Monday, December 2, 2013

When We Die

One of these days you will be on your death bed.  When that time comes, you will have to look back on your life and see whether or not you are ashamed of who you were and what you did.  Did you spend your life spreading goodwill, generosity, and kindness?  Did you spend that time trying to build up treasure for yourself you won't be able to bring with you?  What sort of unethical things might you have done to build up those riches? 

If you invent a cure for a disease and make money while making the world a better place, then you deserve  it.  But if you spent your life deceiving and manipulating others to gain wealth, or simply acted as a parasite on the system, then shame on you.  The horror of horrors is the privilege of looking back and seeing that your life was wasted.

Studies have shown time and again that the rich believe themselves more entitled than others.  As a group, they give less to charity and report more willingness to lie and cheat to maintain their riches.  No wonder the Bible says "Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."  Matthew 19:23-24.

Our society celebrates the life of Steve Jobs, a man who used his genius to build a company which restricts its customers, manipulates people, and treats its overseas workers poorly.  Most people have never heard of Richard Stallman, the man who invented the GNU operating license, which gave us free and open source software.  This is the type of open and free software which is used in Android mobile phones, NASA satellites, Internet servers, and many other applications.  Stallman was considered a computer genius who instead of focusing on profits, spent his life giving back and trying to make the world a better place.  Jobs spent his life building walls to enslave people while Stallman spent his trying to tear down these walls.

American society is still infested with the stench of the Protestant work ethic and the insane notion that people who are rich are better people who deserve what they have.  While many rich people are deserving, there are some rich people who have become so by swindling others--think of Wall Street bankers who orchestrated the prime loan meltdown, corrupt executives, and politicians who enrich themselves through greed and corruption. 

America hates its poor.  If you are poor, the notion is that it is your fault because you are either lazy or stupid.  This means you deserve to be subject to all sorts of indignities to make sure you feel even more useless just for surviving--these include drug tests for welfare recipients, making children who receive free lunches work after school, and the like.  Corporate executives who received bailouts for the companies they bankrupted were spared such indignities.  The bonuses went out like usual. 

The system is set up to be diseased and incentivize the wrong things.  But individuals have their choices as well.  If you are extremely talented and you use your talent to do something harmful, even if you are well paid for it, you are better off never having used that talent.  Adolf Eichmann may have been an efficiency and planning virtuoso, but his use of these skills to organize the murder of millions on an industrial scale is no excuse.  He would have been better off being a janitor.  At least then he would have do no harm.  Those who are blessed with the most talent are expected to have more responsibility.  Privilege brings responsibility.

The trick is not entangling yourself with burdens you must meet.  Debt for luxury items is one example.  Once the credit card companies have their teeth stuck in you, you become a slave to your paymaster.  That means fudging ethics when necessary.  Live simply.  Need little so little can be expected of you by those with the purse strings.  Move through life trying to do as little harm as possible.  If you have gifts, use them for good, not evil.  If the world has never heard of you and thinks you are a loser, that means you are probably on the right track.

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