This is a post that has been brewing since the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and recent events plus a conversation I had during vacation brought it back to the forefront of my thinking.
After Katrina, I read a news article about some folks who were none too happy that some of the displaced victims who received cash cards from the government were buying things like beer, booze and tattoos with the taxpayer-funded handout. I recall that at the time I found this rather intriguing, because it’s a bit interesting if you think about it. It’s not like the non-victims would see much wrong if the victims were buying booze and tattoos with their own money, and it’s not like the non-victims see anything wrong with buying booze or tattoos for themselves. And, it’s not like the non-victims would complain about the victims buying food with the handout. I’m not saying this is here nor there, right nor wrong, but what the non-victims were saying in essence is, “If you’re using my (that is, taxpayer) money, I want to approve of what you’re using it for.”
So the first thought I had was, how many of these non-victims work jobs that are taxpayer funded? How would they react to somebody telling them they shouldn’t be buying booze or getting tattoos with their civil service paycheck? It seems that the argument would be that they “earned” their money, so they can spend it anyway they want.
When the economy went to the crapper in 2008, I was talking to a guy whom I admire and respect quite a lot yet who has significantly different social views than I. He was very upset over the economy, his pension, and his 401K. For all he knew, he might just lose it all, and what would that do to his decades-old plan for retirement? “It isn’t fair,” he said. “I’ve worked hard, I’ve played by the rules, and this is what I get? That’s not right.”
I empathized with the guy, but I walked away from the conversation puzzled, perhaps because I’ve worked hard, I’ve played by pretty much the same rules as he, and yet I have never thought that doing so implies that I should or will get a particular payback in the end. So I wondered, if there were rules he and I had been following, then what was the game we’d been playing? And, if it was a game we’d been playing, what was its object, and who is to say that it should be the privileged game, the game that gets to say what is right and fair?
Of course we each and all tend to think that our game is the privileged, correct one. We don’t like, therefore, to see other people benefitting from a game that is other than our own. And since we tend to judge all other sets of rules against our own, we reject the differing rules of others as violations, and therefore we judge their game as illegitimate. We call such people, via various names, cheaters. Another aspect to this is we tend to believe that anybody on earth could ascend to our (correct) set of rules if they wanted to, but many of them don’t. They choose not to play our game. They are therefore not only cheaters, but are also lazy and/or immoral. Both aspects’ judgments trace of course to the easiest, most common and most exasperating human failure in reasoning: Even though I’ve never honestly and thoughtfully questioned my beliefs, I am convinced they are right; therefore if you disagree with me, you are wrong.
And so I started thinking once in a while about games those few years ago and, round and round, what I started thinking about over the past few months and over vacation is that the purpose or object of the game has to do with gaining the most possible benefit for ourselves, with the least possible effort and discomfort, from the American System of socio-economics. The game we play is defined by the rules we play by, which are the methods we utilize to leverage things to our advantage and are sanctioned by the particular socio-economic discourse we’ve grown to inhabit. The System (in a very large and non-trivial sense) is the same for all of us because we all live in the same country. The object is the same for all of us because of our natural human, creaturely, Darwinian if you will, tendencies to thrive and persist with the least possible exertion. But the game we use to accomplish this object, the way we game the system in order to win, varies significantly between and based upon numerous legitimizing (and typically incompatible) discourses. Again, who is to say which game is to be privileged above others and which, therefore, has a legitimate claim to being the “right” game by which all others are judged? Who gets to say, really, what is fair and what is not?
Is it fair that by the time I itemize my deductions each April, my effective tax rate is lower than that of many other people simply because at some point in my life I chose to be materialistic enough to buy myself a house? Is it fair that just because I work hard for thirty years, I should get to live comfortably for the rest of my life without having a job? If I’m an entrepreneur and at the age of twenty-four make a hundred million dollars, and then live the rest of my life doing nothing but living in excess, is that fair? Is either of these much different from the man on the street who decides he doesn’t want to work anymore, either? If the legitimizing aspects of a game are all about earning my money via hard work and a decent day’s effort, is it fair that I work in a climate-controlled office solving engineering problems and make an order of magnitude more money than the guy who spends eighty hours a week in the stifling heat or freezing cold working his muscles to their limits and his fingers to the bone? There are many arguments used to justify a “yes” answer to all of these, but the truth is, the “yes” answers only make sense because I have been told they do, and as long as I have never seriously and honestly examined the value of a “no” answer.
After all, a “no” answer is extremely difficult to ascertain by the person who already and always benefits from “yes.” Why after all would I question the game by and in which I am always a winner? I’ve gathered a lot of benefit for myself, and not with all that much effort. Since that is the goal, after all, and since this game has worked, doesn’t this imply that it is the right game? It’s not possible that I could be winning while playing the wrong game, is it? Doesn’t this prove beyond any doubt that my set of beliefs is the correct set? And doesn’t it prove that those who disagree with me are mistaken; that they are lazy cheats? That whatever benefit they have happened to conjure up for themselves is ill-gotten and reprehensible? And, by God, since my game is the correct, proper and moral game, hasn’t something unfair obviously happened on the day I don’t win? Of course, and whose fault is it? Those who don’t play by the same rules I do, obviously!
This concept is not limited to socio-economics, and involves any system where personal gain is at stake. Managers in places of employment have a different rule set than the people they manage. Parents have a different rule set than their children. Politicians have a different rule set than the citizenry. Prison guards have a different rule set than prisoners. Police officers have a different rule set that the people within their jurisdiction. The list is a long one, but what all of the juxtapositions have in common is they represent a striving for power; the power to obtain benefits for oneself with the least possible effort or consequence. In this sense we are all alike, all striving for the same basic things and using whatever means we can get away with in order to accomplish our goals.
I have a friend who once went to a historical area and did some metal detecting with a congressman he knows. It was a successful trip; the congressman found a few tiny antiquities buried in the earth, which he promptly pocketed to take home. Now, given that this was done in a designated historical site, where such acquisition is illegal, it seems a contradiction that a man who makes his living making laws, finds it so easy to break a law—a law of any kind no matter how “trivial” the law might be. But then again, power comes into play. Like the congressman who spoke at the little church I mentioned in a recent post, this congressman was gaming the system: using the power afforded to him to allow him to ignore certain laws for the sake of personal gain.
Back to my vacation, I spent some time in a small farming community up around the Kansas-Nebraska border. Sometimes I think I want to move to a small town like the one I was visiting; I know an English Lit instructor there who owns a beautiful little home that cost a fraction of my own, and he teaches at a high school that is less than a five-minute walk away. He’s spent most of his life farming in the summers, and he says he loves farming and knows a lot of farmers he loves and respects. Interestingly enough, though, he said the farmers there don’t much like public school teachers. The reason? The farmers say that teachers don’t do real work for a living, and they live off of the taxes paid by honest, hard-working people. “To them, we’re glorified welfare recipients,” he said. I looked at him, and I was puzzled. “How much money will one of the big farms around here make this season?” I asked. He started talking about return per bushel, bushel per acre, acres per circle, and the number of circles. “That’s… that’s millions,” I said. He smiled. “But when they have a bad year, they get…” He interrupted and nodded with a grin; not cruelly, but as if he was simply and quietly amused. Then he talked to me about subsidies and taxes, and explained why the big farms are one of the most heavily government-subsidized, least-taxed endeavors in the American economic system. “I’ve got kids at high school driving brand new fifty-thousand dollar pickups to school every day, and they were bought with cash, without sales tax and they’re a tax write-off because they’re a farm vehicle.” He laughed and went on to tell me more about how some of the big-time farmers there are opposed to just about every form of taxation, yet they pay less taxes than almost anyone else, and they benefit more than just about anybody from the taxes that everybody else pays. I walked away, and this present post sort of formulated in my mind, because he had shared such a terrific example of the self-referential gaming principle in action. Pretty interesting, to see it from the outside for a change.
I’ve talked about a lot people here. I’ve talked about myself. I’ve noted that it’s incredibly difficult to lay one’s own game alongside others, and to be objective about what’s what. It’s pretty tough, almost impossible, to admit the truth: we are all lazy and we are all cheats. We all game the system, by use of our uniquely (and selfishly) effective game. Very few of us are able to see or willing to admit that this is true. Simply, the reason is this: we like to win. We like to take all we can, and we have little regard for who loses. The games are the lies that make our greed seem justified and normal, seem right and proper, and seem—God help us—moral.
Could it be that as I have benefitted myself while others have not, could it be that by winning the game so handily, that instead of learning the meaning of compassion I have instead gained the pride necessary to complacently legitimize both my own comfort and suffering of others? If so, is this what I want to go on record as claiming to be fair? Is this what I’m willing to say to the world is right?
No, it isn’t. I am not willing to say so, but there are many, many people who are. And to be honest, this summer has led me to simply say that I find it deeply disturbing that some of these people spend their lives promoting the idea that Christianity is the very Thing that legitimizes their game (i.e., the game). I’m tired of seeing rich, powerful, good looking people standing in front of an American flag and a Bible as if wealth, power, good looks, a particular political agenda and Christianity are all inseparable. It’s disturbing that Christianity has long been, and continues to be, used to legitimize a particular way of gaming the system, while the teaching of Jesus was not about legitimate ways to game the system. The teaching of Jesus was that his followers were to live outside of the system, and outside of the human creature’s tendency to take what is easy for him to take. The teaching of Jesus was to stop striving, to put one’s self last, to renounce power in all of its myriad forms, to be just, and to be equitable.
Instead, we use his teachings to justify our greed. My God. We weave webs so tangled, we call them truth, forgetting we have spun them from nothing but our own selfishness.