One of my favorite Founding Fathers is Thomas Paine. The inspiration for this Everyday Citizen website, Paine was a strong foe of the aristocracy and the monarchy form of government. Despite his opposition to monarchy, Paine argued in the French National Convention during the Revolution against the execution of Louis XVI because of his opposition to revenge killings. Paine was able to separate his opposition to a particular system and his empathy to an individual within that system. I think of this often during the Occupy Wall Street protests against the 1% of the rich who own a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth.
I share a lot of the anger of the Occupation Wall Street protesters about the wealthy class who have benefitted from this economic system and own such a large percentage of the nation’s wealth. I want an economic system that more evenly distributes wealth towards a greater amount of people. My anger is more towards the economic system, though. I don’t want to see wealthy people become paupers. I just want to see a system where everyone benefits and not just a select few.
I’ve recently read Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and I’m very conscious of one of the lessons of Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. In fighting injustice, be careful not to become the thing we hate. In my facebook I read a blog that caught the idea that I had in my head but that I had a hard time articulating. United Methodist pastor Roger Wolsey wrote in his blog:
Show compassion to as many of the people caught up in this mess (all of us) as possible. Strive to love our enemies as Jesus taught. When we confront CEOs, bankers, politicians, pundits, police, or the media, let’s remember their humanity. They go home to families and pets that love them and they have wounds in their hearts that we’ll never know.
A particularly Christian thing to do might be for Church people to show up to the protests and serve water, coffee, and baked cookies to the protesters, the police, and the businesspeople walking by. It’s hard to be aggressive toward someone who is drinking hot cocoa and eating cookies with you.
That said, when he taught his followers how to love their enemies Jesus instructed them to not be doormats, but to employ tough love – even to the point of flipping the power dynamics and making the oppressors be publicly embarrassed.
Since the Kennedys and the Roosevelts were rich families that worked hard to help the poor and disadvantaged, I don’t think that all rich people are bad. I do think though that the rich have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate and to give back to their communities. It’s one of the great themes that Charles Dickens had in many of his books. In books like A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Little Dorrit, Dickens feels that power and wealth often are corrupting influences that make a person less compassionate of others and more selfish, disconnecting them from the wider community. A Tale of Two Cities shows the corrupting influence on wealth and power on an entire group of people, the aristocracy. The abuse of privilege and wealth makes the French aristocracy corrupt and arrogant, as they exploit the poor French peasants, overtaxing them, raping their women, jailing any dissent, giving the poor no legal recourse or means of economic mobility. The centuries of abuse by the aristocracy towards the poor made the Reign of Terror inevitable. I’m reading A Christmas Carol right now, and it shows the consequences of the pursuit of wealth on an individual, Mr. Scrooge. He becomes isolated from the community he lives in and becomes more selfish, with no friends.
In a Christmas Carol, Dickens wants the wealthy to reconnect with the larger community and to fulfill their responsibilities to help those who are marginalized and poor. I think it is in the rich class’s interests for there to be a fairer more equitable economic system that benefits all members of the community. An economic system that only benefits a few always leads to social unrest and problems in society. One of the things that has bothered me that also bothered Charles Dickens is the callousness of many of the rich towards the suffering of the poor. It seems that many in the financial industry do not see how their actions and mistakes have caused suffering on the middle class and the poor. In a recent New York Times article by Nelson Schwarz and Eric Dash, they note that many of the Wall Street bankers dismiss the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. They wrote:
As the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have grown and spread to other cities, an open question is: Do the bankers get it? Their different worldview speaks volumes about the wide chasms that have opened over who is to blame for the continuing economic malaise and what is best for the country.
Some on Wall Street viewed the protesters with disdain, and a degree of caution, as hundreds marched through the financial district on Friday. Others say they feel their pain, but are befuddled about what they are supposed to do to ease it. A few even feel personally attacked, and say the Occupy Wall Street protesters who have been in Zuccotti Park for weeks are just bitter about their own economic fate and looking for an easy target. If anything, they say, people should show some gratitude.
“Who do you think pays the taxes?” said one longtime money manager. “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it. If you want to keep having jobs outsourced, keep attacking financial services. This is just disgruntled people.”
He added that he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns. “They need to understand who their constituency is,” he said.
Generally, bankers dismiss the protesters as gullible and unsophisticated. Not many are willing to say this out loud, for fear of drawing public ire — or the masses to their doorsteps. “Anybody who dismisses them publicly is putting a bull’s-eye on their back,” the hedge fund manager said.
Some of today’s wealthy see the unfairness of today’s economic system. In the same article, the authors noted:
A few outspoken members of the financial industry have broken ranks with their more skeptical brethren to say they understand a bit of the outrage of the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
“When I tell people I went down to research the protests, they’re shocked, they literally laugh,” said Michael Mayo, a veteran bank analyst at Crédit Agricole Securities. “It’s just not a location they frequent.”
Citigroup’s chief executive, Vikram S. Pandit, even said he would be happy to talk with the protesters any time they wanted to drop by. Mr. Pandit, onstage Wednesday at a Fortune magazine conference, said that the protesters’ “sentiments were completely understandable.”
“I would also corroborate that trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S., and that it’s Wall Street’s job to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust,” Mr. Pandit said. The protesters should hold Citi and others “accountable for practicing responsible finance,” he said, “and keep asking us about how we’re doing.”
In an August 14, 2011 article for the New York Times, Warren Buffett wrote:
Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.
These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.
…I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.
Many rich people have contributed to progressive causes and to helping the poor and the marginalized. Here is a list of a few of those individuals from the past and the present.
Benjamin Franklin is my favorite Founding Father. Franklin became a wealthy man due to his printing business and through his business partnership with David Hall. This freed Franklin to contribute to his community. As well as many of Franklin’s political activities, he was also a great philanthropist and civic activist. Franklin organized the Union Fire Company, the first fire company in America. In 1752, Franklin and seventy Philedelphians formed the first insurance company, which eventually include fire insurance, crop insurance, and insurance for widows and orphans. In 1751, Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond obtained a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature to establish the Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in what was to become the United States of America. In the 1780s Ben Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and worked hard to pressure legislation to end the slave trade and abolish slavery and to set up schools to educate free African Americans and give them employable skills.
Jane Addams was the daughter of John Addams, a wealthy landowner, miller, banker and state legislator. Jane’s father had a civic-mindedness that made a great impression on her and was a great influence on her interest in social reform. Addams was one of the leaders of the Hull House movement in Chicago, where social workers lived in settlement houses in poor immigrant neighborhoods where education opportunities, child care, and artistic endeavors to help empower the poor. Many women participated in the Hull House settlements and later became influential reformers in the progressive movement. Jane Addams was also a strong women’s suffragist and a strong pacifist, joining the Women’s Peace Party in 1915. Addams became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the 1920s.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the daughter of patricians Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt and the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. Influenced by Teddy Roosevelt’s reform oriented Presidency, Eleanor participated in many of the social reform movements of the Progressive era. She worked as a teacher of the Settlement House on Rivington Street and a volunteer investigator in the New York City Consumer’s League, investigating sweatshops and overcrowded and unsanitary tenement apartments. During the 1920s, Eleanor Roosevelt participated in the Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s City Club of New York, the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, the League of Women Voters, and the World Peace Movement and Bok Peace Prize Committee, working on issues like government low-income housing, access to birth control information for married women, child labor regulation, worker’s compensation, and protective measures for working women.
As First Lady, Roosevelt worked on civil rights issues, women’s right issues, economic issues, and worker issues. She took many trips around the country to inspect conditions of the Americans in the area. She also worked to include women in the New Deal programs. She spoke out against Southern segregation laws, organized a concert for African American singer Marian Anderson, and lobbied for anti-lynching laws in Congress.
After she left the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to speak out for civil rights and economic justice. One of her greatest accomplishments was her work as a member of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Muriel Rukeyser was born in 1913 to a wealthy Republican Jewish couple in New York City. Despite being raised in a privileged environment, Rukeyser developed a deep sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged and the marginalized of society, becoming a well known poet and social activist. At the age of 19, Rukeyser reported on the second trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Decauter, Alabama in 1933 and was arrested during the trial. The Scottsboro trial involved 9 black defendants who were accused of rape, and were unable to have a fair trial due to the all white jury. In 1936 Muriel reported on the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, that had been organized to protest the regular Olympics that took place in Nazi Germany. While there, the Spanish Civil War erupted and she wrote various articles supporting the Spanish Republicans. Rukeyser used her poems to highlight the industrial disaster in West Virginia, where migrant workers, many of them African Americans, died of silicosis poisoning due to inadequate precautions taken by Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation in the drilling of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. In 1972, she traveled with Denise Levertov to South Vietnam to protest the Vietnam War. Muriel traveled to South Korea in her capacity as president of the PEN American Center to hold a vigil outside the prison cell of the South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha, who was in solitary confinement.
I’m a big fan of all the Kennedy brothers, but I’ll focus on Ted Kennedy because of his legislative achievements that have advanced the cause of economic and social justice. He authored over 2,500 bills, of which 500 became law. During the 1960s, Kennedy supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and was the floor manager for the 1965 Immigration Act. Ted Kennedy provided an amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1966 which led to many community-based health clinics throughout the nation. Kennedy sponsored the 1975 Education for All Handicapped People Act, and the 1980 Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, which protected the constitutional rights of the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the incarcerated. In 1990, Kennedy cosponsored with Orrin Hatch the Ryan White CARE Act, which sped funds for cities most hit by the AIDs epidemic. In 1990 Kennedy wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibiting disability discrimination. In 1993 Kennedy co-authored the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring businesses to provide unpaid leave for emergencies or births. In 1996 he cosponsored with Kansas Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which allowed employees to keep health insurance for a time after losing job. He worked on equal pay for women workers by working for passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to restore a fair rule for filing pay discrimination cases. He worked for the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, bipartisan legislation that gave public safety workers the right to form and join a union and bargain with their employers over wages, hours, and working conditions under state law. Kennedy helped President George Bush with the No Child Left Behind Act. Kennedy supported the Mathew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 which added violence against people due to sexual orientation to the federal hate crimes list.
A youtube video with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates advocating giving a greater percentage of the tax for the rich
A youtube video of Walter Isaacson discussing his book on Benjamin Franklin
A youtube video of Jane Addams
A youtube video of Eleanor Roosevelt
A youtube video of Ted Kennedy