Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Into the Eye of the Needle

Living in the time of Corona has transformed my perspective on money. 

My regular life, and that of my family - school, work, socializing, volunteering - ground to a halt for 5 months. Our income was up in the air, but our expenses also decreased. I didn't start my car for 3 months. It still feels miraculous (I mean truly divine) that through this experience I've become less concerned with having money. 

I've spent my entire life worrying about not having enough money. Since being adults, Jonas and I have never earned enough income to transcend the poverty bracket in California. I've long suspected that the only people who say "money can't buy happiness" aren't poor. I've always been incredibly careful with money out of fear. We have small savings, but not enough for a down payment on a house and monthly expenses. 

In March of 2020, there suddenly seemed no better use for savings than to use them for what we needed and share anything we could. All the long-term plans I had for money didn't seem so important. Having everything that we needed and the privilege to adjust our work schedules wasn't lost on me.  

Meanwhile, migrant workers with no legal status have no access to government assistance. Workers who kept jobs at businesses that remained open were at far higher risk but paid less than those who were furloughed or laid off and got stimulus money. In our city, households in which all adults are in-person workers have to choose between leaving children home alone, paying for childcare or risking group childcare, or quitting a job, all of which could result in financial ruin and homelessness. 

Many people wanted to be helpful to others in the beginning of the pandemic, and it was wonderful to see. There were varying degrees of success with help. We watched as some celebrities became more laughable than enviable. It didn't look like a privilege so much as a tragedy that anyone could be so delusional about how most people experience uncertainty. It was clear that even their money didn't shield them from loneliness or fear. For a moment, it was easier to stop glorifying the lifestyle of apparent ease and fun that we think extravagant money will bring. 

Heads Might Roll 

People laugh every time I make this comparison, but the early days of Covid19 made me think of the French Revolution and how much I wanted to take care not to be an aristocrat while other people were starving. When times are desperate, I want to be sure that people come to me knowing I will share food, not come for me because they know I have food that I'm not sharing. Certainly the rancor toward Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has increased as he's not only insulated himself from "the masses", but directly profited by exploiting them. Any desire I had to be fabulously wealthy is no longer appealing in this light.

I'm not going to attempt to define wealth. Wealth is relative and about perspective, in addition to numbers. Thanks to many aspects of 2020, I consider myself unmetaphorically wealthy, and I didn't used to. How we calculate wealth is deeply dependent on our social beliefs about money and work. 

What is the purpose of money? Try and answer this for yourself, right now. 

Money, to me, has largely been about security. I've focused much of that thinking toward the idea of home ownership and reliable vehicles. I would like not to feel conflicted about every purchase. If I were to achieve my desired sense of security, then I think money would be about comfort and enjoyment. I dream of a variety of vacations. Perhaps I could buy craftsman level decorations for my dream home. 

Much of my thinking about work has supported my ideals about money. For a long time, I not only accepted, but venerated a capitalist model. Capitalism is "industry privately controlled for profit". To "profit" essentially means to create wealth. I liked the idea that I could find work that I enjoy and profit from it to shape the lifestyle that I envision. But when my priorities shifted, my thinking about money and work also changed. 

I am not suggesting that a proper alternative to capitalism is state-controlled profit, but rather that the model of work for the sake of wealth accumulation is immoral. Poverty in the United States exists in part because of the for-profit model. Most workers do not make enough money to be able to afford the price of goods or services, including housing and healthcare. The profits of the businesses that are underpaying workers goes toward business owners or shareholders to increase their personal wealth. This is greed - workers are exploited for the personal gain of owners or shareholders. 

Economics for Feral Housewives

Beyond compensating workers appropriately for their labor, the model of operations used by non-profit organizations holds potential beyond its current manifestations. Non-profit companies are organizations whose ultimate purpose (in theory) is to improve people's wellbeing. By contrast, a for-profit company's ultimate purpose is to create wealth for its owners. One could argue that wealth contributes to the well-being of the owners, but as I'm going to seek to illustrate, unchecked wealth accumulation on the part of owners is detrimental both to workers and ultimately to the owners themselves.

My brother in law Andrew Sears currently works for a Fortune100 for-profit company, and previously ran a variety of non-profits. He wrote the following section via text in response to my questions. 
If my for-profit employer makes $100 in revenue and spends $50 in expenses (including labor), it has $50 left. It can invest $50 back into building the business or it can distribute $50 among its owners (shareholders) pockets. Even if it invests back into the business, the goal of that investment is to increase the value of the business which increases its stock value, which increases shareholder wealth. Investors in for-profit companies give money expecting to receive more money in return as the company grows. 

Now consider a nonprofit hospital. It gets $100 in revenue through donations and patient payments. It spends $50 on expenses (including labor) and has $50 left. The hospital doesn't have shareholders to pocket $50, so the $50 is invested to improve the services the hospital provides. Investors in nonprofits (charities or individual donors) give without expectation of return but as in investment in positive social impact. 
Why don't we replace capitalist structure with something akin to non-profit organizations? To continue with the Fortune100 analogy, Andrew asked: 
Would you donate money to my employer without any expectation of return just so we could develop software that will never be of interest or use to you? It's unlikely. We generally only donate money to causes we care about deeply, and that doesn't describe most of the for-profit business world. But businesses need money to grow. Thus, capitalists devised a system in which people (investors) were incentivized to give money to businesses (invest) because they can expect a reward (return on investment). To replace this system, we'd need to think of alternative ways for businesses to get the money they need to grow. 
Having run a (very small) business myself, I understand the necessity of profit. Sometimes I would purchase a book for 10c and resell it at market value, say $10.00. Sometimes my profit was hundreds of times what materials had cost me. That profit went toward expenses: packaging materials, postage, new stock, and to some degree the operation of a car and internet without which I couldn't have a business. As a one-person business operation, all leftover profits went to my bank account, where I used it for all the regular stuff: bills, groceries, things I wanted, gifts. Whatever wasn't spent was savings. I don't know if this is a perfect analogy since I wasn't making enough profit to generate personal wealth, but my tentative answer to "how should businesses get money to grow, if not through the investment structure", is that if the demand for a service or product isn't high enough to generate enough profit to grow without additional investment, maybe it has reached it's natural size already. 

If your business produces enough profit to support your needs, is further growth not just pursuit of wealth? If the demand for a good or service is beyond the ability of the owner to meet, an employee or partner is introduced and the additional revenue coming from increased productivity goes toward  increased labor. When wealth (unallotted profit) is introduced into the equation, I think the balance between work and profit begins to derail. Rather than create class disparity or inflate demand for a product, unallotted profit should play a positive role in society. 

Most of us own things that we don't need. This isn't wrong in itself, but unclear (or immoral) priorities fuel rampant consumerism, and capitalism feeds on consumerism. Any model of business only survives if the demand for its goods or services is sustained. For example, I know that I pay much more for my iPhone than it costs to make it, both in parts and labor. But I'm still willing to pay that price because of the value I place on what it provides for me. In essence, I support Apple's profit margin with my dollars, even though I'm in conflict with the implications of that profit. 

What would it take to change that? The demand for iPhones at their current price would have to shift, either from a boycott or a comparable lower-priced alternative that drove demand for iPhones down enough to cause a decrease in price. Consumers have more power to cause good change than we typically harness in economics. 

It's very difficult for those in poverty to make morality-based decisions about purchases if they have the option to buy products that are cheaper due to the exploitation of whoever harvested or made those products. Convenience and price keep Amazon the behemoth that it is, but the speed and cost at which those items are available are only possible because of the labor of a host of poorly-paid, poorly-cared for workers. In this way, capitalism again traps the poor - you only work an Amazon warehouse job if you don't have a better paying, less back-breaking option. 

What if society's values demanded that profit go to workers first (the profit-sharing model, or ESOP, does exist, but isn't common), and then either into the improvement of goods and services or to common good; medical research, food equity, affordable housing, sustainable farming, reforestation, disaster relief, etc. (Look up @healthcareforthepeople2020). Basically, why don't we cut out the monetary advantage of ownership and shareholding? At some point, a good or service ought not to need more capital to improve it. There is always room for invention and innovation, but consumers have the power to choose what direction they want for innovation. Is money better spent on a yearly redesign of the exteriors of luxury cars or in testing how to power a jet with non-pollutant energy? We should use "exploration" money for things that are truly value-added and put the rest back into our communities. 

The Land After Capitalism

Not to get too far ahead of myself, but if profits went primarily to laborers and social improvements instead of owners or shareholders, I see 3 major benefits. First, workers would be more like partners in their places of work. The profits of their labor would sustain them comfortably and wealth disparity between owners and workers would diminish. Moreover, seeking wealth through stock ownership would be irrelevant if you made that same money from your job. Of course, many wealthy owners and stockholders don't work at all (in which case their wealth becomes morally obscure, at best), but more on that later. 

The second benefit would be that many systemic societal dilemmas like homelessness and hunger could largely be addressed through profits feeding into the public sector, even if some members of society will never be able to "pull their own weight" in terms of labor. Some mental health issues would be alleviated by better economic standards, and those who are chronically ill could at least get decent, consistent support and care from healthcare workers who themselves were economically secure. 

Third, a private-profit funded approach to social wellness ought to drastically decrease taxes. If business profits were invested in social betterment, there would be little need to pay the government to perform the same services. Our government doesn't seem to be very good at it, anyway. Society could also choose what was really beneficial to itself which I believe would exclude international land-grabbing and nuclear warheads. Land-grabbing for oil or other natural resources has always been about increasing wealth. Imagine focusing energy and money into your own society instead of robbing someone else's or even returning what has been robbed. It's practically revolutionary

So much corruption - political, environmental, economic, social - is rooted in a quest for money. 2020 has lifted the veil on that more than ever and has made it that much clearer to many Americans that part of the reason they don't have enough is because of deliberate theft. It's hard to keep viewing America as "good" for us or to us. Capitalism has a net benefit for a precious few, and it's not the workers. 

If a non-profit model based society sounds like a communist utopia or democratic socialism or marxist economics, maybe it is. As this funny video points out, what existed before capitalism was feudalism, and feudalism disintegrated and was replaced over a period of several hundred years. It is extremely unlikely that we will see capitalism replaced in our lifetime. Actualizing the non-profit model means giving up the for-profit model, and historically, that's not popular with those who are profiting. So really what I'm trying to do is explain to you how I want to change my money habits and work toward moral, social benefit. And if you see any merit to it, maybe you will change one tiny habit too. 

The Misery of Midas 

The pitfalls of the for-profit model deepen when there is great disparity between workers and bosses, such as Jeff Bezos and the warehouse worker, or property owners who extort renters. Exploited laborers naturally want a better situation, and capitalism beckons us toward the lifestyle of the owner - perhaps if you break your back for long enough, you can gain the power and money and ease that allows you to yacht around while your employees suffer to increase your wealth. 

Many of us want(ed) that life, but we don't stop to think of how unlikely it is or what it requires of us and others to get there. No one becomes a billionarie because they worked harder than everyone else. If hard work was in a direct ratio to wealth accruement, as we so often say that it is, field workers would be very wealthy. Jeff Bezos doesn't worker harder than his employees,  he robs them. What's more, Bezos' money has long since passed being of service to him. He could not even spend 200 billion dollars on himself if he dedicated the rest of his life to shopping. When I'm not feeling disgusted at his ill-gained billions, I feel sad for Jeff Bezos. I wonder if he knows what he's lost. 200 billion dollars can buy caviar, and I hope he enjoys that, but it can't buy community, trust, or happiness. Insulation from poverty is also insulation from those who are in it, and that takes a massive toll on one's morality, no matter how much you make.

What does it benefit us to gain the whole world, but we ourselves are lost or destroyed? (Luke 9:25)

I think Jesus was being literal when he told a rich young ruler, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Then the passage says, "when the rich young ruler heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy." Then Jesus said, "Indeed, 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.”  (Luke 18:22-25)

Jesus really went hard against love of money. He talked about money a lot, actually - 11 out of 40 parables, more than the topics of faith and prayer, combined (source). Pre-Covid, I never considered myself wealthy, so I'm sad to say I just glossed over most of what Jesus teaches about money. Jesus doesn't vilify those with wealth so much as lament how easy it is for those with wealth to be blind. When a corrupt tax-collector named Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, it prompted Zacchaeus to give away half of what he owned and repay those he had cheated at a rate of 4 times the damage he had caused. Jesus celebrated Zacchaeus' decision. (Luke 19)

God doesn't call everyone to the same roles, but I think too many of us have been hoping (assuming?) he is calling us toward roles that involve personal wealth. The American church (as a broad culture; certainly exceptions apply) seems pretty assimilated into the capitalist structure, and even gets into some exploitations of its own. It's both funny and sad to realize how much I was enticed by Christian riches. Heaven is talked about in children's songs as a place with individual mansions and golden streets. The reward for good works is jewels in our heavenly crowns. For all I know, those things are true, but it took me so long to discover that that's simply not the point. It took me not quite as long to realize that a jeweled crown just wasn't going to cut it as life long motivation. I've spent a lot of time feeling secretly unnerved that a Heaven based on glorious riches is sort of shitty. I only care to go there as an alternative to something more painful. What a bizarre way to view the present and the future. 

Jesus made the present quite a bit more clear. "You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own" (Luke 14:33). "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62. Harsh, but radical). "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be" (Matthew 6:21). "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). 

The Workers Are Revolting 

After being furloughed from my job in March, I was laid off in August. Those 5 months were long enough for me to fully internalize that I had been working too much. I fear what will happen if I don't work enough to make enough money, but that cycle was broken enough to realize my worst fears did not materialize. Even the necessary components of work and money can create a whole that is not good. 

My relationship to money as leisure (I love to thrift shop) was also put into perspective. Rather than feeling deprivation (though certainly I experienced a sense of loss during early Covid days like many others), I became acutely aware of how I could not only survive, but thrive without accumulating more things. I became content with what I have. That train of thought has aided my goal of shifting away from supporting corporations known to exploit workers. 

I had already been aware of my perpetual exhaustion at working 3 jobs. I never had time or energy to look for other work or to build hobbies into sustainable work (the dream, supposedly, for many creatives). Not to mention that maintaining relationships and investing in my community got the leftovers of my energy and attention. There was an illusion that we'd "get somewhere" at some undetermined point in the future. We'd have worked long and hard enough to... I don't know.... stop? Rest? Which is code for get rich or retire, I guess. That's the base assumption of the American Dream - anything is achievable if you work hard enough. Ironically, the rewards for all that hard work are material, and you probably won't have any time left to enjoy them, let alone be able to part with what you worked so long and hard for. We are slaves to this dream. 

Money as the reward for life (or afterlife!), i.e. capitalism, leaves no room for rest. There is no space to say "no" to working more and harder to the end of time. For example, Jonas' job has not infrequent "mandatory overtime". There are penalties for not fulfilling a work quota in most jobs - namely, you'll be replaced by someone who will work more. In some cases, doing your best work only leads to increased expectations on productivity. 

America was born not out of truly Christian values but out of a twisted view that everything here is here for the taking to those who work for it. We consider hard work toward our own gain one of our greatest virtues. A byproduct of this view of work is that we tend to believe that those who aren't wealthy just haven't worked hard enough yet. At the same time, Americans live with a deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. If the person next to you works harder than you do, there will be less for you to gain toward your own wealth. 

If wealth is your goal, you can not escape slavery. 

Working Class Morality

If you could have something better than you have right now, wouldn't you take it? A nicer house, a better job, a newer car? I've always thought the obvious answer was yes! At what point do we stop answering yes? If we can't determine that point at which we have everything we need, it will pass us by and we will find ourselves enslaved.  

So much that we thought we deserved or we earned of our own merit turns out not to be our right. As we recognized, hard work does not necessarily equal decent pay. There are lots of reasons someone might have enough or more than enough in their life, but as a person of faith, I view the things I have as a gift. Not a reward, but a gift. 

Capitalism suggests that wealth is personal. Afterall, what's mine is not someone else's, right? If I give something that is mine away, then I have less for myself. Is it wrong to have wealth? Your money, your decisions, right? In the sense of free will, that remains true. But if you view what you have as a gift, you become the vessel that wealth passes through, not its destination. 

If we stop viewing wealth as our individual concern, it ought to affect our choices far beyond our possessions. In July, I found myself in a position in which I knew that the right thing for me to do as a representative of a brand was to publicly and unequivocally denounce a statement that had been made against Black people. The brand I was representing not only rescinded my statement, but forbade any further mention of the topic. It was risk management from the brand's perspective, but the feeling of telling the injured party that there would not only be no restitution, but no public acknowledgment whatsoever made a lasting impression on me. For the first time in my working life, I confronted the idea that the return for my labor (money) was not worth moral ambiguity, not to mention direct harm. 

Setting your own needs above or against those of others is literally antithetical to the gospel. How much more egregious if you already have everything that you need? If we refute the idea that we should be working toward the benefit of those who have less than we have, what sort of Christianity are we defending? 

Looking a Gift Camel in the Mouth 

When you feel taken care of or have your own wealth put into perspective, it's much easier to be benevolent toward others. Unless you're greedy, which is perhaps more of an insecurity than a moral flaw at first. Some greed originates from feeling that you aren't taken care of. Wealthy people do have their economic needs met, but many seem to lack the benefits that come from being in community with others and sharing common goals.

As has been covered, immense wealth is not the result of work, but the amassing of the profits of other people's work. This wealth creates an erosion of perspective as one can not fathom poverty or even reality. An absence of wealth sharing drives a wedge in community. I experience that pretty often - that which I have no concept of can barely affect my lifestyle or my choices. Some poverty, even local to my city, is so far outside of my own reality that I am unaware it. Even if someone described it to me, I might find it truly unbelievable. That is privilege. Even without a ton of money to my name, the money and possessions I do have are only possible, in part, due to the labor of others. I can not fit through the eye of a needle if I do not pass on every gift I have been given. 

Work is good. Having good things is good. Stopping there is not good. After discussing much of this with my sister, she was feeling guilty for wallpapering her bathroom. Sure, wallpaper isn't a necessity, but I don't think it's immoral as long as it's not instead of sharing wealth. 

Those who have a lot should give away a lot. "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48; Context is about responsibility rather than explicitly about money, but I think it applies).

Literally giving money away is yet another Covid-fueled revelation to me. 

I experienced a dilemma when I knew we'd be receiving a stimulus check signed by Donald Trump. On the one hand, I was not immediately in need of the money and I'm wary of the economic consequences of trying to stimulate capitalism by printing money. On the other hand, the future was more uncertain than usual and it seemed like burning rotten money was of less use than simply giving it away to fund the legal expenses of the exact people Trump's administration has vilified for challenging his violent authoritarianism. I went with the latter, and it's very cathartic. 

Christians will be familiar with the concept of tithing - giving roughly 10% of your profits (which are a gift), back to God. Having grown up hearing this all my life, I was never quite on board. Overall, giving to the church always felt shame-based to me. I knew I was supposed to do it, but I didn't want to. It's supposed to be given to the church in the same spirit in which we received it - as a gift. My heart was never in it. I also felt that I didn't have enough money to give any away. Finally, I didn't like how churches use the money they are given a lot of the time. 

All of that melted away when I began to see anyone in need as my neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), and giving "to the least of these" as giving to Jesus (Matthew 25:35-40). Christian philosophies will vary here, but I believe that mutual aid is a legitimate form of tithing. Am I, as a Christian working together with other Christians, not an embodiment of the church? Not passing money through a church organization is not less churchy than acting as an extension of the church myself. Many churches are not giving to the same people in whom I am seeing the image of Christ. In fact, I think that for some people, traditional American tithing factors into that wealth wedge I was talking about - without direct contact with the poor, you have no personal awareness or investment in helping. Giving to a church organization can become a passing of the buck, if you will (lol). 

I am not saying it is wrong to give money to churches. In fact, a local church does monetarily support Jonas and I in our community work and thereby church members are indirectly supporting some people in our city who they do not even know exist. BUT, I think it would benefit these church members to give their tithe directly to their neighbors in need, as I have seen a magnificent benefit in my own life from doing. 

Many people in the church are much more generous with money than I ever have been. It can also be true that many of them aren't connected to the ground floor of local needs. Especially in church culture, Christians tend to recognize the needs of the impoverished elsewhere in the world. I am glad churches give toward international needs. I wish more churches recognized their hometowns as places where there are people who desperately need help, if only we could collide our world with theirs. 

We have got to stop pausing to form a hierarchy of other's needs as we try and pivot away from the clutches of individual wealth. I've wasted a lot of time looking for "the neediest" or figuring I'll give tomorrow when a disaster closer to my heart strikes. I'll give tomorrow when I can better understand the predicament of someone asking for help. Just say yes today. "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:24).

Due to my entrenched scarcity mindset, I have always struggled to ask for money (because that must mean I'm not working hard enough!) and I didn't like being asked for money either. As I'm learning to give, I'm also learning to ask. I've noticed that people who are poor tend to both give and ask for money and resources much more freely than those who comfort themselves with wealth. Those who are wealthy don't need help and so they rarely experience money as a gift. 

Trust what other people say their needs are. Maybe some people will exploit the money you give. Remember that Jack Johnson lyric, "somebody else needed something so bad, they took everything that somebody had?" When we stop viewing our riches as our own, we stop feeling robbed when other people take what they need. Anything we have is a gift that we've been given for the very purpose of giving it away. 

Sharing wealth should be a lifestyle, not a checkbox. We must be invested in the long-term health of our community, and that happens through relationship. I am working every week to learn the needs of our community and I'm sharing those periodically, mostly in my Instagram stories (@weird_eyes). If you're not local to my city, I promise there are people who need help directly or those who need help in helping the community very near by you. Look for them, and don't stop until you find them. 

I hope I never forget what I've learned in 2020. I began to give away what I have to the poor and gained a sense of wealth I've been chasing my whole life. 

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