Tag Archives: wealth

what you do when no one is looking

13 Jun

In The Little Princess by F. H. Burnett, the main character – a young girl called Sara who starts life the daughter of an affluent Englishmen riding the boom of colonialism – falls from her position upon her father’s death and finds herself poor and friendless. Having just traded in her furs and silks for the rags of a scullery maid, Sara wonders whether she, who has been always told she is a good child, really is one. Is she truly kind and gracious, or was she merely so generous because with her wherewithal, it was easy for her to be?

Goodness, as it turns out, is very often a luxury item.

I am currently rather poor. I am lucky to have friends and roommates who can cover rent and keep me off the streets and step in when unavoidable costs carry a few too many zeroes for me to be able to handle them on my own, and who apparently even enjoy buying me coffee and lunch sometimes. I am incredibly lucky, as this allows me to allocate my income to necessities like food and medication and bus fare. It’s a precarious game, but I’m currently making my life work through the gift of social affluence.

But monetarily, I am dirt poor.

Reference scale: My ability to transport myself around L.A. can switch over the gain or loss of a single dollar.

Today, at the Springfield airport, a food vendor gave me incorrect change.

They’d given me a dollar more than I was due.

And while back in college, when what I did and did not need to pay for was different and the impact of cost scaled differently, I probably would have not hesitated to hand back that dollar, would have felt not a single qualm – today, I felt it.

I had been given a dollar. An extra dollar. That was one more bus ride I could pay for. One more granola bar. One unit closer to being able to buy a new pair of shorts, one that wasn’t years old and close to literally falling apart at the seams.

I wanted that dollar.

But that dollar was not mine.

Mentally, I went through the math again and yes, that dollar was definitely not my due. But it was just a dollar. I could walk away. No one would notice. It wasn’t like I was taking much.

But the dollar. wasn’t. mine.

And what’s more, the food vendor hadn’t given me any reason to want to take more from them. There was no karmic justice in me walking away with that dollar. The cashier had been professional, efficient, polite, even friendly. The vendor, as far as I know, wasn’t some chain with terrible corporate practices. They had done nothing to me that required restitution. Honestly, if the cashier had been some massive jerk, I maybe wouldn’t have felt so bad about contemplating walking away with that dollar. Yeah, they’d have to go through the cash register at the end of the day and try to figure out why their sales weren’t squaring up. Were off by a dollar. Just one dollar. So maybe they’d just made an addition mistake… maybe it was really there, and they’d just missed it… maybe if they just… checked again…

If I’d been somehow massively inconvenienced or wronged, maybe I could have justified inflicting those consequences for the sake of having that extra dollar. Maybe, very probably, I would have been fine with implementing that sort of system.

Or maybe I would have given the dollar back anyway. Because as much as I theoretically can support less-than-perfect actions, I carry around way too much guilt, or something, to really be able to carry out those actions myself.

Yeah. I gave the dollar back.

And while it is no great thing, giving a single dollar back to a vendor that gave you too much change – internally, for me, it still meant something.

It was an opportunity, to show myself, at least, that my goodness doesn’t just scale with my bank account. That I am honest, even when it’s very hard to afford to be. That my values last, even when they carry real cost. Even when I could have justified taking advantage of a minor slip to gain a little bit for myself.

It’s relieving, in a way. To know that at least in this small way I will actually act in reality how I’d say I would, were the scenario presented as a thought exercise. That I’d behave the way that elementary school-aged me reading The Little Princess would have told me that of course I was supposed to behave.

I like knowing that I am who I think I am, even when no one is looking.


The economic meritocracy is broken. Let’s ditch.

15 Nov
I here the internet likes cats and infographics.

I hear the internet likes cats.

The world can’t be a meritocracy; the reward system isn’t even.

By which I mean, there’s a whole lot of disparity in the way that the world’s resources get distributed. Where “resources” means food, water, shelter, medicine, money – and pretty much everything else.

Guys, this is not ok.

So, call me a crazy anarchist hippy, or whatever political term of undearment (yes, spelling is intentional) you prefer, but generally, I think that people should pretty much be able to do whatever they want, as long as it’s not hurting other people (or, you know, themselves) in the short or long term. Yes, sure, go out and spend your money however you want, as long as you’re not buying mass amounts of mercenaries or heroine or something.

But, well, purchases are not made in isolation. And unfortunately, it appears that how we spend the resources of the world around us is currently a zero-sum game. Which means that while you’re not directly hurting anyone by buying your second mansion – or second latte – there are other people who because you made that purchase instead of giving the money (or the resource it could have bought) to them aren’t able to get their kid’s dinner, or their wife’s medication.

Now, I’m not saying “go out and donate every fucking chance you get.” There are waaaaay too may organizations out there, for just about every cause there is, for donating to every single one of them to do much good. Not all organizations are made equal, and not all money goes straight to funding what you thought it was. And besides, I get that not everybody out there has spare change to give. It’s okay for people to want to maintain a reasonably enjoyable standard of life. This is not entirely a “people don’t give enough money away” problem – it’s a corruption and inefficiency and societal structure problem as well.

But… still, on a pretty fundamental level, it is a problem with the way people spend money. There are tons of people out there who far surpass the “reasonably enjoyable standard of life” level. Millionaires. Billionaires. Hundreds-of-thousands-aires.

And then there’s our government. Oh god, our government. I’m referring specifically to the one that sits around most of the day in an air-conditioned building in Washington, DC (except for when they, you know, decide they don’t want to talk to each other anymore for a few weeks…), though what I’m about to say is probably true for pretty much every government. The US head haunchos collect so much fucking money every year, largely in the form of taxes from the lower and middle class, and is absolutely terrible at spending it. Because instead of funding domestic aid programs and poverty-prevention programs and welfare options for women fleeing abuse and higher salaries for teachers and a whole bunch of other things that might actually help relieve a lot of the poverty and homelessness in this country, it’s somehow more necessary that the government buy even shinier weapons for our military (because apparently wars are won through an our-technological-dicks-are-bigger-than-yours contest or something…), even as we by and large forget about the actual military people after they’re done shooting guns at non-Americans.

But anyhoo. That’s a really long rant, and there’s still a slightly different direction that I’d actually prefer to take this.

Let’s discuss a solution.


Now, what I’m about to propose may sound like heresy. And yes, I understand that it would involve massive global reform, all the way from the level of the government down to local NGO’s, but with the understanding that I’m taking the spherical cow physics problem approach here, let’s move forward.

So – what if we just finally sucked it up and decided that we are in fact living as a collective pool of humans with a collective pool of resources, instead of a bunch of individuals who just don’t give a fuck about anyone we don’t actually have to deal with, as long as we can have that second latte every day?

I know it may sound like “raging dangerous communism,” but what if we had a “third party” (NOT our government, which already sucks at just doing its own job) decide who’s getting taxed how much and how all of that collective money is being spent (I know, I know, oh god, all the logistics), and see if we can’t do a better job of spreading around our polio vaccinations and PB&J’s?

“But I don’t need the government telling me how to spend my money!” Oh how many times I’ve heard this one. I understand. Yes, you have worked hard for that money. And it’s not optimal that someone else would take some away. But you did not make that money in a vacuum. And because all the collective money-spenders of the world haven’t seemed to do much besides make things worse while they’ve been running around without anyone really telling them what to do with all their dollars and cents, it’s time someone steps in and tells them how to clean this all up.

Think about it. How similar does this all sound to a belligerent teenager with a messy room? Yes, he knows his room is starting to sprout its own ecosystem, but it’s Friday night and there’s a party, and he’s worked hard on his homework all week, so doesn’t he deserve to go out and have a little fun?!

You know what that teenager’s mom is going to do? She’s going to tell him that he already had a little fun at that other party last week, that she’s been asking him to clean his room for weeks now, and since he still hasn’t done it, she’s freezing his assets – a.k.a. the car keys – until he’s learned to show proper respect for the rest of the people living in his house and not let his room turn into the source of a house-wide mold infection – or at least get rid of whatever rancid pizza box is causing that retched stench. And – if the teenager’s got a particularly vindictive mother – that mom might even tell her son that hey, his sister hasn’t been able to use the car for three weeks, so it’s her turn to have the keys anyway, never mind that he’s paying more towards the car insurance and gets better grades than she does. Because we were all supposed to learn share back in, like, kindergarten. And when you live in a collective, whether it’s a family of four or a world of almost seven billion, you base resource distribution on the recognition that there is another human being standing before you, not on what kind of “productivity value” has been arbitrarily assigned them by the luck of the draw that is existence. Because think about it in terms of a family; if members were given resources based on how much economic productivity they contributed to the family, live-in grandpas and hospital-bound newborns would be shit outta luck.

Because again, you can’t make the world a meritocracy when its reward system is broken. In the urban US, working 50 hours a week might get you enough to pay for a nice studio apartment, eat out a few times a week, and take a yearly vacation. In rural Pakistan, working 50 hours a week will get you a sore back, a sunburn, and oh man, your kids didn’t starve to death! Though oh hey, your medication-less wife did still die of a totally treatable infection…

So, how about until we’ve managed to become responsible global teenagers and cleaned up the world’s resource disparity, we freeze some people’s assets, reallocate what we have, and create a mother figure (you know, crowd-sourcing knowledge is a thing…) who can tuck in all the respective governments for a nap until they stop throwing hissy fits and learn to share better? Sound like a plan?

Yes, I know, it would be almost impossibly difficult.

But then again, people said that about airplanes too.

Did I mention that I just bought tickets for a flight on Monday?



Feel like shouting yet? The awesome Harry Potter Alliance has a plan (Hunger Games-based, brilliantly enough) to make some noise at our own Capitol about how we feel about all this economic inequality: