The Oversimplification of Good and Bad

A few days ago, I found out one of my friends passed away. To be honest, she was more an acquaintance, as I’d only met her in person a handful of times. She wasn’t old, she wasn’t sick (as far as I knew), and she’d been active online as of two weeks ago. I don’t know if it was COVID or cancer or a car accident. Not that it matters. Dead is dead.

Right after hearing this piece of news, I found out that my friend’s wife was having her baby (their first child) later that afternoon. An evening post included a picture of the healthy baby boy. So, on one hand we have this bit of sad news, on the other, happy news. Life giveth and death taketh away.

But does this make death bad and life good? One could argue that neither are good or bad in themselves. Death prevents awful people from doing more harm, just as it prevents wonderful people from doing more good. Life for some is so terrible that not being born would be the better option, while for others not living would be worse.

When it comes to people being good or bad, we judge them limited by the short span of time we are alive to witness the effect of their actions, slightly longer if they’ve preceded us to the grave. To decide if someone was truly good or bad, we’d have to follow every thread of influence that their life has had on others and the sum total of that effect. And good people may do awful things, just as awful people may do good things.

The main problem with categorizing things as good or bad, however, is that it simplifies life in all its complexities, and simplifies us in all our multitudes. My friend was a lovely person, and yet to say she was a good person is to ignore the parts of her character that are neither good nor bad but just are, parts that her friends have been sharing on Facebook and which give a clearer idea of what was put in the universe with her life that is no longer there in her death. As for the baby, the years ahead will decide what kind of space he fills in the world, but there’s currently a very large vacancy.

The Coming Age

I had a very different post planned, one which dealt with the superfluous and the personal. But then the election results were called (except in alternate-universe land, where even Fox News dared not to tread — except in their talk shows). And, of course, the historic press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping took place, which continues to be a gift to comedy. So, as a privileged, straight while man, I thought I’d talk directly to other privileged, straight white men with an analogy:

In The Lord of the Rings, the Fourth Age (the Age of Man) comes about because men, with little help from the other races of Middle Earth (never mind the hobbits with the ring), were able to face Sauron by themselves, and by extension, the elves felt they were ready to take over the world from them. Also, the elves were aware that their power was fading, so this seemed a good trade-off.

In the same way, minorities who voted in this election proved that the people who hold power in the U.S. aren’t the white class currently in power, but everyone else. Even though 70 million people voted for fascism (and smaller numbers re-elected their foot soldiers), millions more who voted against this power structure were African-American, Native American, LGBTQ+, and Latino, who had to put up with four years of awfulness that most of their white counterparts avoided, as well as hundreds of years of oppression caused by their white counterparts.

White men have been in power in this country since its founding. Like the elves, it’s time for us to relinquish our power to this cross-section of America who helped secure the victory for a white man who wishes to serve all Americans (and knows his job is to smooth the transition between white men currently in power and the younger, more diverse generations who follow) versus an orange shit-stain who only serves himself, though that’s unfair to shit-stains and the color “orange.” Whatever power remains to us should be used to lift up people who have had power denied to them for centuries.

One final analogy between LOTR and modern politics: I mentioned the hobbits, who kept to themselves and weren’t as tempted by the ring as were men, dwarves, and elves. Not wishing power for themselves, Frodo and Sam agreed to destroy the ring out of a sense of duty. In our current pandemic-filled world, these people are the essential workers. In the election, they were the overlooked Native American vote, which helped swing several states to Biden, including Nevada and Arizona. And, to carry the analogy further, if Drumpf is Sauron and Pence the King of the Nazgul, McConnell is Gollum, but with fewer redeeming qualities. And we all know what happened to Gollum when he tried to get the ring back.

A Changed World

The US before the pandemic was unfair, greedy, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and cruel. When all this is over — when the virus has been tamed and we can once again go outside without wearing masks — will our world look the same? I hope not. So much can be done to improve our lives that it seems like a waste of resources to spend it stymieing people here, just so citizens who have too much money can have more of it.

Here, then, are solutions we need to consider if we wish for our future to be more utopian than dystopian.

  • Overhaul, fully staff, and fully fund public resources for the poor

We tend to shit on poor people in this country. The budget for social programs are often underfunded and understaffed, and each one has to be applied to separately. Then, to continue getting benefits, you must fit certain criteria and perform certain actions, some of which are onerous and might actually hinder your recovery, such as applying for three jobs a week or doing a work-approved activity (luckily suspended during the pandemic), regardless of whether or not your field has jobs available and at a comparable or higher pay rate. At one point, I received too much money from the government stimulus to continue getting food assistance, even though the boost (so far) was temporary. Health insurance, fortunately, continued to cover me for free.

Why not integrate all of these agencies so that one application is sent to all the resources we might need, with a smooth transition between local, state, and federal agencies? Why not make the payments automatic until you can find work again? Poor people tend to be much harder workers than the rich (who don’t need to work to live), and rather than think of how much money we’re losing on the few people who only wish to mooch off the government, we should increase the amount that everyone receives, especially since the most vulnerable citizens to layoffs tend to also be the most likely to be living paycheck-to-paycheck. 

I recommend having a base amount that will pay for most essentials in the area where each of us lives and then adding a percentage of money on top of that. Speaking of which…

  • Pay a universal wage and/or tie the minimum wage to cost of living

The more important of these two is the universal wage, since that will allow people to quit jobs more easily that mistreat employees without having to worry about financial ramifications. Imagine how just a society we’d have if employees held most of the power instead of employers? We wouldn’t need unions; we’d have something better (though unions still would be useful for organizational purposes). Employers would have to address employees’ concerns or risk losing their workforce. And employees would work at jobs that make them happy, regardless of how much or how little they pay. You can see why this hasn’t been passed yet, can’t you? Think of who would stand to lose the most if forced to be ethical all the time. Except that they wouldn’t. Companies would have more loyal employees if they came for the work rather than the paycheck, and it would foster greater work environments for everyone.

But what about people who don’t want to work? Well, is that the only way society can be supported? In times past, the rich were allowed the most amount of leisure, and yet many of them contributed to the arts and sciences. Even if all they’re doing is spending money, surely that benefits businesses, right?

As for minimum wage, even the best minimum wage laws only tie wages to inflation, when they should be tied to cost of living. That would transform minimum wage to an actual living wage.

  • Separate health insurance from work and make it not-for-profit

Add a public option. Taxes pay for health insurance. It’s free or low-cost. If a variety of plans are offered, paid plans only charge for extra features which are unnecessary for maintaining health. Dental, medical, and eye should be lumped together. It makes no sense to separate dental and medical. Eye care should cover glasses and contacts, not just fittings. Fitting fees for contacts should be abolished.

  • Tax passive income more than active income

Active income rewards work that (hopefully) helps society function. Passive income rewards people for making money. It requires no effort, and the more money you have, the more money you’ll make. On the other hand, interest rates in banks should be better than they are now for normal middle-class families. Those savings tend to get used for improving quality of life, rather than being hoarded or spent on a fancy new toy.

  • Outlaw billionaires and cap CEO pay at 10x the lowest-paid employee’s wages

Billionaires shouldn’t exist. Someone that makes $1 billion a year makes a thousand times what someone making $1 million makes. No one needs that kind of money, and no one can make that kind of money on salary. Plus, hoarding money at the top effectively takes it out of the market. Spreading it among people who only have enough to buy essentials makes it more likely that it’ll re-enter the economy.

As for capping CEO pay, if your lowest paid employee has to go on food assistance but you can buy a fleet of helicopters (and be rewarded for gross incompetence with a raise), you’re making too much and they’re making too little. Ten times $30,000 is $300,000, which should be plenty for anyone. Ego and the pursuit of status is the only reason why these exorbitant salaries exist in the first place.

  • Hold everyone accountable, ESPECIALLY the powerful

One of the major missteps of the Obama administration was not aggressively prosecuting the banks that caused the 2008 economic collapse. They also didn’t prosecute the former administration for war crimes (though their drone strikes might’ve fallen under the same umbrella — see this article).

Fixed fines tend to harm the poor more than the rich for the same crime. Being fined a percentage of your paycheck (person) or net worth (companies) would be a more equitable solution, though possibly impossible to enforce. Or wave fines in favor of community service. Make the punishment benefit our quality of life, not line the pockets of the “haves” with money from the “have-nots.”

  • Prisons should be for rehabilitation

Guess what they’re for now? Punishment often leads to prisoner abuse, but if the focus is on rehabilitating the prisoner, rather than punishing them, that might lead to less of an us-versus-them mentality among the guards, and achieve better results when they are released. And if they’re too dangerous to ever be released, have the parole board decide that, not mandatory prison sentences. Finally, like healthcare, prisons shouldn’t be a for-profit business.

  • We need to be proactive instead of reactive, cooperative instead of competitive, collective instead of individualistic

We’ve known about the climate crisis for decades, yet each year we don’t address it, the solution becomes more expensive, and the damage wrought by longer dry seasons (wildfires), warmer waters (bigger hurricanes), acidic oceans (loss of life), and other disasters becomes more costly. Like a disease, the cheapest and best approach was to treat it early, or not get it at all. Instead, we’ve stuck our fingers in our ears, stuck our heads in the sand, and hoped it’d go away. Instead, the monster keeps getting bigger and meaner. And closer.

Economic health is tied to environmental health is tied to personal health. Everything we can do that gives us better and more fulfilling lives, everything that improves the environment, everything that shares the wealth with others, everything that’s cooperative and not competitive, everything that includes all of us and not just a select few, matches our potential to our reality. Imagine if we hadn’t kept women out of the workforce for decades, or hadn’t kept people in chains for centuries? Imagine if we’d passed stronger maternity and paternity laws so that men and women could take years out of their jobs to care for their children, rather than weeks or months? Imagine if we had more Katherine Johnsons or Dean Dixons? Or more Alice Guy-Blachés, Agnes Vardas, or Kathryn Bigelows?

The irony of individualism is that in order for it to work, we need to have each other’s back. No one person can hoard the common good for themselves. It must be shared equally among all.