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Money and Morality don’t mix well

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – August 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

MORALITY AND MONEY. Personally, I wouldn’t think those two subjects had much in common, but modern politicians always manage to highlight both of them in every speech.

Recently, I was reading a Newsweek article about the current political arguments regarding stem cell research (July 9). It should be noted, however, that — despite all of the discussion concerning when an embryo becomes a human being — this argument is not really about science or religion; it’s about money.

Our federal government has no real mandate to decide whether stem cell research should be legal or illegal; that’s up to the courts and the states. But congress does get to decide whether stem cell research can get federal funds.

So the debate is on, and getting more confusing and illogical with every discussion. Many opponents of stem cell research contend that it’s O.K. to produce and freeze human embryos, and some think it’s fine for cryogenics labs to dispose of embryos. Yet they insist that it’s entirely immoral to try to cure Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease with them.

Whereas, according to Newsweek, the Roman Catholic Church takes a more hard-line but “ethically consistent” stance, by opposing both in-vitro fertilization and the medical use of human embryos. The church objects to the production of embryos outside of the womb because so many of those embryos will automatically be destined for destruction.

As I sat there thinking about this brave new world of bio-ethics, it occurred to me that the Pope really does tend to be more consistent than America’s political leaders. The Pope objects to test tube babies, premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexual acts, birth control, and the death penalty without regard to whether his stance is popular, politically correct, or appropriately patriotic.

And perhaps for that very reason, American politicians and journalists both ignore most of the Pope’s viewpoint.

Although anti-death penalty activists, pro-life advocates, and conservatives sometimes cite a useful fragment of the pontiff’s perspective, Americans seldom note that the Pope also lambastes America’s greed and materialism, our reliance on weapons of destruction, and our misuse of power.

The Pope is neither on the right nor the left. On the contrary, sometimes he sounds as traditionally Republican as Bush, and sometimes he sounds like an old socialist hippie.

Like most non-Catholics, I heed only some of what the Pope has to say, (and some of his positions make me glad I was raised a Methodist). But I think the Pope does an admirable job.

He’s a religious leader — a man who’s supposed to talk about what’s right and wrong, what people should believe, what God wants, and how people can become better Christians. For the Pope, that’s well and good, and I think we might all do well to hear more of what he has to say.

But American politicians can’t and shouldn’t base their political decisions solely on the Pope’s positions (nor upon their personal religious convictions) — since it’s not a part of the Pope’s job description to reflect on whether his proclamations are popular, democratic, or easily embraced by Buddhists, Moslems and Christians without compromising their right to exercise and express their own religion.

Nope, it’s the Pope’s job to help define what Roman Catholics should believe. Whereas, it’s our government’s job to enact legislation that ensures law, order, and economic viability while allowing the citizens the freedom to follow their own religious and moral beliefs.

But for some reason, recent politicians cannot seem to fathom the difference between a candidate and a chaplain. And once in office, their attempts to arbitrate moral standards often result in absurdly immoral proceedings.

PRESIDENT BUSH, for example, recently proposed making the “unborn child” eligible for government health care, and abortion-rights advocates immediately protested the issue. So now both sides finally see a need to supplement the costs of pre-natal health care for the poor — which strikes me as a good and moral stance in a country that has long ignored the disgraceful gap in U.S. infant mortality rates between black and white and rich and poor citizens.

But of course very little will probably come of this health care proposition since the politicians have once again purposely launched a proposal calculated to please the constituency and antagonize the opposition — rather than to resolve any long-standing problems.

And therefore while the politicians squabble, more children will die, and more will suffer from physical handicaps and mental disabilities that might otherwise have been prevented.

And that strikes me as clearly immoral. And what’s more, I’d bet the Pope would agree, just as I agree with the Pope; Americans are immorally materialistic and far too apathetic about the world’s poor and beleaguered.

Yep, Americans tend to be greedy, acquisitive, self-absorbed, and heedless… But in our country it’s almost impossible not to be those things. Hey, if you snooze, you lose.

In a July 8th Denver Post column, Elaine St. James says, “According to a survey by Oxford Health Plans, workaholic behavior is on the rise. Oxford found that one in six United States employees is so overworked he or she is unable to use up annual vacation time. (Never mind U.S. workers already have less vacation time than any other industrialized nation.)”

And on the same day Clay Jenkinson, a scholar and Thomas Jefferson impersonator who does a regular show on NPR, cited materialism as a factor destroying America and Americans.

But what have our politicians to say about that iniquity?

Not much.

On the contrary, most American politicians seem to think it is their sacred duty to assure that every citizen can pursue the American dream to become a millionaire — by assuring that there can and will be more and more millionaires, and billionaires and multi-billionaires no matter what that means for the majority of us.

ANOTHER ARTICLE in the July 8th Denver Post _illustrates this tendency. Business writer Louis Aguilar writes, “The gap between the pay of the average worker and that of top corporate executives widened into a gulf during the 1990s, according to studies by two pro-labor think tanks.” The think tanks contend that the “ratio of top executive to worker pay has exploded this decade to 419 to 1 in 1999 from 42 to 1 in 1980.”

Although the best things in life may well be free — love, health, happiness, and the beauty of brilliant sunrises and gorgeous views — in recent years our politicians have been working overtime to assure that the wealthy get more money.

Recently, Bush delivered a tax cut guaranteed to do just that. Republicans act as if this favored treatment of the wealthy is somehow not only inevitable (which it may well be) but as if it were also moral and righteous — which it clearly is not.

But the Democrats have probably done even more than the Republicans to account for recent gains by the wealthy and losses by the middle class. Although Republicans have long favored encouraging unrestrained international trade, unfettered business, and unheard- of corporate earnings, Clinton delivered their dreams.

BUT THAT, OF COURSE, isn’t all that the wealthy get from our representatives. As some tax reform proponents present it, not only is it right and proper that the rich have much, much, much more money than the vast majority of us, but apparently — because they pay more taxes — the wealthy are also entitled to better public education, health care, government representation, and legal access. This is all, of course, justified by the tired old maxim that they’ve earned such benefits just as they’ve earned their money.

But that’s where the “rich are entitled” argument falls apart — because the wealthy haven’t necessarily earned their money. On the contrary, recent financial trends have given the wealthy more and more of the pie whether they’ve earned it or not.

Reporter Aguilar convincingly points out something we all know: wealthy CEOs do not necessarily get what they deserve. On the contrary, they get paid exorbitantly whether they’re driving their company toward record profits or Chapter 11. Aguilar talks about all the guaranteed benefit and retirement packages, stock options, and severance agreements that guarantee that top CEOs get paid well no matter how poorly they manage.

Workers, however, do not always get paid as well as they deserve. Aguilar points out, “Close to one-third of all working Americans spent the late 1990s grinding away for wages of $8 an hour or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

And that amount is hardly adequate these days. But even so, those workers will not be receiving federal tax rebates, because they did not technically pay federal income taxes.

Nope, although the Feds no doubt demanded several thousand dollars from them for Social Security taxes, and although they almost certainly paid their share of sales taxes on food, gasoline, and utilities, they didn’t pay Federal income taxes.


Well, because, after all those other taxes they were left with a mere $10,000 or so in income — hardly enough for the Feds to bother with. But is that really what so many full-time workers earned? Did they really put in so much less time, less work, less effort, and less brain power than the CEO with the 3.5 million-dollar-a-year income?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income of male workers, adjusted for inflation, was 3.8% lower in 1998 than in 1974.

IT’S WEIRD HOW WE SEEM to be going backward — eliminating all those gains our forebears paid for in blood at places like Ludlow — until now, once again, fully employed Americans can’t afford adequate homes or medical care.

But what’s even weirder, is what poor families can afford. A poor American can usually afford to buy a boom box, television, VCR, Play Station and a collection of favorite movies. Electronics are getting cheaper and cheaper. He can also afford to eat pretty well, since food is also relatively cheap.

But even if a hapless single parent working a little more than 40 hours a week for $7.50 an hour tightens his belt and foregoes all those gadgets, he’ll probably have trouble keeping up with the cost of adequate housing. And if he doesn’t already have housing, he might have a lot of trouble coming up with the deposits necessary to get into an apartment. And if he doesn’t work for a corporation large enough to provide health insurance, as is true of many (if not most) salaried workers in Central Colorado, he probably won’t be able to come up with the hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month it takes to insure himself and his children. And on top of that, he probably can’t afford adequate daycare.

But even so, he can probably afford — fairly easily with a credit card and a satisfactory credit history — a computer, a used car, and a houseful of furniture.

And therefore modern poverty tends to seem surreal. Go to the city and you can see bag ladies carting around several grocery carts full of goods. Stay in the country, and you can meet kids with the latest computer game and a mouthful of painfully rotten teeth.

Here, there, and everywhere in the U.S., the poor are materialists just like everyone else in our culture. But they can’t afford to maintain health or hearth. In 1999, 16.9% of American children and 11.8% of all Americans lived in poverty (defined as $13,290 for a family of 3).

The good news is that Coloradans are comparatively well-off (with only 8.7 percent living in poverty in ’99). But of course, many Coloradans, while not poverty-stricken are poor… And even the middle class is losing ground. And housing costs are spiraling… And jobs in the tourist industry tend to be seasonal… And HMOs and health care plans that provide affordable health care are seldom available in rural areas… And according to the papers, the national economy is slowing — or perhaps even tanking.

YET EVEN SO, it’s difficult to notice any recessionary trend here in Central Colorado this summer. In our region, February is frighteningly slow, March is downright sluggish, and April is chilled to a standstill as often as not. Thus after mud season things are bound to look up. Even in the eighties — when Climax cut back and jobs evaporated faster than springtime muck — June and July still spelled relief.

In Salida this summer, crowds have arrived right on schedule for FIBArk, Art Walk, the 4th of July and the Brewers Rendezvous, and most local merchants seem pleased with the season. But pronouncing the health of our overall economy during festival season would be as foolish as judging the economy of Louisiana by assessing Mardi Gras.

Whether there will be a nation-wide recession remains to be seen. There’s some speculation that Colorado will see a general slow-down in both growth and the construction industry in the coming years, but whether our small towns could be (or will be) seriously affected is still anybody’s guess.

At this point, though, we don’t really have much cause for alarm. Yet it only seems natural to worry a little — especially in Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, Fairplay and Westcliffe where the economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and where, on the whole, we are not producing too many of the necessities of life.

HERE, WE’RE MAKING PICTURES, pottery, jewelry, second homes, dream homes, mountain retreats, and rafting adventures. We’re marketing music, arts, crafts, adventure, and entertainment. We’re selling all the accessories required to make your camping or fishing expedition easier, and your vacation more comfortable. And although these are all worthy products, one suspects that they may not be the most marketable commodities during a serious recession.

For the time being, however, our local economy seems hardy enough, but not secure enough. For those of us who aren’t CEOs with golden parachutes, the economy is never secure enough. After all, housing costs are soaring, health care costs are skyrocketing, insurance costs are considerable, the economy’s uncertain, and the future’s unclear. Which may explain why so many Americans are greedy materialists.

Like squirrels, we start out by trying to accumulate just enough to last through a bad winter, but none of us are ever really sure how much that will take. So we squirrel away more and more, and want more and more, and finally we ignore each other more and more as we settle into a furious cycle of getting and spending.

And although you wouldn’t know it from listening to America’s fearful leaders, when it comes to corrupting influences and wicked transgressions, traditional moralists rank greed, avarice, covetousness, and rampant materialism right up there with rap music and sexy movies.

Greed threatens our environment, corrupts our politics, devastates our families, and despoils our communities.

Desperate just to stay afloat, or just to get a little ahead, Americans work longer hours than anyone else in the first world — ignoring their spouses, and neglecting their children. Latchkey kids loiter in our parks. The homeless beg on city corners and in Wal-Mart parking lots — annoying everyone. Neighbors barely know one another. Teachers and public employees grow resentful about being overworked and underpaid and never getting enough support from parents and families who are often even more overworked and underpaid than they are.

Yet our leaders just keep promoting greed with their economic policies, tax cuts, and unswerving devotion to corporate values and uplifting the GNP… With their indifference to injustice and inequitable treatment in our nation’s courts, universities and hospitals… With their love for campaign contributions and wealthy celebrities… –Martha Quillen