Monday, June 26, 2006

Pride and Prejudice in the 21st Century

Last night I had the distinct pleasure of watching "Pride and Prejudice" on DVD. This is a wonderful film, beautifully acted, deliciously topical despite it's 18th century setting and breathtakingly photographed. (I had to resist the urge to yell "painting" during the opening shot of many a scene.)

However, the thought that stayed with me after the movie was the class system in England as depicted in the film. There are 'good' families with money and breeding, and 'bad' families who are poor or down on their luck. When contemplating marriage between such families, many characters in the film expressed horror and shock at the idea of one marrying "outside of one's station." (This was mostly evident in the rich families.) The core concept was that money equals goodness.

This must be a fundamental human impulse, for it is resurgent today in the United States. The message we're seeing from more and more media outlets is that those with money must be good, while those without are bad.

Our first impulse may be to recoil from such a statement. "We are the land of opportunity," you might protest. "We judge people on their merits, not their riches." While that may have been somewhat true in the past it is certainly under attack today by the right. But the policies of this government indicate the opposite.

Under the leadership of the Republican Party we see allowances made for the rich while the poor and middle class are ignored, willfully neglected or actively cheated. Tax cuts are rammed through which overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. The Estate Tax is under assault in a naked effort to help the wealthy keep more of their money in the family, in direct contradiction to the efforts of the founders to prevent just such an establishment of a moneyed or landed 'gentry.' No-bid contracts fatten the purses of conglomerates chummy with government officials, leading to fraud, waste and abuse while competition is bypassed and small business are ignored. Most egregiously, in the past week we have seen Congress both grant themselves a pay raise while shamefully voting down an increase in the national minimum wage.

On the part of the pundits and megaphones for the 'moral' right, we see plenty of fulminations against welfare mothers, Katrina victims, 9/11 victims and so on. No one wants 'their' taxes to go to pay for easing the problems of 'others.' It's an orgy of selfishness that belies their allegedly Christian faith.

The perverse presumption underlying all this is that if you're poor you deserve it; you're somehow in moral failure. If you're rich, it's because you're a good person, favored by God. Extending the absurdity further, if you're rich you need government help to stay rich and get richer. If you're poor the government must ensure you're not too much of a drain on the rich.

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal attempted to counter the inequities of wealth in this country, but those efforts were unable to take wing until the end of World War II, when our unprecedented economic might could be turned to the benefit of the consumer. In the decades that followed, the government granted college educations to military veterans, funded education, infrastructure established and raised the minimum wage repeatedly. The result was a huge expansion in the middle class and a rise in average wealth for US citizens. Most of the country benefited. It was a golden age.

But the trend since 2000 has been to punish the poor and reward the rich. Not only do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, we now have a shrinking middle class as well, most of them migrating downward, not upward. This can only lead to economic and social instability.

We find ourselves back in the 18th century, with the wealthy odiously dismissing the value, the needs, the very lives of those less fortunate, with those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder being thrown into the dumpster, 'where they belong.' This wealthy elite now runs the government and has been in a position to codify this vile set of values into tax policy and governmental operations.

This trend must be reversed. We must raise the minimum wage. We cannot continue to give tax breaks to the wealthy, certainly not at a time when we are running up record deficits and spending billions on military operations. In order to secure the future of this nation we must spend more on education, not less, and increase investment to shore up our crumbling infrastructure to ensure our continuing economic viability.

We cannot continue to treat the poor as a burden to be abandoned, an inconvenience to be bypassed or ignored. Otherwise we'll find ourselves back in the 18th century. No one wants to be the victim of this kind of 'pride and prejudice.'


Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the music in P&P. It has some of the most beautiful piano music I have heard since Beethoven. I feel the composer should have won the Oscar for his music.

There are exceptions to the rich being bastards. Today, I heard that Jimmie Buffet, the Billionaire, is giving his vast riches primarily to the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation.
1. Jimmy doesn't believe children should inherit lots of money.
2. By donating to existing foundations time and money are not lost creating your own charity and hiring middle-men.
3. He wants to see his money put to good use now, not after he is dead.

Now, are there any other millionaires out there listening? - Pam

bimplebean said...

Your most telling point is the correct one - Buffett doesn't believe children should inherit lots of money. Gates feels the same way. Economist Robert Reich makes some very good arguments along this line as well.

bimplebean said...

Oh yeah, and yes the music was to die for!