The ethics of paying poorly

Part III of a three-part series

Money does not change the sickness, only the symptoms. “The Winter of Our Discontent” by John Steinbeck

Last week, I offered a challenging question: How, in heaven’s name, do we expect people to survive? The people to whom I am referring are public employees: teachers, police officers, fire and EMS personnel, county and other government office staff, post office clerks and managers, etcetera and so on. But I should also include those in the private realm working for less-than-livable wages: service station attendants, wait staff, trash haulers, etcetera and so on.

One wonders how the richest nation in history can sleep with itself. Easy: Disregard the plight of others and focus on one’s own. Except that, other than the naïve, we intuitively know we’re in this together. It’s called community, which, in the public realm, can be as small as a neighborhood, small town, or county or as large as a nation or the world.

We are a communitarian species. It’s in our DNA. We evolved that way, interdependent upon others to survive. That became especially true with the rise of the Agrarian Revolution when we moved into permanent settlements. That’s when the true libertarians went extinct, going the way of the hunter-gatherers.

An underlying message of 21st-century I-did-it-my-way individualism is to distrust the other, even your neighbor, because he/she is out to bilk you. Yep, there are connivers, charlatans, and cheaters ready to lift your wallet, but the hard truth is that they aren’t only online fraud purveyors, but well-dressed, well-coiffed, glib-sounding hucksters claiming they’re looking out for you. The old axiom, “If a deal sounds too good to be true, it is,” is as valid as ever.

New-age individualism also blames the victim, no matter his/her circumstances. It’s never the system. That’s the core of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Yes, there are those who choose paths that cause them considerable grief. But then there are many others who despite all their concerted efforts are not able to be “successful” let alone make a great living financially.

Capitalism is predicated on that: winners and losers. The most brilliant, innovative entrepreneur can have the greatest idea since sliced bread, but if he/she doesn’t have workers to put his/her plan into action, his/her idea might as well be a castle in the clouds.

Clear Creek is a microcosm of the state and nation. It’s becoming prohibitive for many hard-working folks, both natives and newcomers, to find affordable, livable housing. I recently had one gentleman, who was considering bidding on a job here, tell me he had to decline because a Clear Creek house comparable to his metro-area home would be about a sixty-percent increase.

Shortly after I talked to him, I ran into a public employee friend who sighed and commented about how one day she would like to retire but, given her salary and the state of public retirement pension plans, wondered if she ever could.

Stories like his and hers abound across our local community to the national community.

I recently reread Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent.” Set in 1960, he tells the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, the scion of old New England family. Ethan’s father managed to lose the family’s wealth accumulated over the centuries leaving Ethan to pick up the pieces. He was reduced from being the owner of the local market to the clerk. Events and people in his life, including his family, prompt Ethan to abandon his principles. He does and…

Steinbeck had a way to cut through the din and clutter of our lives and distill what’s ailing us into a succinct point. Note my introductory quote from the novel.

Americans find happiness in material accumulation, financial success. We can agree money doesn’t buy happiness, but that doesn’t prevent people from trying often leading to dire consequences. Read Steinbeck.

The Center for Disease Control has issued a finding showing the marked increase in suicide since 1999 in every state except Nevada. The majority had no prior mental health issues. The primary reason: financial.

We might have lost our way, but that doesn’t mean the way is lost. To find it, it’s critical we shut off the noise and listen to one another not with our passions but with our hearts.

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