in abundance perceived the need to share. Thus, it was codified and written into law that farmers leave open the corners of their fields, making all four corners accessible to the less fortunate. Remember Boaz, the wealthy landowner who spotted Ruth, the widowed Moabite daughter-in-law of his relative Naomi, gleaning grain in his fields?
What is the modern equivalent? What are the current corners of our fields? Now that we live mostly in large cities and land is no longer the sole source of our wealth, how do we ensure at the very least that there is food on every table along with potable drinking water, even on remote reserves? Surely humans have made vast strides intellectually, scientifically and ethically in the past 5,000 years! If people back then already had a rudimentary sense of fairness, how can modern civilizations claim that humans are selfish beasts at best? How has it come about that everyone prattles about “loving thy neighbour” but sees no problem in excusing him/herself from any obligation to do so? Does making whatever degree of charitable donations excuse us from the obligation to create a world in which there is a place for each human being? We are horrified today at Nazi concepts of ridding the world of the mentally infirm, the physically challenged, the elderly, entire communities ranging from Jews and Roma to LBGTQ+. How, then, have we decided that it’s acceptable for some to be exceedingly wealthy while others live on handouts? When did we agree to allow what increasingly seems like an obscene gap between rich and poor?
I’ve no doubt that Jeff Bezos had a clever idea when he created Amazon, and that running such an enterprise takes skill, courage, and vision. And yes, effort deserves to be rewarded. But by how much? Is there not something outrageous, something that screams “This is morally wrong” about this headline and the two following sentences?
Jeff Bezos Sold $3.4bn of Amazon stock Just Before Covid-19 Collapse. Millions of people across the world have lost their jobs, and trillions of dollars have been wiped off the value of stock markets. But not everyone has lost out. Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, benefited this week from the best three-day stock market rally since 1933.Rupert Neate. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/27/jeff-bezos-sold-34bn-of-amazon-stock-just-before-covid-19-collapse
As I write, we sit in social isolation, millions upon millions of people paralyzed with fear. Fear of catching this dread virus, or of having a loved one succumb. Additional millions, probably billions of people are worried about putting food on the table and providing basic necessities. Meanwhile, our politicians take on the role of Big Daddy. “Fear not,” they tell us. “I will wave my magic wand, and money will appear.” The United States, as always in my lifetime and yours, claims to be taking the lead. Two trillion is the latest figure I saw, promised to “the hard-working people of America.” 17 billion dollars – reported by other news sources as closer to 50 or 60 billion – being billed by some as “Boeing Bailout.” The numbers blur, and the mind boggles. How does an ordinary human make sense of such figures? Do presidents have available to them some bank-in-the- sky containing endless amounts of cash? Haven’t we heard for years about the need to have “balanced” budgets? Does printing money not already collected in taxes lead to inflation and even greater problems? Can debt simply be off-loaded and placed upon the shoulders of some future generation? Isn’t that what happened after WWI when Germany, having borrowed more than it could repay to finance the war, was then been hit with enormous reparations that the Allied victors demanded as their pound of flesh? After the war, Germans went about with wheelbarrows filled with bills for even the most basic items. Workers were paid by the day lest their money become valueless overnight. What have we learned from this?
Describing a pianist (daughter of a formerly prosperous household now playing piano in a nightclub, Ken Follett writes:
She left the club and went straight to the bakery. It was dangerous to hold on to money: by evening, your wages might not buy a loaf. Several women were already waiting outside the shop in the cold. At half past five the baker opened the door and chalked up his prices on a board. Today a loaf of black bread was 127 billion marks.Ken Follett, Fall of Giants, N.Y.Signet, a Penguin Random House Company, 2012, p.914
Do we, can we, should we go back to “normal”? To life as it was? If governments are capable of rescuing those who have been impacted economically by Covid-19, are (and should) governments not also be responsible for all who will lose their employment through advances in technology? When the last few remaining sales clerks have gone the way of the gas jockey, when stores as we knew them vanish because people have become accustomed to the convenience of on-line shopping and delivery to their doorstep, how will all those ordinary people find work? Will drones eventually even replace the current demand for delivery truck drivers?
I’ve tried to reach out to the handful of people in my world who have some economic expertise and insight. So far, the silence has been deafening. Perhaps you, dear reader of this blog, have some creative thoughts about our future world. I’d welcome your feedback.
“When did we agree to allow what increasingly seems like an obscene gap between rich and poor?” Part of the answer is that not all countries do tolerate such obscene gaps. The US is an outlier, but as OECD data reveal, many countries, including Canada, do better — sometimes significantly better — in adopting well-known policies aimed at tempering inequality. So perhaps the question should be reframed: why is addressing inequality a priority in some countries but not in others?
Similarly, if Covid19 resulted economically in no more than corporate bailouts, it might well accentuate inequality. Since, however, in this country at least the rescue package is much more broadly based, it is less likely to do so. The devil, of course, is in the details, and those are still being rolled out.
Finally, since the younger generation will benefit from any rescue package, and all the rest of us will be joining them in paying it off, I am not sure how grave the issue of intergenerational injustice really is.