Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.