Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thoughts on Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy

Paraphrased from something I saw on Facebook:
A CEO, a Tea Party member, and a teacher are sitting at a table. In the center of the table is a plate with 12 cookies. The CEO takes 11 of them and turns to the Tea Party member and says, "You'd better watch that teacher, she wants your cookie."
I go back and forth on the question of wealth distribution. It's to a large degree inconsistent with the American Dream, which says if you work hard enough you can realize whatever you wish. I like the American Dream...I like to work hard...and I like to believe it will get me to the place I'd like to be.

I guess the problem I have with our country at the moment is that the place far too many people would seem to like to be is to have more money than they could ever dream of spending smartly. It's not comfort, security, or even mere luxury they seem after...it's excess for its own bragging rights. More money, more power, more of everything, even when they already have one (or more) of everything.

Actually, it's power. That's what they're after. That's what the CEO with four homes, 8 cars, a private jet, a yatch, and more in the bank than the GNP of many countries find they want more of...Power. More power than their neighbor CEO, more power than their direct competitors. More power than the government.

I've spent enough time listening to CEOs discuss competition to know many feel power is simply another means of protecting their investors. This is a convenient and transparent excuse for their gold-plated toilets if ever there was one. The truth is (I would bet) they want power for themselves...it's an entirely addictive and corrupting force. But it's a driving force and, I suspect, the ultimate culprit in the widening gap between poor and rich in this country. CEOs occassionally dump impressive sums that look like they must hurt to you and me for this or that charity, but by evidence of how their wealth is accumulating, it's clearly chump change in the overall scheme of things. The uber-wealthy are not hurting, and they're not really sharing the pain the rest of the country is feeling. As this chart shows, 64% of all income growth since 1979 has gone to the top 10 percent.


(Washington Post)

Clearly, the rising tide has not lifted all boats equally. And that would not seem to be the universe's (nature's, God's, whatever) way, so it doesn't sit well with me.

To rethink Power is the key, I believe, to sorting out the inequality. Once someone has more power/money than they can wisely spend.. (“The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while” -- Albert Einstein)...once their goals move from financial success to obvious excess...the nation should do more to reward a different sort of power: the power to change lives for the better. Excess should be mocked and shunned consistently, and not celebrated in mindless TV shows aimed at teenagers. Philanthropy should be celebrated as the highest social achievement. Rather than tacky drivel like MTV Cribs treating excess as if it were heroic, warping the expectations and values of the next generation, the glossy magazines and talk shows should make heroes of the people who use their money to improve the lives of others. And also point out when they're not doing so.

Let me start. Last year was a pathetic year for Philanthropy in the US:

The year 2010 brought a lot of talk of philanthropy by the super-rich—but not much giving.

Despite more than 50 billionaires announcing last year that they would ultimately devote at least half of their wealth to charity, few made big gifts in 2010.

Just 17 people on The Chronicle’s annual list of the 50 most-generous donors also appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

Over all, the donors on The Chronicle’s list—which actually numbered 54 this year, thanks to some ties in the rankings—committed a combined total of $3.3- billion, the smallest sum since The Chronicle began to track the biggest donors in 2000.
Yes, times are tough, but of Forbes list of the 400 Wealthiest Americans each of the top 20 people got richer in 2010. (Did you get richer in 2010?) So left to its own devices, making more money doesn't necessarily lead Americans to give more away.

But let's turn this around and celebrate generosity.

Which Americans gave the most in 2010? Who is America's greatest Philanthropist? It will probably disappoint Glenn Beck fans to learn it was George Soros, who gave away $332 million in 2010. Second was NY City mayor Mike Bloomberg; followed by Denny Sanford; Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs; and Eli and Edythe L. Broad.

Each of these people has their supporters and critics, but for a moment, just stop to appreciate that none of these top philanthropists is one of the top 5 richest Americans, and only Mike Bloomberg breaks into the top 10. There is no direct correlation between wealth and philanthropy. It's a free country, I know...but the more we collectively celebrate philanthropy, rather that conspicuous consumption, the more we might encourage a direct correlation.

Today, I thank the nation's top Philanthropists (you can see a list here). Keep up the great work! You're heroes for your generosity.

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62 Comments:

Blogger Dana Oldfather said...

Dear Mr. Winkleman,

Part of your argument reminds me of a statement from a biography I'm currently reading (Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim by Anton Gill). Mr. Gill begins by outlining the Guggenheim family, their flee from Europe, and how they came to be famous. He makes reference to the fact that at the turn of the century famous people, rather than being pop and sports stars like today, were the Great and the Good. It was an interesting and disturbing idea. I'd like to see more people thinking about it. Thank you for addressing it here.

3/10/2011 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

Hi Edward:

I hate to burden you with a tough question that I'd be scared to answer myself, but, what do you think we can do? I am in WI, and after last night's vote, I'm feeling sick to my stomach for my future, my daughter's, the nation's. I sign petitions, I donate money (though I have little to spare), I go to protests, I volunteer for all of the above - and the situation seems to get worse and worse. I actually love it here in Milwaukee, being a professor and part of a vibrant arts community, yet I find myself considering applying to jobs not just out of state, but in the private sector, and/or in other countries - which feels more like defeat than anything else.
I guess I'd like to ask this of everyone reading your comment section now, including you. What do you feel makes a difference / can put us back on the right track? And more personally, what in that makes you feel empowered? That's something I've really been missing in the last few weeks.

3/10/2011 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it that some people -who live in a country that has allowed them to become tremendously wealthy- feel a need to prevent others from having the smallest bit of financial security? Clearly the unions did not stand in the way of them building their excessive wealth.

It's the most egregious kind of bullying, on an economic and sociopolitical level. We must not stand for it any longer.

3/10/2011 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Nathaniel,

I actually think you start by mocking and shunning excess. Make it as uncool/unsavory as the nation currently seems to think it's cool.

It was happening for a while there right after 2008. People were self-conscious about excess for a bit. Then the stock market got stronger again and that flew out the window.

As America's history has shown, people vote based on their core values more than anything else (even more than their personal economics). Working to shift the values is therefore the key, IMO.

I am truly appalled at how materialistic this country is. It sickens me. Growing up in a poor steel town, I was simply amazed when I learned that some people thought of needless shopping as a "hobby." It seemed so decadent and self-centered. If you have extra time on your hands, build something...learn something...help people...don't just blow through money to mindlessly fill the hours. That's grotesque.

But that's the culture we've built over that past 4 decades. And people keep telling us we need to keep spending to maintain our lifestyles...well, as it seems to turn out, we only need to keep spending to maintain the lifestyles of the rich and famous...the rest of the country doesn't see the same benefits or security from that.

Again, a shift in values seems to be the hard work ahead of us. I am a capitalist. I do believe it's good to spend money, but it should be spent on things that make sense, that better us, that help people, and not just things that while away the lonely hours.

3/10/2011 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

In 1976 the economic historian Carlo Cipolla created a model of human behavior where the actions of every individual can be measured in terms of the benefits to themselves and the benefits to broader society. People then naturally fall into one of four following categories.

1) Intelligent people whose actions produce a gain for both themselves and for other people.

2) Helpless/naive people in the top left quadrant whose actions produce a loss for themselves but a gain for others.

3) Bandits whose actions produce a gain for themselves but a loss for other people.

4) Stupid people in the bottom left quadrant produce a loss for themselves and also for other people.

It seems clear that the political problems in Wisconsin are of their own doing, they voted politicians with a conservative agenda into state office. Color them into categories 2 and 4.

Nationally voters have been supporting political agendas which transfer wealth to the already wealthy. This is obviously not to the benefit of anyone except for the already wealthy. It should be no surprise that these voters fall into classes 2 and 4. P.T. Barnum was right.

Mocking excess! I don't think so. Philanthropy penance? What about the Kroch brothers, they're philanthropists. No,, until the stupid and helpless join the intelligent and block the bandits, the rich will just keep getting richer.

3/10/2011 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The thing, though, George, is how do you get the stupid and helpless to stop voting against their own interests?

My suspicion is they do so because they wish to identify with the wealthy and imagine that the laws in place that benefit only the wealthy will be theirs too one day.

That's why mocking excess or at least pointing out how obscene it is strikes me as a vital first step. Just waiting for the stupid and helpless to block the bandits isn't likely to happen in our lifetimes.

3/10/2011 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

That's why mocking excess or at least pointing out how obscene it is strikes me as a vital first step.

Define "excess" so we know whom or what to mock.

3/10/2011 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Why mock the rich? Really, we elected a congress which enhanced their ability to create wealth. It's like saying we should mock people because they are beautiful.

3/10/2011 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I didn't say mock the rich, George...but mock excess. Currently excess for its own sake is viewed as cool, rather than as obscene, which I feel it should be. I wouldn't mind being rich, and I know plenty of people who are who I don't feel revel in excess (and are very generous). It's not wealth (which I understand the appeal of), but excess that I feel is wrongly celebrated and now culturally ingrained. I want to expose it as obscene.

Franklin, excess is easily defined as more than you need. Each of us has different goals, and certainly I may need less than someone else to feel content or secure, but you spend just a little time outside the US and how excessive things are here becomes shockingly apparent on your return (serving portions in restaurants so large you can't finish your meal; soda cup sizes larger than the human bladder; clothing people buy as a hobby but never/rarely wear; gas-guzzling vehicles engineered for military or industry work that people drive as a status symbol but don't need; homes so large they never enter rooms of them for years at a time)...all these things happen regularly in the US. Moving up the socioeconomic ladder, such things get worse. McCain's having more homes than he could remember being just one good example of excess that by any sane standard must be viewed as obscene.

3/10/2011 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Art?

3/10/2011 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Art who?

3/10/2011 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It's about the wealth, not the "excesses" it allows. The problem is that 98% of the population is supporting this excess of wealth by contributing a few dollars extra here or there in their taxes. If you shift taxes so that 100 million people pay $10 more and give it to the rich, they divvy up One Billion dollars. To the rest of us it's just ten bucks.

3/10/2011 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Again, my interest in exposing excess is to ingite a shift in values because I feel those values (skewed in my opinion) explain why people vote against their own economic interests. You too can have a 17-room mansion with an indoor swimming pool, if you just join us rich corporations in keeping those greedy teachers from bargaining collectively; elect politicians who will make the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy permanent; rally against health care reform; and all the while ignore who your newly elected officials get their money from.

There's no other logical reason I can imagine average Americans would go for such things unless they hope one day such measures would benefit them.

3/10/2011 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Well ED, that's just the problem. They didn't say any of that. They said "they're going to raise your taxes," but not by how much or who even 'your' is. It's a candy coated lie. I saw another lie in Newsweek yesterday saying that Social Security was welfare for the middle class...

3/10/2011 02:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Excess is easily defined as more than you need.

In that case you should mock me for two of the three meals I eat in a day, for having a cell phone, for living in a house, for having pets, for my 20Mbps Internet connection, and several hundred other things I don't need (and many people in the world would consider extravagances) but enjoy having.

3/10/2011 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Assuming those things stretch your stomach past the point of comfort, were purchased as status symbols more than conveniences, and lie around your house in near absolute disuse, well, then I'll gladly mock you. You would indeed be part of the problem.

If on the other hand, they are reasonable fruits of your labor and/or comforts and securities that are important to your happiness, I'll simply say "enjoy."

3/10/2011 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Aron said...

Nobody would care about some rich people buying a gazillion boats and houses if everybody in this country could have access to basic needs like education, health care and housing. The fact is that that is not the case. This is the richest country in the world, but it is as socially unequal as a third world country, and that is not right.

It not just about how little money people make. Rich people make so much money they can spend it in ways that will help perpetuate their wealth. They get all kinds of assets: bonds, stock, businesses, property, real estate, etc. Look at their numbers and you will be surprised how little percentage of what they make every year comes from their actual wages.

On the other hand, you have us. The lucky ones have a house (that they do not entirely own). In the event of them losing their main source of income, the only liquid asset that can help them once their savings and/or retirement funds (if they have any) are gone is their house. But they do not own it, nor can they just sell it because, after all, you need a roof under your head.

I agree that we need to frown upon excess. I think it is a very hard thing to do, though. We have allowed our society to mask excess with indulgence for far too long. And we are all guilty of it. But the only way IMO people can take care of themselves is if we level the play field. We need to tax wealth more. Not just income, wealth.

But politicians are also wealthy. We don't have property or bonds, but some of them do! Maybe not as much as their campaign contributing CEOs but they have some! A lot of them signed papers to send your children to die abroad but never sent their own. So, why on Earth would they give you some of their money, or a government insurance like theirs?

And we elected these people... what does that tell you?

3/10/2011 05:33:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I like the idea of changing the discussion. I think mocking racism, for example, helped banish it to the point that it is unacceptable, and even those traditionally racist will hide it (or circumvent it) now in America, South Africa, and just about everywhere else. Perhaps we do need to do the same here. The liberal and re-active "coffee party movement" someone pointed me to today feels that changing discussions from budget cuts to corporate and wealthy tax dodging made a huge difference in the UK, which is, I suppose a more broad and political approach but in the same vein.
Back in the classroom today, even some of my most conservative students were changing their tunes after what happened last night - so I am not feeling quite as defeated as I was this morning. Thanks for the response, Ed, and discussion, others.

3/10/2011 06:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

In that case you've changed your definition. It now includes that which surpasses satiety, that which I buy to impress someone, and that which is more than I can use. This is really complicated.

I don't need the amount of food that fills my belly but doesn't distend it. (If I were careful I would follow the Japanese proverb, 70% full feeds the man, 100% full feeds the doctor.) I ate too much sushi with an old friend in Bushwick back in February. Do you mock me for that?

If I buy something to display the fact that I could buy it, it doesn't matter what that thing is, it only matters whether the people I'm displaying it to could buy it as well. Which means that in an impoverished scenario, that thing could be a rusty bicycle.

I'm not using all the money I have right now. I keep some of it reserved, unused, to make me feel better about my situation. What if I'm doing the same with five of the twenty rooms of my McMansion, or two of my five yachts? Should I feel bad about that? What about four of the twelve place settings we got for our wedding that never seem to make it out of the cabinet?

The problem with most complaints about other peoples' wealth is that the details of remediating the situation quickly become either undeterminable or unreasonable.

3/10/2011 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The examples I gave above are neither undeterminable nor unreasonable...let's please agree that we're discussing excess, not wealth; let's start with my examples (again below) to see if we can agree on when excess is indeed obscene and worthy of complaints; and let's agree that we're not talking here about rare exceptions like your sushi outing but standard practice:

serving portions in restaurants so large you can't finish your meal; soda cup sizes larger than the human bladder; clothing people buy as a hobby but never/rarely wear; gas-guzzling vehicles engineered for military or industry work that people drive as a status symbol but don't need; homes so large they never enter rooms of them for years at a time

Some of these are obviously available to the poor (which is, in my opinion insidious, not equitable), and others are not. But they represent a culture of excess...one that is not mocked, but celebrated. This contributes, in my opinion, to poor people agreeing to vote for tax cuts for the wealthy (it's a shared value they can relate to...more money for the rich = more excess and maybe one day for me).

3/10/2011 07:33:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I think Nathaniel is only partially correct when he says "mocking racism, for example, helped banish it to the point that it is unacceptable" The other factor was public protest, including violent protests. White people were afraid to say the n-word in public.

Excess wealth is not just a US problem, check out Forbes "This year's list broke records in size (1,210 billionaires) and total net worth ($4.5 trillion). China doubled its number of 10-figure fortunes, and Moscow now has more billionaires than any other city."

These people buy influence, tilt the table so the ball rolls into their lap, all the nose lifting in the world isn't going to change that. Capitalism shifts wealth in a way which is good for the rich, not so good for everyone else.

Nobody wants to hear this but the only way it is going to change is through violence - do any of you really think that "Homeland Security" is defending us from domestic Muslim terrorists? It's starting in the Middle East and coming to a theater near you.

3/10/2011 08:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I think George is onto something there (in his last line). Consider that churches here provided a forum for the civil rights movement and now consider that the Muslim Brotherhood was a strong force in sustaining the protests in Egypt. The Egyptian Revolution wasn't about religion, but congregations can provide the momentum because it is a belief system that masses of people can rally around. We may need to learn to clearly see the separate signs of Islamic extremism from what are uprisings of the poor over the powerful. Hopefully extremism will dwindle as self-empowerment grows.

The differences between rich and poor are more subtle here and its unlikely any uprising will happen because the new fashion, rock star, iPad will come out and many will be momentarily satisfied.
Capitalism is becoming a dead end. It served the world well for a time but the limits of resources are being reached and the only humane solution is a more sustainable usage and a more equal distribution.

What's happening in Madison is a sign of the reach of corporatism; government is not the enemy but those in government who willingly do big businesses' wishes are the enemy.

3/10/2011 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

But they represent a culture of excess...one that is not mocked, but celebrated.

But this is only a problem for you because you don't want any of those things. How is a bucket of soda more excessive than a spending a seven digit sum on a work of contemporary art? Why are we not mocking that?

3/10/2011 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger Big No said...

My truck only gets AM radio, and I drive several hours a day. So I listen to a LOT of conservative talk radio. What is interesting to me is how similar the liberal points of Ed's main post are to the central conservative argument.

1) A disgust with excess

Conservatives are also disgusted with the culture of excess. But rather than focus on eating excessive portions and driving excessive cars (which they see as part of the American dream), they focus on excessive laziness -- People who slovenly waste time and money by living off the social safety net. Or big unions who waste our money by demanding more than what their work is truly worth. Or liberal congressmen who waste our money by spending it on their pet programs, and essentially giving it to the lazy folks and unions.

2) Admiration for the generosity of the "good" wealthy people.

Instead of admiring philanthropists who give money away, conservatives admire big businessmen who create jobs out of their own wealth and success. Rather than just give away money, these heroic rich folks give us all the chance to work. They teach a man to fish, instead of just giving him a fish. Conservatives see this as far more admirable than philanthropy. And we need to reward the big businessmen who have found a way to contribute to the American system, not tax them and prevent them from creating more jobs.

So there is a remarkable similarity in the core values that Ed appealed to in his post and the values that are being appealed to by conservative propaganda. I dont think that poor people vote conservatively because they think they will one day get a swimming pool and be one of the rich. They do so because they hate excess and admire the heroic qualities of the most generous rich people. . . just like the liberals.

3/11/2011 05:27:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

"Excess should be mocked and shunned consistently, and not celebrated in mindless TV shows aimed at teenagers. Philanthropy should be celebrated as the highest social achievement."

Indeed! Gluttony and denial have been art subjects for centuries, many get the message most choose not to.

Luckily we don't vilify School teachers and basic science - then we'd REALLY be in trouble.

3/11/2011 08:16:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Very interesting point Big No!

Not sure the parallel extends to results, though, or the disparity in wealth distribution wouldn't be so stark, but you may have landed on the key to an important shift.

3/11/2011 08:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Franklin,

You clearly paid no attention in #class if you think we weren't mocking that.

As for reasonable prices to help preserve our cultural legacy, as compared with more soda than the human bladder can hold being gulped down before its ice melts, I would assume the difference is more than clear to you, no?

3/11/2011 08:22:00 AM  
Blogger WILLIAM CHESAPEAKE said...

Poor people vote for politicians that do not serve their interests (but rather the interest of the mega rich) due to tribalism. Not because they rationalize that some day they too might be wealthy.

3/11/2011 09:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

Public school teachers are in a better position than many workers here because what they do can't be outsourced.

So though there are indeed many piggish people out there (and I'm not exempt from that group because I am, after all, an American), I believe global economics has more to do with the weakening of the middle class here and its rise in other parts of the world. Wealth is actually being shared more around the world rather than less. Of course that's 'unsustainable' to us now. How convenient.

3/11/2011 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

@Bernard. Two things, First, radically skewed wealth distribution is a world wide problem. This means that while the US may address it through the tax system, the problem will continue to exist in the rest of the world.

Second, Americans are soft, coddled and accustomed to their comforts, they won't revolt without real provocation.

How do you redistribute wealth which is held by despots? I thought about this last night and came to the conclusion that the only fair way, would be to cause a global economic collapse. We almost had this two years ago. It could happen again, especially if accelerated by cyber-terrorists, we could end up in a situation where paper wealth was wiped out. The lower economic classes don't have much paper wealth and would continue to eek out a already familiar hardscrabble existence. Everyone else would be screwed, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

3/11/2011 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

William, can you elaborate? I'm not sure I follow.

3/11/2011 09:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

You clearly paid no attention in #class if you think we weren't mocking that.

You clearly failed to mention it anywhere in the above post, which is all I was debating.

As for reasonable prices to help preserve our cultural legacy, as compared with more soda than the human bladder can hold being gulped down before its ice melts, I would assume the difference is more than clear to you, no?

It's more than clear to me, but I doubt it's clear to someone who would prefer the soda. Your "reasonable prices to help preserve our cultural legacy" could very well be someone else's "dropping a ton a money on a failed art object." (As if there were something inherently reasonable about the price of contemporary art at any level.) You say that a seven-figure price tag on a work of contemporary art is reasonable, but 96 of the 128 ounces of Cletus's Pepsi are excessive. Cletus says that he is going to enjoy all 128 ounces of his Pepsi, thank you very much, but a seven figure sum would allow him to spend the rest of his days in comfort and devote himself to doing good works for his community, and it's a waste to spend it on something that's going to disappear into some rich guy's house. Cletus isn't entirely wrong about that.

It's interesting to me that when I've asserted in this forum that visual quality in art self-evident and independently extant, not just a relativistic social construct, you've disagreed. But you seem to think that excess, as described above, is self-evident and independently extant, not just a relativistic social construct. At least you agree with me that self-evident, independently extant phenomena exist among human concerns.

3/11/2011 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

@Big No who lays it on the line - "My truck only gets AM radio, and I drive several hours a day. So I listen to a LOT of conservative talk radio."

BECAUSE THAT'S ALL THERE IS! and that's part of the problem. NOT sushi, which we all know real men don't eat.

3/11/2011 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You say that a seven-figure price tag on a work of contemporary art is reasonable,

Actually, I said it was mockable. I don't think such prices are reasonable. What's reasonable, in my opinion, are prices that help sustain the best artist's practice. I'm not actually a fan of contemporary art objects reaching trophy status...I think it warps things. I do, however, believe artists should be able to pay their rents, live comfortably, and invest in their art. So while a painting may seem really expensive to someone who's biggest weekly expenditure is a Big Gulp, it's not unreasonable to give the artist the modest payment given how much they invested in creating these objects.

But you seem to think that excess, as described above, is self-evident and independently extant

On the contrary, I've noted that excess is relative...what do you think "I may need less than someone else to feel content or secure" means?

3/11/2011 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

George...behave! :-PPP

3/11/2011 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

:-PPP must be an emoticon with a neat noise...

Seriously, Clearchannel, FOX and the other corporate TV/radio networks certainly have their own political agenda which is pro-business and not friendly to labor.

Maybe we should cut NPR loose from government funding and turn it into a nationwide left leaning commercial network.

Do you guys really eat that orange urchin gunk? yuk!

3/11/2011 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

@ George,

How do you redistribute wealth which is held by despots?

We build a computer to run the government. That is my solution. Because it can be more objective than human beings. Of course then the problem extends to who programs it, and that I do not know.

Beyond that I have no solutions, but I like to believe I glimpse some of the problems. The speed of social media and its relatively low cost may lend a hand to overturning some of the current inequalities. Rich people have the ability to be international (they can afford to travel and have homes and do business in multiple countries) while the poor are confined to where they work (or don't work) and get their food, but there are vastly more poor people in the world (and likely more tightly bonded to their neighbors) than rich people and when they realize their combined power change can happen (as in Cairo).

I like the perspective Big No puts out there. Conservatives aren't bad people and there are some shared beliefs. I feel many people are fooled by Hannity, Limbaugh, extremist Imams, Megachurch leaders, etc. (duh, preaching to the choir, I know) Only a well grounded education can help, an ability to see through bullshit and glimpse the motivation, most people don't seem to take the time to do so.

3/11/2011 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

On the contrary, I've noted that excess is relative.

Then the argument you've made against my saying that a work of art is good - that I'm merely exercising learned, acquired preferences, not describing a truth about the world - holds for your notion of what constitutes tasteful or appropriate consumption, and Cletus is just as correct about his notion as you are about yours. So is the guy who feels just great about his yachts.

3/11/2011 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Franklin,

Of course it does...that's how we got to where we are. I simply don't like where we are and am musing on how we might correct it.

3/11/2011 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

By that formulation there's nothing to correct, because there's nothing wrong with the world as it is. There's only you wanting to inflict your preferences upon people who don't share them.

3/11/2011 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Fuckers in Dc and on Wallstreet have strip-mined the country for the last 40 years. The game is just about over. Buckle up.

3/11/2011 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

By that formulation there's nothing to correct, because there's nothing wrong with the world as it is. There's only you wanting to inflict your preferences upon people who don't share them.

Not exactly. The income inequality is a definite "wrong with the world" and has in the past led, as George notes, to violence. Just because it's human nature that got us here, and in that way understandable, doesn't mean we should sit idly by until tempers flare and the new Karl Marx ignites real class warfare around the world again. I'd hope we've learned how to avoid that by now.

3/11/2011 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The income inequality is a definite "wrong with the world."

No, you've already affirmed that your notion of excess is a relativistic social construct. "Inequality" is just another way of saying that an excess exists relative to some baseline. In your opinion.

3/11/2011 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

My opinion really isn't important, I'm simply offering one possible solution...it's the opinion of the majority that really matters here. If, as the Washington Post reports, the trend we've seen (where 64% of all income growth since 1979 has gone to the top 10 percent) continues, I suspect people will indeed get very angry about it.

You will recall it was similar inequality and resentments about it that led to the revolutions that imposed Communism on big chunks of the world. Wise people would get out ahead of such matters before history repeats itself.

3/11/2011 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Big No said...

@Ed - I agree with you about the parallel not extending to results. But clearly, an argument about results holds no sway in American politics, at least for discussions across ideological lines. The key to winning the political argument is understanding the other side, and beating it at its own game. In my experience conservatives have a far better handle on what makes the liberal mind tick than vice versa. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk's greatest skill is their ability to construct arguments so that the gut liberal response makes the liberal look like a judgmental jerk. If they can get you to waste your time criticizing their eating habits or their purchases and entertainment choices they will continue to win this culture war.

Anyway, I think the most interesting question is: if both sides like hard work and self-reliance, and despise selfish excess, and admire generosity of spirit, and hate cruelty, then what in the world are we actually arguing about? (hint: it has nothing to do with political issues or results). And the corollary: how do liberals win that argument?

PS @George - Don't ever make fun of anything a man says about his truck. If you do that again, Im going to have to make fun of your taste in sushi, which I imagine shares its refinement with the level of your political discourse.

3/11/2011 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

So to recap, even though excess exists only as a relativistic social construct, we should mock it, right down to Cletus's bucket of Pepsi, because doing so will forestall a great number of people from becoming angry about income disparity, and consequently doing something politically drastic. As we say on the Internet, what could possibly go wrong?

3/11/2011 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

This link takes you to a chart of what programs are on the chopping block compared to tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy: link to chart

3/11/2011 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does everyone take the stance that the American Dream equals money or vise versa.

I have been self employed most of my life (other then 4 years in the navy to help pay for college), made less than $40,000 a year for the past 15 years, carry my own health insurance, and even own a modest home on a few acres. I am happy, love my life, and live within my means.

The American Dream does not equal money it equals happiness and what you make of it. There are alot of rich, but sad people out there and a lot of poor, but happy people too.

Sure bad things happen to good people and put them in tough money spots, but that doesn't mean given away money is the answer.

Anyone ever had to take a helping hand from anyone? I have and instead of making me sad or mad it strengthened my trust and pride in the human race. Good people help out when needed.

This should not be about who has more money or not it should be about 1-the CHANCE to have a life we all ENJOY and 2-Are people in general good or bad regardless of the money they have or do not have.

Jason

3/11/2011 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Franklin, you poor idiot. If you want to play Devil's Advocate, you at least need to haev a counterpoint to Ed's well developed opinions regarding excess.

3/12/2011 02:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anonymous, I can attest that Franklin is anything but an idiot. While I appreciate your point (and was thinking to make it myself), please do me a favor and address the point rather than that commenter so we can all discuss thing more civilly...thanks).

Having said that, Franklin, I wouldn't mind your counterpoint to the issues I noted. While I think it's perfectly fine in a vacuum to say it's no one else's business who regularly gorges themselves on more food than they're comfortable eating or who indulges in monstrous sodas, spend 5 hours sandwiched between two 400 lb people on a domestic flight and let me know if you think excess is an issue worth addressing in this country. The obesity rate in the US, especially among children, is a national shame. It's well past time to call excess what it is. Obscene.

3/12/2011 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I was at Pax East last night and saw plenty of prime specimens of the gamer stereotype, corpulence and all. I think it's a shame, and my experience with fat folks is that they usually do as well. It's also a problem that I've never struggled with myself and I'm consequently reluctant to say too much about it.

My view is that beauty and morality are hardwired into human biology, and since we're not distinct entities from the world that generated us, we can say that they're hardwired into the world. There's a learned cultural overlay atop those things that give them an individual and regional flavor, but the underpinnings are universal and physical, and thus statements about them correlate to them well or poorly, and thus are true or false to whatever degree. Furthermore, some things are better than other things, and it's possible to make true or false judgments about them. So I'm comfortable saying that a work of art is bad (if it is) and that Cletus's bucket of Pepsi is nasty.

A competing view says that reality is mediated by mental constructs and language, and thus is ultimately unknowable. Beauty is subjective and morality is circumstantial. There are no underpinnings. (Some people hold that even gender is a social construction.) Judgment is elitist and at best reflects the view of one person and his cultural group. A work of art is not good or bad, but more or less successful according to the presuppositions that frame it, and the framing is arbitrary. Cletus's bucket of Pepsi is a valid cultural object. We could display it in a contemporary art museum, and that would be interesting and raise important questions.

I didn't realize quite what was wrong with the initial post until I made some challenges to it, but having done so, the problem is that you're trying to arrive at a non-relativistic destination via a relativistic route that doesn't take you there. There's also no way to reconcile your ethics and your aesthetics. I sympathize with some of your sentiments but don't think the mockery you advocate is productive. Instead I would invite you to look into the voluntary simplicity movement, which has thought seriously and deeply about the problems of consumption and has ancient roots.

3/12/2011 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's also a problem that I've never struggled with myself and I'm consequently reluctant to say too much about it.

I understand that in response to the naturally occurring subgroup in any population who are genetically predisposed to put on weight more easily than others, but it doesn't cut it, in my opinion, in response to the national epidemic of extreme obesity. Check out this animated map created by the CDC for a sense of how quickly this epidemic is spreading.

It's not, in my opinion, a relativistic issue. It's a healthcare crisis, which demands more than an laissez faire response.

There's also no way to reconcile your ethics and your aesthetics.

It's funny. Until I read that, it never even occurred to me that anyone would think they should be reconciled. In both fields, I see my opinions as lifelong works in progress, making reconciliation premature, if not irrelevant. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.

Today, though, I don't think what's happening in the US with regard to this embracing of excess is natural or healthy. Therefore, I don't feel compelled to sit back and hold my tongue out of fear that someone's feelings are going to be hurt. You wouldn't worry about someone's feelings if a juggernaut truck was barreling toward them.

It seems to me that there's no cultural balance. There's no popular TV show to counterbalance MTV Cribs, for example (one that celebrates philanthropy), so you can't say the culture is truly supporting the populations' ability to make a well-informed choice.

In my opinion, there needs to be a culturally attractive or at least compelling source of information that says why it's obscene to driver a Hummer when our soldiers are dying in Iraq, why it's dangerous to be morbidly obese, why the rest of the population whose medical costs are already skyrocketing are entitled to an opinion about their crash course with diabetes and other costly ailments.

Then, you can argue that people should be free to make their own choices, in my opinion...at the moment, it's slanted toward excess and people are literally wrecking their health and their children's lives over it.

3/14/2011 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Bill Maher...echoing my sentiments:

http://tv.gawker.com/#!5781426/bill-maher-to-poor-people-stop-thinking-your-interests-are-the-same-as-the-rich

3/14/2011 02:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The defect of their being irreconcilable isn't the inconsistency. That's only human. It's the fact that they cancel each other out in this case.

...the population whose medical costs are already skyrocketing are entitled to an opinion about their crash course with diabetes and other costly ailments.

Lovely. For the same reason, I think it's unfair to force my friends and I to underwrite our own exclusion from contemporary art history for making work that doesn't fit into the conceptualist narrative, which we do every time a contemporary art museum predisposed to such things gets a public grant or a tax break. But, I hear you protest, I'm only voicing an individual preference; my opinion about the failure of conceptual art is merely that and not some kind of truth about the world. Fine, but then your distress about giant sodas and Humvees has an equally flimsy basis in reality and people who consider them to be sources of satisfaction are as correct in those considerations as you are in yours.

At one point you suggested that I start a museum more in line with my feelings about art. I suggest you produce your own TV show, to run opposite Cribs, about philanthropists with low body mass indices.

Seriously, I'm not for obesity in any sense, and Humvees are a pretty dumb choice of vehicle unless you have a .50 caliber machine gun mounted to the roof and the pedestrians are firing RPGs at you. But I don't see how you, personally, formulate mockery that can't be thrown back at you with equal philosophical standing. (That is, I see how I do it, but I have a different formulation for mockery.)

3/14/2011 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

A few minor corrections.

I encouraged you to approach/inspire a patron to begin that museum, if I recall correctly, leaving you plenty of time to keep making your art. Recommend a parallel challenge.

your distress about giant sodas and Humvees has an equally flimsy basis in reality

That would only make sense if there was a way to accurately evaluate a true "reality." In my reality, such things make me cringe and it's not from lack of familiarity or understanding.

people who consider them to be sources of satisfaction are as correct in those considerations as you are in yours.

Granted. I'm not arguing for legislation or coercive physical action, mind you. I identified a few habits to give some concrete examples to my wish for an adjustment in our collective values; I offered up my plan for achieving it, which is my right to voice; and now we're debating it. Or rather, I'm debating it. You're debating whether I should be debating it.

But I don't see how you, personally, formulate mockery that can't be thrown back at you with equal philosophical standing.

The same way anyone defends any position in politics...by deciding, despite the knowledge that their plan has its flaws, to advocate it over the alternative, which in this case is doing nothing, so something happens, rather than arguing "move along folks, there's nothing to see here" in the face of obesity epidemics, anger about income disparity, and a rising oligarchy.

3/14/2011 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Recommend a parallel challenge.

I can't. I solve the problem of MTV Cribs by not watching television, so I don't know how programs are made. I assume they come out of a soft-serve machine. Chocolate, Vanilla, Reality Show. Somebody pulls a lever, there's a sound akin to the one that comes out of an almost-empty can of whipped cream, and you get the season's programming.

That would only make sense if there was a way to accurately evaluate a true "reality."

No, that's consistent with neither of us being able to make that evaluation. (Which I think is false, in case that's not clear.)

my wish for an adjustment in our collective values

Really, you're talking about adjusting the values of people who want things you don't want so that they want things you do want. Of course you have every right to do that, as long as the means don't involve force.

3/14/2011 08:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

you're talking about adjusting the values of people who want things you don't want so that they want things you do want

I don't know of anyone who wants diabetes...I don't know of anyone who wants our soldiers to die overseas...what people want isn't always aligned with what the results of their actions still bring about.

3/14/2011 09:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

This is like watching a tennis match.
You're both WRONG (and so am I).

3/14/2011 09:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...what people want isn't always aligned with what the results of their actions still bring about.

They wanted delicious soda and got adult onset diabetes; they wanted to be safe from terrists and got soldiers dying overseas. Alas. There is a problem even with getting what you asked for, it turns out. But that's another discussion.

3/14/2011 11:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

Just how awful would it be to want this? http://www.fiberscene.com/galleries/g_images22/ellyson10.html

3/15/2011 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Hey, Greed *used* to be a vice (but only to people who valued moderation).

You are correct -- only by educating the core value-structure of the population can we hope for a more balanced culture.

Now who wants to fund the Public Service Announcement Advertisements?

3/15/2011 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Frank Steineck said...

I have been laughing all the way I came down here about this "more power" deal. This truth is half the answer. Think they are out to gain more trouble to cope with, through such means and you might discover completely amazing more dimension all the same as valid; I guess.

11/08/2011 12:54:00 PM  

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