Can Eight Suffice? Shall They Dine Alone?
As society advances we have watched new human rights and civil liberties emerge. Access to gender-appropriate toilets is hotly contested by transgenders today, as is access to literacy by students of one of Detroit’s revenue-starved school districts. These emerging rights are not always recognized by the courts – the Detroit suit was dismissed; but the scuffles they cause should alert us to the fact that, though the rights may be inalienable, knowledge of them is not innate. That knowledge evolves, and its progress correlates with the affluence of the society serving as its Pitri dish. Just as secondary pains surface as major pain subsides, so sentient creatures become transfixed by subtler needs once critical necessities have been addressed.
This is a product, as well, of the universality of acknowledged human rights. Once recognized, no right can be denied one community member and freely granted others. Naturally, as standards rise, so do demands for equal treatment. The students in Detroit sued merely to receive the quality educational buildings, staff, equipment, and materials routinely supplied schools in neighboring districts. Late in the 20thcentury, food stamp recipients sued for the right to use the coupons to buy Coca-Cola. Not a food by any stretch of the imagination, it was so popular a beverage that withholding that product from them, they claimed, stigmatized them – tantamount to discrimination. Their demand was granted.
The fact that our awareness of rights can evolve must alert us to the notion that such knowledge can also be repressed, confused, and distorted. Wholesale denial of rights to some groups based on invented racial deficiencies proved enormously profitable in the past, but such simple expropriation is too conspicuous to get through today’s courts. Yet tinkering with constituents’ understanding of their rights has proved well worthwhile.
This subtle process has been at work for some time as the most powerful members of the most powerful democracy in history expand their claims on Real Estate Earth. It involves chiseling away at citizens’ understanding of what the rights of others protect. (It’s easier to tailor the understanding of a third party’s rights than the rights of the person asked to judge. Generalization will occur after the damage has been done.) Recently such rhetoric was applied to foment public ambivalence over whether impoverished ailing citizens have a right to health insurance or must work for it.
There’s no doubt that the matter is subtle, complicated, and extremely expensive to litigate. Just as clear is how advantageous it is to the power elite to pat citizens’ rights into shapes that fit their baking dishes. Attending to the skirmishes that result as a constituency is broken serves overarching purposes as well: It makes it look like there’s a valiant struggle going on for truth and freedom while diverting attention from one right in particular that has been neglected altogether. Its total suppression has culminated in the catastrophic imbalance we are now witnessing in the distribution of the world’s wealth.
Our compliant citizenry – we of diminished rights – has supported commercial, industrial, and political processes that have churned out eight men who possess wealth equivalent to a hellish extension of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths – the lower half of the Earth’s population. It boggles the mind. When the dire circumstance was made known, those top eight men professed horror, shame, embarrassment, and – eager to prove they are worthy custodians of that wealth – admitted it was untenable. But in discussions of the ghastly disparity, the eight great were, for a unique moment in their astronomical trajectories, curiously clueless about what to do. Busy men that they are, their attention was soon drawn to other concerns. Little has been heard about the matter since, but it would be an interesting exercise to set down the taxonomy of U.S. citizens’ rights that fuels a furnace yielding so minute a prize for such a slag heap. Also of note would be what whisper campaigns were launched to explain the emergence of these eight top entrepreneurs as yet another proof that Americans are the freest people in the world.
More important, though, is simply unveiling the neglected right that would prevent so much ballast from ever sliding to one end of the zeppelin again. Since the eight great men won’t mention it, and the industry moguls won’t, and the superrich won’t, I will. And since acknowledgement of this right would cause the downfall of them all, I don’t expect anyone to pay the slightest attention to it. So, to waste space only, I set it down here.
Our legislators must enter into the code of our great democracy the instruction that each member of our community has a stake in the natural resources upon which the community thrives – including water, oxygen, trees, and dirt. That stake includes liquidation of those natural resources. That means – brace yourself, you eight great men – the wealth, capital, assets, and money returned from exploiting those resources, often on the backs of the very individuals denied – up until now – any share in that liquidation.
Granting this stake, and with it some say in how those resources are utilized, would make it impossible for societies to marginalize any portion of a population. Doing away with complicated formulas and algorithms, the net result would probably be a guaranteed minimum income for all, adjusted as the economy swells and stock market indexes rise. The rich would complain that they are buoying up a load of hangers-on, laggards, no-goods, and shirkers. But let them look again. The number among them making the big money is a small fraction of the petted population that proliferates as a result. As Thomas Piketty observed in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the lower half has been shoring up not only a contingent of eight great men through the fruits of its labor, good will, and very existence as consumers from which the markets have grown so fat, but all of their children, relatives, and divorced wives as well: the bulk of wealth today is inherited. The majority among the rich haven’t earned a thing (would you?). But they have gotten very, very good at spending all that money; in other words, they are laggards, hangers-on, no-goods, and shirkers, but they’re rich ones. That’s the difference, and it’s huge.
This miserable state of affairs would not be possible but for the smug wielders of lite rights, who have proven to be an excellent and malleable substratum for the growth of the world’s superrich. Their warped sense of where they stand is well illustrated in the neat trick Trump turned: slyly slipping through the U.S. legislature a repeal of the inheritance tax. I asked someone why he supported abolishing a tax that affects only the country’s richest. His answer was pugnacious and proud: “I am going to be there. Very soon.”
Who told him that?