By Emily Spence
14 August, 2007
In Massachusetts of late, there’s been a recurrent radio commercial. It goes something like this: There are some great deals on foreclosed homes — really GRRREAAT! Someone had a loss and that is sad, but YOU can greatly benefit by the wonderful opportunity. So, please call [telephone number]. You will be happy you did. Imagine how well YOU can make out and win BIG! Boy, do we have a bargain for you!
When I hear this, I’m repulsed and don’t think about how well I could gain off of other people’s tragedies. Instead, I think of the plot of “The House of Sand and Fog,” an account in which an incredible amount of pain and deaths result from, amongst other causes, decent people trying to take advantage of a system gone terribly wrong.
I, also, think of our already overburdened US homeless shelters and food banks trying to deal with an ever greater need now that so many families have, recently, been ejected from their lodgings. (There are 80,000 homeless in LA alone of whom many are mentally impaired and living on streets as there, simply, are not enough shelters to accommodate them all.) I, likewise, think of kinfolk living in cars. Further, I think of dilapidated welfare motels and seedy single room occupancies wherein relatives are crammed together in tiny rooms amidst grime and decay. I think, as well, of the shortage of low income housing that exists in tandem with foreclosed mega-mansions sprawling across the American landscape. In addition, I think of the kindly (although resentful) relatives, who have to put up their siblings, nieces and nephews due to the evictions. At the same time, I think of the deal that some renters make to turn their garages into flophouses with cots lined up every which way on the concrete slab. On top of this, I think of the other renters, the ones called “Eight-fors.” (They allow people to sleep in their living rooms and use the household bathroom from ten PM to six AM, although without kitchen privileges… This is a particularly helpful arrangement in wintertime wherein some individuals could, during the coldest hours of night, freeze in the streets of northern US.) Simultaneously, I think of the information that I read concerning one in every ninety-seven US homes being foreclosing in 2006. (Supposedly rate of loss is high in 2007, too.) Afterwards, I think of the suicidal pregnant widow, who I’ll call Jane and who, recently, was locked out of her home. Yet, a mere year before, she had been so happy!
Indeed, how much a contrast her current plight was to her circumstances twelve months earlier. Then a radiologist, she had just gotten married to a lawyer. Happy together and on top of the world, they, subsequently, purchased their first (small) house with their trusted realtor assuring them that they made the perfect choice, by accepting a variable rate mortgage, amongst many confusing options. Shortly thereafter, they were pleased to find out that Jane was pregnant. Although not intended, they welcomed this new imminent life. Then, both Jane’s and her husband’s old cars broke for which two replacements were required.
…Although money was going to be tight, they figured that, if they were extremely sensible, the could still make out all right despite the home, car payments and baby because they both had good paying jobs, right? Determined, they were sure that they could somehow manage despite their new unplanned circumstances.
Then out of the blue, Jane was laid off. Moreover, there were no other jobs available nearby in her line of work. At the same time, many others at her company were laid off, too.
In the meantime, what potential employer would not chose someone else equally qualified over a pregnant woman, who would need lots of time off due to medical appointments, birth and recovery, and so on before the year was through? Even if there were any job openings suitable for Jane, she would certainly not be first pick.
Although alarmed at this new worrisome turn of events, Jane and her spouse, again, recalculated their finances and reckoned that they could still do “OK” by getting rid of all excesses. So, they would simply use all the money from the husband’s salary for basic necessities — food, electricity, home heating, car travel related to work, water bills, insurance coverage, car payments, mortgage payout. Yes, it would be extraordinarily hard, but everything could still work out if they acted very, very frugal.
Then suddenly without any warning signs, Jane’s husband died from a heart attack. This event was quickly followed by their cars being repossessed and their home being foreclosed on top of her dealing with a tremendous load of grief, fear and uncertainty about the future.
Dazed and in deep turmoil, Jane wondered about how she would pay for neonatal care and grief counseling since her medical insurance coverage now was gone. How would she pay for a baby sitter when she was out hunting for a job — any job? How would she get to job interviews and her eventual job without a car? Where could she live with no money? How would she feed herself and her baby? This all in mind, her problems became terrifying and overwhelming. No wonder that she began to consider ending it all.
Fortunately, friends of mine helped Jane to find housing in an already over-packed shelter, assisted her in filling out the voluminous forms required to receive medicaid coverage, food stamps and other forms of material assistance. In addition, they offered to drive her to interviews and, later, her work until she got on her feet monetarily so as to be able to again afford a car. They, also, arranged for her to receive psychological counseling from an expert therapist reserving some pro bono clinic hours slated for indigent individuals. Meanwhile, the shelter could provide free infant care. Therefore, Jane’s, eventually, became a success story of sorts. She did, after a while, manage to find employment, a cheap used vehicle and a small studio apartment to rent.
All the same, there are too many Janes (and John counterparts) out there in America desperately needing help and there are not enough people like my friends, who possess sufficient caring and time to help the large numbers of thoroughly down and out strangers fanned out across our nation.
Meanwhile, mortgage and assorted other fiscal institutions worldwide are reeling under the shock of the US housing market collapse. While some reaping income from these mortgage companies, before the collapse, were (and still are) on limited fixed incomes such that they require the loan earnings in order to make ends meet, others were (and still are) quite affluent despite the downturn.
For example, I was shown an ocean-side vacation home covering ~ ten acres on St. John’s (US VI) by the caretaker, who had his own three bedroom home on the estate. Rarely in use (except for several weeks a year), the main house was surrounded by tennis courts, gorgeous fresh water ponds (despite that desalinated water is in short supply on St. John’s) and a lavish swimming pool all of which were accompanied by lovely dramatic sculptures by well-known artists. Meanwhile, the homes’s owner, a day trader living in Connecticut, was much admired and fawned upon by associates for being someone, who knew how to make “the system” work for him.
Furthermore, many of his ilk often don’t contribute much to society (other than briefly providing jobs for architectural firms, construction companies and interior decorators except in the case of the ones who, at a modest salary, hire and house caretakers). Other than that, they simply use up resources — use them up at a tremendous rate in their travels between vacation homes, purchase of more objects to fill their digs and so on. At the same time, to live like this man and his wife is the dream of many people worldwide and many will do almost anything to achieve their level of wealth.
More aptly put, this statement pretty much sums up the gist of the situation: “I want what I want when I want it and there is a corollary to this. I don’t want what I don’t want when I don’t want it. Do you get it?” (This remark was made by another financier to me — one who spends a few hours a week moving money from certain money market accounts into others to accrue more income. Other than that, he is free to do whatever he wants for his own self-gratification and he feels good about himself, i.e., charitable and benevolent, since he, periodically, donates a modest sum to an animal shelter and offers several hours a month in volunteer work at his town’s library.
All considered, let’s call the above situation like it is: For the most part, the pecuniary institutions that foster such success stories, simply, are tantamount to legalized, socially sanctioned theft. The reason that this is the case is as follows…
It is because big business, the transnational kinds, operate on a model wherein cheap resources are taken from one part of the world (with the hope of their being close to the labor supply in order to cut down on transportation costs). Workers are, then, paid the lowest salaries possible — a dollar or two a day — to create goods. Then, the finished products are shipped to first world markets where the mark up can be extraordinarily high.
Yet, despite the rise, the products, nonetheless, looks like a bargain or, if not quite a bargain, constituting something that’s is much coveted, anyway. Thus, sneakers, costing a dollar to produce per pair, get sold at around 100 dollars. Blue jeans, that cost forty cents total to be produced, get sold for eighty dollars, etc. In such a vein, Starbucks coffee growers command approximately eight cents per pound and so on. Moreover, the inflation for products, even when they are made in the country using them, can be out of this world.
For example, consider Prozac: Consumer markup is roughly 224,973 percent as customer price in US is roughly $247.47 per hundred of the twenty mg. tablet size while cost of general active ingredients is
$0.11. If this seems like an isolated incident or some sort of quirky fluke, think again as another perfect case in point is provided by Xanax with its consumer price per 100 at around $136.79 while the cost for active ingredients is a modest $0.024, which all together creates a markup of approximately 569,958 percent for the one mg. size .
On account, first world patients are watching funds drain to pharmaceutical business owners and stock holders. At the same time, no wonder that China has a humongous trade excess of $24.4 billion! No wonder (aside from the fact that mortgage loaners have charged, in many instances, usury rates) that many Americans, despite that they work hard and long hours, just can’t seem to locate affordable house, nor can avoid staggering debt. Then again, who can make ends meet in a country that has roughly seven dollars set for minimum wage and housing costs, even for small rental units, often exceeding gross annual income? All considered, the economic lower and middle classes are, financially, losing ground .
Besides, how could these two classes get ahead with global economics operating out of the patterns explained above and while, even on the home front, unjust business models are in play? For example, owners of companies (often for which they provide not even one hour of work a week) can legally reap fifty percent or more of the income gained by their skilled workers, who are often so poor that they have to take on second jobs and live in cramped trailer parks. At the same time, many would be laid off and easily replaced by other desperate laborers, ones out of work, if they were to complain about pay. (Aren’t there some sort of pertinent conclusions that can be drawn relative to population growth and the available job market given that excess numbers of potential employees, generally, tend to drive down salaries?)
Simultaneously, many of these unscrupulous business owners have nonworking relatives on the pay role as “business consultants.” In short, it is all a big racket while being, at the same time, largely legal and socially condoned. As such, one wonders about the role of government and business oversight groups in regulating price, monopolies (called business empires in former times) and other mercantile matters. Just where are they — these so-called overseers? Do they perform any meaningful actions at all?
If the above backdrop isn’t bad enough, we can add onto it that capitalism, in practice, thrives on finding new markets, is predicated on using up increasing resources to provide for these and relies on an increase in population to buy the goods, as well as to provide cheap labor. Therefore, is it any wonder that many business owners look forward to an influx of immigrants? Is it any wonder that multiple groups and individuals around the globe are outraged at the current world trade arrangements in use, the glutted upper class, activities at banking institutions and government leaders that all too eagerly cozy up to big business? (All considered, events like the demise of the World Trade Towers, as utterly unconscionable and devastating as they are, were just waiting to happen.) One can only imagine the degree of fury that many people across the world feel when one considers that three billion people (almost half of humanity) subsides on less that three dollars a day even though many work with frantic fervor to improve their lots in life.
Yes, many of them work hard for their wages. Furthermore, many deeply resent having to take charitable aid from food banks, medical providers and homeless shelters. In a similar vein, when the poor pay for bread made by SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Workers (which is provided at no set price in MA), they often pay far above the cost of manufacture as a matter of pride. Meanwhile others, easily able to afford more, pay greatly lavish amounts to purchase the bread in the thought that the excess always goes back to serving the Catholic Worker shelter and other good works provided by these openhanded bread makers. (Most people, if given a chance, want to be altruistic, helpful and supportive toward those who provide for the underclass, it would seem. I suspect that this is in part because, deep down in their understanding of our capitalistic system, they know that the whole shebang is unjust and leads to incredible level of misery for some members of society — ones generally in dire straits, just like Jane, through no fault of their own.)
All in all, what can be done to correct the grievous and immoral wrongs perpetuated by the capitalist structure — a ruthless structure that operates by grandly providing for some by harming others, an unfair system that is guaranteed to create gross income inequity, and a pernicious system that causes many people to forget about their common humanity and interdependence, sense of morality, as well as the undeniable value of compassion? Moreover, capitalism embodies a set of norms that perpetuate, for some, lavish lifestyles inconsistent with protection of the environment since most resources (other life forms, for the most part) are regarded almost solely from the standpoint of whether a profit can be gained from their destruction (i.e., whole huge forests turned daily into advertising flyers and catalogues).
As such, humankind is using up resources faster than their renewal rates in the natural world. Simultaneous to this occurrence, we will soon have to deal with the gruesome effects caused by greater global warming, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, subversion of food and fodder to biofuels, increased population and ozone layer decimation .
In short, capitalism is driven by economic growth achieved by nearly any means possible and this central aim is by no means compatible with people willingly embracing moderate lifestyles, regarding the Earth as more than one giant commodity, and whose function is to personally provide for one’s selfish advantage irrespective of the impact that this choice has on the social and ecological whole. In this sense, capitalist protocol, with its setup to always accrue greater revenues based on ever expansive provision of products to an ever enlarging population cannot be sustained. In the end, the price for doing so is just too high!
Nonetheless, business is all about and only about lucrative outcomes and this, then, is wherein legislative bodies, regardless of which political party rules, often plays out an active role to create ever stronger dictatorial oligarchies in support of the laws and actions (such as preemptive strikes in countries with oil) supporting petroleum companies and other multinational conglomerates (such as Walmart), which parasitically prey upon poor and rich alike. On account, any toll exacted in human or environmental realms is merely paid lip service (if even that) in most governmental circles.
This in mind, big business and governmental leaders, largely, operate to back mutually self-serving ends. Everyone else is pretty much out of the loop unless they, like some military personnel and low level lackeys, manage to marginally advance from the overall scheme.
In other words, capitalism creates a backdrop out of which many governmental representatives and management from global corporations work in tandem for their own mutual benefits. At the same time, average citizens are, largely, a matter of indifference since the ultimate prize is global domination of goods, services, workers and income. Whomever might live or die, suffer or make out in the process is largely immaterial relative to the main objectives at hand. As such, one has to seriously question whether this state of affairs represents the type of economic policy that he, personally, wishes to support. One has to, likewise, ask whether the traditions foisted by capitalistic prototypes are congruous with the sorts of ethical principles and practices that he, personally, condones.
All this in thought, it is only when enough people get fed up with our current system that the likelihood of constructive change can occur. Only when enough individuals reject our current way of conducting commerce will alternatives be possible. Meanwhile as insinuated above, we cannot expect governments to be of much support. Indeed, Anthony Brooke, a peace advocate, mentioned almost fifty years ago, “…the solutions cannot come from government or governments. Peace and all our solutions must come from those who are not in government.”
Moreover, his understanding blends very well with comments made by Eleanor Roosevelt to my parents in the 1940′s… At the time, my father was Dean of Students at City College of New York and Eleanor Roosevelt came to CCNY to give a speech in conjunction with a military rally and drive for recruitment.
Afterwards she, deliberately, went to my parents and said, “I have heard about you two.” (My parents were fairly well known conscientious objectors, who were involved in assorted initiatives to promote local, community and world peace.) Then, she went on to say that she didn’t have a lot of time between her engagement at the college and her next one at the Cloisters, but wanted to talk with them both.
So, she suggested that my parents drive her (in my father’s old, beat-up jalopy) to the Cloisters. Next, when my mother wanted to slip in the backseat due to her being almost nine months pregnant, Eleanor refused and had her squeeze in next to her on the front seat…
All considered, the threesome must have been quite an unusual sight while squashed into each other and surrounded by police cars with sirens turned on while moving up Broadway. In any case, Eleanor said to my parents that, although she didn’t agree with all of their positions on assorted issues, she respected them very much. She, also, suggested that conformity was very important to keep society intact – except in matters of conscience.
Her description of this outlook went as follows: If it is the custom in a community to plant bulbs in the town square in the fall, then you do it, too. If the standard involves bringing chicken soup to a sick neighbor, then you do it, too, as such actions keep the fabric of society whole and beneficial to all.
Indeed, conformity, in such circumstances, is vital to maintaining an interconnected, ordered and mutually uplifting community. Likewise, it will foster altruism. Furthermore, it will help ensure that a member, who deviates from the norm (when one does do in matters of conscience), will not be dismissed as a kook or weirdo. In other words, when one goes against the common standard in his views and behavior, another person cannot, then, say of him that he was always a bit “off,” and therefore his current position is merely emblematic of his not being an integrated community member in good standing.
Instead his position would warrant consideration due to his having been temperate and like-minded in other matters. “In other words,” she adamantly remarked, “conform, conform, conform except in matters of conscience. Then be willing to go against your country, your religion, your community, your family or any other group that has sway over you.” Indeed, Eleanor continued that it is one’s absolute duty to stand up for justice, peace, and other issues that relate to uplift of humankind. And one must do so even when doing so goes against the mob mentality or the common standard.
After her impassioned outlay, the three, then, went on to discuss the actions in which my parents were involved… Afterwards, she thanked them for upholding the benchmark that she expects of freethinking, ethical individuals with humanitarian concerns, in that these sorts are the ones who have the best chance of slowly changing society, as a whole, for the better… The message here, she summed up, is: Be conventional in order to strengthen social structures, but be prepared to bravely stand against prevailing tradition in moral stands, and in matters of principle and honor.
Yes, in the final reckoning, we cannot expect our governments to provide for us the necessary changes to improve the quality of life for the majority of humanity. It is up to us to do so and, as Eleanor Roosevelt so rightly points out, doing so IS an ethical imperative!
This in consideration, we, as much as possible, must consider the purchase of locally produced goods, reject their obtainment from huge conglomerates, procure fair trade merchandise, press governments and corporations toward accountability and share information with others so they, too, can become more greatly aware of the manner in which capitalism functions. Without our doing so, we can simply expect that all will be only more of the same business as usual, but on an ever enlarging scale. This, of course, is unacceptable!
Emily Spence lives in Massachusetts and deeply cares about the future of our world.
 Please see both of these for a balanced overview of US drug costs: Ageless Marketing: “Let’s Hear It For Costco!” (agelessmarketing.typepad.com/ageless_marketing/2) and Boycott Watch – Cosco Prescription Drug Email Is A Hoax (www.boycottwatch.org/misc/costco1.htm).
 Please refer to: China’s July trade surplus $24.4B – NewsFlash – OregonLive.c… (www.oregonlive.com/newsflash/business/index.ssf).
 Detailed assessments of division of wealth, along with trends for US and elsewhere in the world, are provided at: Distribution of wealth – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distribution_of_wealth) and Encyclopedia on Political Economy / V thru Wealth / Producti… (www.cooperativeindividualism.org/codingsystem26).
 A succinct analysis of this topic and related critical ones is available at: Causes of Poverty – Global Issues (www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Poverty.asp), ASIA Less than two dollars a day for a billion people in Asi… (www.asianews.it/view.php?l=en&art=5594) and Biofuels And Global Hunger By Fidel Castro « Dissident (http://dissidentnews.wordpress.com/2007/04/03/biofuels-and-global-hunger-by-fidel-castro/).
 For a discussion of some of these areas of concern, please go to: SteveLendmanBlog: Resource Wars – Can We Survive T… (sjlendman.blogspot.com/2007/06/resource-w), Culture Change: Global Change (anthro.palomar.edu/change/change_5.htm) and http://www.planetthoughts.org/?pg=pt/ManagePT.