Monday, June 23, 2014

For the 1%? Politics of Jesus (Monday 23 June 2014)

I am not long back from a lovely weekend in Auckland which included a conference/stay at a top hotel (disclaimer: not paid for with church funds!), a sortee on Friday evening and yesterday lunch time to middle of the road eating establishments, and general mixing with a wide range of people.

At certain points I felt I was touching the 1% rather than the 99% (re the current division of the world into the super rich and the rest of us). A Lamborghini parked outside the hotel at one point, by most stretches of the imagination, is not a car owned by the merely well off. At other points moving through Auckland's central city seemed to provide a flow of evidence of our prosperity in general terms: lots of people enjoying a Friday night out on the town - too many of them to imply that 1% were out and about buying an ice cream here or a hamburger there while the 99% were stuck at home or under a bridge longing enviously for a better life.

But there was evidence of a lack of participation in general prosperity: beggars on the streets.

Prompting the writing down of these observations was an article in yesterday's Sunday Star Times (I cannot find a link) about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the ongoing global response to the book, in particular to his idea of a tax on capital which is then redistributed to the world's poor.

With our election looming ever closer, and descending ever more quickly into farce (as, for overseas readers, we are daily treated to stories drip fed to us about previous indiscretions about rich people donating clandestinely to parties), I see few signs of any serious debate about redistribution of the Piketty kind.

On the one hand we have some very rich people influencing the course of the election, on both the right and the left (Key, Craig, Dotcom). On the other hand we have the party best situated to lead a discussion on redistribution (Labour) in disarray.

Indeed, on Saturday night I heard Ginette Macdonald give a stand up comedy routine. Her best zinger of the evening was this:

I don't vote for any of the organised parties.

I vote Labour.


Caleb said...

When it comes to redistribution of income/wealth, I think it's important to remember that property and economic systems redistribute wealth from the commons/nobody/God to certain people/bodies; redistribution is not only done through taxation. For example, Piketty's thesis is how capitalism redistributes wealth primarily to the owners of capital.

I'm often reminded of this Kurt Vonnegut quote: "Should the nation's wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”

Anonymous said...

My guess is that a high proportion of those partying were young, without children, and in debt.

They are not the 1%. The 1% are sensible with their money, and don't fling it around in conspicuous consumption. They are more likely to look like the beggar than like the "rich".

Many of the "beggars" are also not the poor - or at least not poor in money. They might be poor in wise choices in life and they might be poor in ethics. (Many if not most of them get benefits for the fact they have no "income" after all.)

Michael Primrose said...

Hi Peter,

I remember those last, shining days of Babylon the Golden.

Sometimes it’s better to write about things you have no knowledge of, so for years I had avoided making my secular pilgrimage to the City of the Hills, San Francisco. However, I was supporting a friend and a new President looked certain to be elected. The air of the City was pregnant with Hope; Hope ever springing, but never quite reaching your Dreams.

The streets weren’t paved with yellow bricks, but there was beauty and arrogance in abundance. At intervals, along the Castro, were hosts of the cutest, young men I had ever seen, sitting as charming ever-smiling beggars. Even those on the street had to be pretty.

I ventured into one of those shops, full of Everything Possible Rainbow, that cater to the tourist carriage trade. All those chic doodads which are ideal for the closet back in Smalltown, USA. It was there, by the cash register, that I saw them, that most needful accessory for the knowledgeable flâneur; the absolute ne plus ultra.

Designer badges, bumper stickers, window cards, and desk toys all with one stark, clarion call “No Handouts!”

I am too English and old-fashioned, or vice versa, to make a public protestation and display of my beliefs, but I will admit, reluctantly, that somewhere, deep in that part of me that is passing spiritual and vaguely sees, in the distance, the yonder god, my sense of “What Is Right” was revolted.

There, in the midst of all the freedom and splendour that was Babylon the Golden, the question “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” was answered with a resounding, grasping “No!”. The criteria for civic citizenship were high and demanding, and a failure to catch the dream was treated with harshness and contempt; nary a crumb for a sparrow that falls.

Trailing thunder, after a few choice words, I stormed out of the store doodadless and put money into the cap of each beggar down the hill of Castro, and threw in a smile and a few kind words as I went. I make no claim to exceptional virtue, for that wasn’t then my Widow’s Mite, but was rather money, which as a tourist, I could donate in order to slake my outraged sense of decency.

Later, I was having a quiet drink off Castro, when I saw a couple of the beggars I had given a few dollars to, standing at the bar, beer in hand, each laughing and having fun. I am sure that the economically righteous will point an accusing finger and tell me that my charity was being squandered on booze and other disagreeable enjoyments. However, if my small contribution enabled someone, if only briefly, to smile and feel, for a moment, that they also belonged to that fair city, then it was money well spent.

Later, I was privileged to be allowed to see behind the façades of the film-set of the city that was Babylon the Golden. To see the sacrifice, the pain, the hardship and the loneliness that went into achieving those few brilliant scintillating moments on the stage. And at the end, I was also allowed to speak a farewell, as my last and final gift, to youth too soon departing.

Here, caught in the chilly winter days of Christchurch, those golden Babylonian summer days, sparkling in the promise of youth and idealism, seem very far away.

Still, I carry the memory of the smiles and the laughter and the gleam of Hope Unfurling as a guide for this heartless present. I can’t always afford to help out with money, but I can offer a smile and a few words, that say I recognise you as fellow citizen of this city. I can chat and more importantly, I can listen, and sometimes I hope I can even help a little bit, though probably not as often as I should.

It is far too easy, and far too seductive, to pass upwards the problem of society’s inequality and to demand that disorganised, self-interested political parties fix it; passing the parcel of peoples problems.

Having a biscuit and a cup of tea after the Sunday Sermon is so much easier, I suppose, if you don’t notice the queue for the soup kitchen in the cold damp park there, over yonder.

Michael Primrose, Christchurch

Kurt said...

“However, if my small contribution enabled someone, if only briefly, to smile and feel, for a moment, that they also belonged to that fair city, then it was money well spent.”—Michael P.

Right on, Michael! That’s exactly how I feel! You did right!

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Father Ron Smith said...

As so9meone hoping to spend a few days in San Francisco this september, I will remember your cautionary tale, Michael.

On previous visits, I too have noticed the vary dismissive culture towards the Down and Out - thank God, a wee bit different here in Aotearoa. But let's not get too complacent about ingrained poverty. A smile doesn't cost much, but it can ease the lot of the economically and socially deprived soul.

I'm all for self-help where that is a possibility. I am concerned also about institutional poverty - of either body or spirit.

"Whatever you do to one of these my little ones, you do it as to me". - Jesus sets the pace. This was one of the real concerns of the recent ABC Papal Visit.

Jean said...

Hi Anonymous

To me your guessing fits very well into common stereotypes.

"Many of the beggars least not poor in money (...get benefits for the fact they have 'no income' afterall)"

I pray you may never fall victim to circumstances that put you in a position of living off a benefit.

The current payment for a single unemployed person who does not own a house being approx $190 a week; I have yet to come to terms with how many people see such recipients in a negative light.

$110 rent (min); $60 food (min); $30 left for? - electricity, petrol, insurance, phone.... my maths is sufficient enough to see such people as income poor. Not to mention as you vaguely allude to the 'poverty' of spirit which comes with such a position in society.

Blessings Jean

Jean said...

Hi Michael,

See definitely a writer. The eloquence with which you pen your words conveys a world of meaning. Would it be that I wrote so.

As for you not being one for public protestation and display of beliefs. "Methinks you protest too much." The deep part of you who sees the yonder God and is led to do what is right. Follow that path awhile.... for God writes his laws on the hearts of men.

I cannot but concur with your post. I fear we are quick to look away from those who do not fit into our concept of what ought to be - ignorance is bliss.

Not least is it better than having morning tea after church and seeing the line to the soup kitchen across the street to assail our sensibilities, but the poverty of spirit that lets us believe those who have less are not entitled to a bit of what helps the rest of us enjoy life.

Blessings Jean

Jean said...

Hi Peter

In response to your actual post - smile. Yes I dare say disorganised or not one most vote for a party which at least pays some due attention to social health.

Regarding your reference to the redistribution to the worlds poor. Most governments do have a department who is nominated to do this on the taxpayers behalf. In our case it used to be NZAID which National incorporated into MFAT.

National also changed the priorities of such aid distribution from poverty alleviation to economic development. Considerable research has proved focus of aid on poverty alleviation is the most effective way to assist the poorest of the poor. The difficulty with the focus on economic development is not such programmes as micro-enterprise which the former focus includes but that governments can offer aid to the majority world countries in a way that will benefit us also (e.g. we shall help you build wells if you use pumps purchased from our country).

As for the PR spin machine and whose been naughty and not following the rules such nonsense just brings out a sense of being totally un-interested and un-impressed. Whether it is fed by the parties themselves or the media I wish they would recognise interesting information on proposed ideas by each party that could benefit our country (not promises) holds far more sway.

Cheers Jean

Caleb said...

Indeed; thanks for bringing that up Jean. I thought the last Labour government was bad enough by continually refusing to meet NZ's promise of 0.7% GNI as ODA - a consistent theme of all our governments since Kirk's (ironically Helen Clark is now head of development for the UN!). But what the current National government have done to ODA (as you describe) is atrocious.

Also returning to the quip about Labour and organisation - it's certainly well-deserved. But the obvious rejoinder, given National's record on the Cabinet Club; ECan; CERA and earthquake recovery; Judith Collins; diplomatic appointments; the TPPA; spying; asset sales; treating apathy as a virtue; and constant insistence on campaigning on PR, personality and scandal rather than policy, and much more, the obvious rejoinder is: "I don't support democracy. I vote National."

Jean said...

Yes Caleb the ODA (Overseas Development Aid) and what National has done is atrocious.Helen Clark did not promise to reach the promised 0.7% but she did acknowledge the wish to do so and made a significant amount of progress towards it in her time as Prime Minister.

What shocked me most was making all but one person in the Council of International Development redundant because the staff had dared to publicly disagree with the approach National intended to take in respect to ditching the focus on poverty. And despite all the publicity Helen Clark's not getting to 0.7% of ODA created, I do not recall one single media article about what happened at CID (I worked on the same floor).

Many people (a.k.a) most people were also made redundant - those who did not leave in anticipation - at the Development Resource Centre responsible for educating and resourcing young people, schools and the public about global citizenship; and helping to administer a grant for education about development via NZAID. Actually Bishop Justin did workshops for them in his previous life.

It did not endear me at the beginning of National's stint as to 'how' they were intending to implement their 'policies'.