It was recently announced on ESPN, the voice of sports that only seems to grow louder yet rarely says anything worth hearing, the Indiana Pacers’ talented player Paul George, who recently broke his leg in two places, injured himself on the day of the delivery of his $370,000 custom-made Ferrari. In its report, the irony of the car being delivered the day of George’s injury was noted, but not the slightest hint that in this day and age such a thing is just a bit obscene. Karma? Divine retribution? Or is it none of my business?

There are those who say that a talented basketball player who makes mega-bucks is entitled to spend his money the way he wants to. It’s his. He earned it honestly, and it’s no one’s business how he spends it — except, obviously, ESPN’s. They make pretty much anything remotely related to sports their business.

But from where I sit, it seems not only obscene, but even a bit immoral — if something can be a “bit” immoral. Given that there are millions of people on the planet who can’t put food on the table and/or have no place to call home, it seems wrong for any one person to spend that kind of money on a car. I would argue as follows: a person’s responsibility is a function of his ability to act. For example, if I see a crime being committed and have an operable cell phone, I have an obligation to call 911. Recall the outrage expressed over the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York which was witnessed by a number of people who took no action whatever. Responsibility is a function of ability, which includes knowledge, though ignorance may not be an excuse. Presumably, I know that 911 is the number of the police. If I don’t know it, I should.

Analogously, if a person makes a great deal of money and is able to make a difference, no matter how small, it seems he has an obligation to do so. If one insists that Paul George may not know about the people in need, I would say this is irrelevant. He should know, especially in an age of information overload. It’s not a huge secret and we all have an obligation to know as much as we can about the world in which we live — if for no other reason than to try to make it a better place. After all, it’s what it means to be a civilized human being, isn’t it?

But, it might be the case that Paul George gives a great deal of his money to charity and this instance of self-indulgence may be a rare example of his lack of concern for others. This is possible. ESPN hasn’t told me whether or not Paul George is a charitable person. I doubt  they will, since it lacks the sensational element that that their many sponsors are eager to pay for. But the purchase of this particular “custom-made” car is self-indulgence on a grand scale, and that alone makes it worth reflection. It just seems to me that if a person is in a position to help another who is in need, he ought to do so. Further, at some point, buying expensive toys that we simply don’t need is obscene. I’m just sayin’……

Cheap Trick

An ongoing story in Yahoo News has captivated the curious who peruse the internet. It begins as follows:

A man claiming to be a pastor apparently tried to stiff a waiter on a tip, explaining that his work for God absolved him of having to leave one.

A photo of the receipt, posted to Reddit.com, shows a bill for $34.93 with an automatic 18 percent gratuity (or $6.29) added above a blank space for an additional tip.

“I give God 10%,” the diner wrote on the receipt, scratching out the automatic tip. “Why do you get 18?” He then wrote “Pastor” above his signature, and an emphatic “0” where the additional tip would be. (The automatic gratuity, however, had already been added to the total.)

Photo from Yahoo News

Photo from Yahoo News

In a follow-up story it turns out the waiter was in fact a waitress who took a photo of the bill and posted it on her Facebook page. It went, as they say, “viral” and came to the attention of the pastor who is  a woman named Alois Bell a  minister for the Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries Church (I am NOT making this up. I couldn’t possibly), who became furious and complained to the manager of the restaurant who subsequently fired the waitress.

Apparently, as the initial story goes on to relate, the waitress was serving a table of 20, which is why the gratuity was figured into the total bill. Customers were encouraged to leave more if they thought the waitress’ good work deserved it. Instead this customer decided to leave a nasty note. This raises a number of interesting points.

To begin with, the waitress clearly lost her cool in putting a photograph “out there” on the internet with enough of the signature showing that it became an invasion of privacy. But why did this customer have to be nasty to someone who works hard for a living? She could have simply kept her opinion to herself and left the table and complained to her companions after she left the restaurant. But that’s a small thing. The second thing is that waiters work for a meager wage and if they do a good job they should be rewarded. I used to carry groceries out to cars when I worked in a grocery store while in high school for 80 cents an hour and the tip of a dollar here and there positively made my day. I suspect that is the norm: the waiters work for low wages and when they do a good job they hope that their work will be rewarded with a nice tip — certainly not a snide remark.

But this raises the third point: Could a so-called “woman of God” who brags of her 10% gift to God be so uncharitable as to rub this waitress’ nose in the fact that in this customer’s mind she doesn’t deserve the “huge” tip that she felt she had earned? Why the snide remark and the huge “0” to turn the knife in the wound? It is hard to fathom, but those of us who are gradually giving up on so many of their fellow humans who are increasingly wrapped up in their own little world where they are king or queen and the rest of the world is expected to wait on them (for free) point to examples like this one to make a case for total cynicism.

I keep reminding myself that this sort of thing is the exception, not the rule. But as it becomes more common it is hard to resist the temptation to draw the opposite conclusion. I realize that the media fasten on stories like this one because they know such stories will bring readers or viewers to them, but that in itself is grounds for complaint. There are good people out there (I will hang on to that thought) and they are doing good things. Their stories aren’t that interesting, perhaps, so they don’t get told.

I recall reading somewhere that Dante sailed through the writing of the “Inferno,” which was the first part of his Divine Comedy. But when he came to writing about Paradise the writing became more labored. He found that it is easier to write about sin and wickedness, and harder to write about bliss and beauty.  And I dare say more people read the “Inferno” than the “Paradiso.”  So, I suppose, we will continue to hear stories about snotty customers who claim to be religious persons totally lacking in Christian charity. And we won’t hear a thing about those customers who told the waiter “good job” and left an additional 5%.

Friends In Need, Friends Indeed

I have a very dear friend whom I correspond with from time to time and we respectfully agree to disagree on most matters political. She recently wrote on her Facebook page a note regarding her frustration over some of the issues that the current election has raised:

I have a job. I make money. I have a choice of what to do with my money. I can decide to save some of my money or spend all of my money. I decide to save some of my money. Now I have to decide how do I want to save my money. I can put it under my mattress. I can keep it in my checking account. I can start a savings account. I can invest it. I decide to invest it. Now I have to decide what kind of investment. My decision to invest has worked out well for me. I make money. Now I have to decide, within the law, what to do with my money. I find out, with advice, I can save my money in different ways.
It is my money, I am within the law, but others have what they think is a better way to use or do with my money. But it is my money. I haven’t broken any laws. I am generous and giving with my money. But others think I am not generous and giving enough with my money. Why do others want my money or tell me what I should be doing with my money? What is wrong with this picture?

This is an interesting note and one worthy of reflection. My friend has a point: it’s her money, where do other people come off telling her where it should be spent?

Unfortunately, we live in a country where the government claims the right to take some of our money and spend it the way they think it should be spent. I also disagree with much of the way my money is spent, and I am frustrated by the waste and abuse. But I recognize the fact that I have little to say about it and as long as I choose to remain in this country I must play by the rules. For example, I would love to see “defense” spending greatly reduced and the money spent on clean energy, health and human services, and education. But I have no say in the matter, unfortunately. Neither does my friend.

For years now I have watched an elderly man walk by my house on his way to work at the local factory. He carries his lunch pail and he walks slowly back and forth like clockwork every day. I worked for years at the regional state university where my salary was paid for by people like the man who walks by my house every day. I have fed at the public trough and I have managed to do quite well. My friend, quoted above, also ate from that same trough and she has managed to do well also. We are the lucky ones, because we made it to retirement. The man I spoke about no longer walks by my house: he has been laid off due to “downsizing” at the local factory — after 20 years of loyal service working on an assembly line putting cabinets together. Now it’s my turn to help him, I figure. He can eat out of the public trough for a while until he can get back on his feet. Why not? It only seems fair.

As I say, I don’t choose where my tax money goes. But I am delighted to know that at least some of it goes to help out people like the man who walks by — and another friend of mine, a former public school superintendent who has been laid off, lost his house, and watched his life fall apart before his eyes. These people are not lazy bums. They are people who need our help and yet we begrudge it because it is “our” money. I  would prefer to think of it as a loan. We have it for a time and we certainly don’t need it all; when others need it they should be welcome to it. I don’t suffer unduly because these people are now feeding out of the public trough. I ate out of it for many years. Now it’s their turn.

The Rich Get Richer

As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as mentioned before the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what the hell is going on. I recently blogged that 26 U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they paid in taxes in the year 2011. The following chart tells the bigger story:

The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman at the top enough $$ they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.

The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffpost tells us:

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work  struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse.

Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person is a blog-buddy who made the following comment on a recent post I wrote about the “typical pauper.” He said: ”

The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).

Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat Visa bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there is always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those in the yellow box above. How do you cope?  Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!

My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity.

A Moral Dilemma

I am convinced by such minds as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that when people are simply handed things they become dependent upon the handout and consequently lose their freedom. David Hume thought that giving alms to beggars was a mistake for the same reason. Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor puts it in theological terms, but the point is well stated that humans want bread and miracles and they want things handed to them even at the cost of their freedom. But that is a price many think worth paying. Freedom, after all, is accompanied with responsibility and that is a terrible burden. Dostoevsky thought socialism was the offspring of the devil precisely because he thought humans become dependent upon the state; they must be free or they cease to be humans, they become “denizens of an ant heap.”

On the other hand, I am aware, as were these men, that there are those in our society in genuine need, people who are born into poverty and need and simply cannot work their way out. There are cynics who say these people get what they deserve, the social Darwinists who insist that the fittest should survive and the rest be damned. But I note that those who say this are almost always among the survivors — and in many cases they prosper precisely because have had things go their way and have never known need, much less dire poverty.

So the dilemma is clear: we deprive humans of their freedom by giving them a handout and running the risk that they become dependent upon that handout and thus become less than human. On the other hand, we ignore those in need and turn our backs on them so they will retain their freedom, even if they should starve to death.

The solution seems almost too simple: we err on the side of charity which, as the New Testament reminds us, is the “greatest” of the Christian virtues — a virtue that is missing in many Eastern religions that embrace “a tolerance devoid of charity,”  as Arthur Koestler reminds us. Those who are charitable are rewarded in helping others by becoming more human themselves. Socialism is not a viable economic system, in my view, because it undermines initiative and rewards laziness — both serious character flaws. But it is more charitable than capitalism with its stress on greed and the attendant corruption. Socialism’s appeal is moral, not economic. And as such it is the preferable alternative. But in between the two economic systems one would hope to discover a system in which those with talent and ability can accomplish much and acquire wealth proportionately while at the same time those less fortunate than themselves are encouraged but not ignored. In this dream world, all remain free and fully human. Whether or not we could ever realize such a system is doubtful, of course. But we make a mistake to embrace one or the other of the economic poles while ignoring the possibility that there might be a compromise in which all win out. The problem is to find the middle ground, where people and governments are charitable and help others without those who are helped becoming “denizens of an ant heap.”

What Would Jesus Say?

The latest action opposing the teachings of the New Testament has recently come out of a church in Kentucky where we read: “Nine members of Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church backed their former pastor, with six opposed, in Sunday’s vote to bar interracial couples from church membership and worship activities. Funerals were excluded.” Reading this put me in mind of an incident that took place during my first year as an undergraduate in Annapolis, Maryland. One of my classmates, an African-American woman made the “mistake” of attending a Catholic Church near the college on a Sunday. She was met at the door by the priest after the service who told her that there was another Church on the other side of town that she should attend; she should not go back to his church.

What’s going on here? One must assume that members of the congregation are uncomfortable having to socialize with people who have a different lifestyle or different colored skin. But isn’t that what the New Testament is all about? — making people uncomfortable, people who have been aptly described by E.M. Forster in The Longest Journey, people who “live together without love. They work without conviction. They seek money without requiring it. They die, and nothing will have happened, either for themselves or for others.” Don’t such people need to be awakened, disturbed out of their complacency and self-absorbed, materialistic lives and led to higher, spiritual pursuits that will almost certainly require sacrifice and even, at times, unpleasantness, but which will almost certainly be  better? One begins to wonder if the Churches have forgotten their mission, which is to lead people to an imitation of Christ, and away from business as usual.

The pastor of the Baptist Church in Kentucky took the lead in building walls between his congregation and those would become members of that congregation, based, no doubt, on a selective reading of the Bible. As I read it, Christ preached love, not hate, charity not bigotry. In Matthew, Christ says “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Note the inclusive “all” here.

The vote of these pious Baptists echoes the political movement to foster hatred of gays — who are also God’s children — and prohibit marriages between couples who aren’t just like us. But it is clearly antithetical to the New Testament where Christ’s words are recorded and where one can find only open arms and a willingness to embrace everyone (including thieves and prostitutes) and where one cannot find proscriptions against universal membership in a church that pretends to preach His word.

Of considerable interest to me is the exception of funerals. Are these fools trying to say something? Or just throwing a bone to demonstrate that they are not complete idiots? Too little, too late.

A Good Corporation?

I am the first to point out the shortcomings and travesties of large corporations that put profits above people. One of the major corporations that heads the list because of its treatment of its employees and its inclination to buy cheap goods from third world countries is Walmart. There is no end of the bad press this company has received over the years, and deservedly so. Among other things, during the latest violence in the stores on Black Friday, the name “Walmart” kept coming up and there is no question they took the lead in encroaching on Thanksgiving in order to get customers out early buying their product. And this is not the first year Walmart has been in the headlines on the day after Thanksgiving.

But, then, there is another side to the story and it is a relief to read that Walmart partners with “Second Harvest,” a Twin Cities food bank that feeds the hungry and does immense good each year. In fact, Walmart has helped provide 197 million meals of late in the form of meat, fresh produce, and other nutritious foods. In addition, they have pledged $2 billion in cash, equipment and food through 2015. As the director of Second Harvest says, “That’s just a mind-blowing investment.” It comes in the form not only of food but also refrigerated food trucks that play an essential part in food-rescue efforts.

Walmart has long been involved in charitable giving, including millions of dollars in scholarships. But these gifts often seemed like a publicity ploy designed to off-set the image the company was getting as an exploiter of its own employees and one of the most greedy of the profit-seekers. This latest step has been taken on the quiet and dwarfs previous efforts in the good it will do for people in a time of real hardship.

Cynics will say this is a huge write-off for the company, and this is true. But, again, it is also an act of generosity that will help feed hungry people in an economy when their numbers are growing. We need to see this as a good thing to balance out the picture we have of large corporations that can’t see beyond the bottom line. Those companies are still out there and they dominate the landscape. But it is nice to know that there is some good hiding amidst all the short-sightedness.