Monday, June 09, 2008

Pondering Wealth

The wealth of the United States is not held by all for all. It is held by a minority and the income from it is cycled through the economy based on their judgment. This situation has evolved since the days of European colonization, when the wealth of the continent was basically up for grabs and, subsequently, duly grabbed.

If the settlement of North America by European invaders had been fully planned in advance based on enlightened principles of popular government, the system might be different today. All adults might be shareholders in the national corporation, which would oversee the exploitation of resources for the good of all. It would be the ultimate merger of political and corporate leadership. There could still be plenty of hierarchy and small or medium businesses. The environment would be cared for as a national interest as important as defense.

This never happened and never will. For many reasons, human beings are incapable of running a nation on such a rational basis. For one thing, we all have different tastes, well before you get into deeper issues of character. For another, the countries of North America evolved as humans evolved, so the social mix we have today, which will breed the more advanced social mix of tomorrow, had to be born from the more primitive attitudes that preceded it. Echoes of past bigotry prove what a slow process that is.

Since wealth is distributed along a curve, and the greatest is held by a relatively small number of people, those of us with good ideas or causes to support need to convince the holders of wealth to release some of it here or there. Wealthy donors pay for land conservation, arts programs and facilities, and invest in research and entrepreneurial efforts by people with big ideas and small wallets. We little people have to figure out how to exploit the resource of wealthy people as if it were a seam of coal, a vein of gold or an oil field.

Meanwhile, what are the wealthy doing to obtain and maintain those fortunes? We use their wealth to mitigate environmental damage caused by industries owned and administered by wealthy people. We use their wealth to fund arts programs unavailable in public schools because tax revenue is considered insufficient after "more important" things are funded. The charitable donations they make are tax deductible. It gives them an added incentive to donate. It's all part of the complex web we've evolved to allow people what looks like a free pursuit of riches while we try to pry it away from them for things the citizenry as a whole wants done.

It isn't broken, so it can't be fixed. It's a fascinating ecosystem. Whether it lives or dies completely depends on how it evolves in the face of stresses both internal and external. Unquestionably it creates most of its own worst problems. So far, its solution to previous problems has been mostly serendipitous. We become -- or appear -- more purposeful as we learn more about ourselves and our world, but we can't even agree on what all the problems are. You're probably best off if you don't do nothing, but don't expect anything. Support what you think should be supported, but remember that evolution is slow and messy.

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