Roads, Hell, and Pavement Composition (and Fingerprints and the Gospel of Luke and Marat/Sade)

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“When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist.”

—Dom Hélder Câmara

Peter Buffet has something tremendously important to say in today’s New York Times, but first I’m going to waste your time by telling you about what I did yesterday.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours working in a food pantry. If you’ve never had the opportunity, it works like this: The pantry gets people—individuals will do, but grocers or food distributors are better—to donate food, both perishable and non-perishable. This is stocked in a purpose-built building or a church basement, and using one or more of several methods, the food is distributed to low-income people who need it. Frequently, the food is seasonal (food pantries often are overstocked on things like pumpkin pie filling, Christmas cookies, and cranberry sauce).

The method used at the pantry I was working at, is this: a U-shaped arrangement of tables is set out, and the food is stacked on these. First came the canned and other packaged goods, then the produce. We had (for instance) cranberry sauce, sliced carrots, peaches, green beans, yogurt, American cheese (“cheese product”), dry cereal, frozen chickens, oranges, plums, limes, plantains, tomatoes, and assorted breads. People are lined up behind barriers and assigned numbers in groups of 10 or so. When a number is called, those folks come up, are given grocery bags (there is an incentive of one additional “choice” item if they bring reusable bags), and advance through the U-shape of tables, receiving one of each item, unless they decline. The job of the volunteers is to hand out the food (generally one of each item per person), tell people what’s in the cans in case they can’t read the labels (some folks need help) and in general, try to help these people have a less crappy day.

We pretty much emptied the cupboard over the course of an hour and a half, handing out food to 260 people, including 30 or more who had not been to the pantry before. Some of them looked pretty much homeless. Some looked old. Some looked like drug addicts. Some looked just like me. Since the lined tended to bunch up, even moving in groups, I had a chance to talk to many of the people in it, which was interesting. Many acted grateful. One or two acted entitled (but that’s a problem for the rich as well as the poor—viz. Donald Trump). Some were weird or spacey. A few, the ones who looked like students or professionals, acted kind of ashamed.

Sidenote: Poverty exists everywhere. When I was in high school, I dated a girl who came from a family that was far poorer than I realized at the time. I thought everyone was middle class. It never occurred to me that the reason she wore jeans and jeans jackets was not because they were fashionable, but because they were cheap, or that the miniskirt she wore on Sundays was that mini because it had come from Goodwill, and was several years out of fashion. This family was struggling and I never realized it. I don’t know if she realized it. But I’ll bet her mother went to food pantries.

While the pantry was handing out food in the basement, in other parts of the building volunteers were helping people select from among donated clothing, checking blood pressure and performing HIV testing, and playing the children to give the parents a few minutes’ respite. And a hospitality table had cakes, cookies, and coffee for whoever wanted them.

I do not always believe there is a god. I do not always believe people are kind and good. But yesterday, I saw good and kind people doing god’s work.

After the pantry closed up, around 11:00, I headed back home. I was hungry, so I stopped at a Dairy Queen that happened to be on my route and bought a hot dog. When I got home, I noshed on a cheese stick. And a granola bar. Then my spouse and I went out to dinner with some friends at an Indian restaurant, where the food came thick and fast. I lose track of names, but there were lots of chicken and lamb dishes, various sweet and spicy breads, mango lassi, and so forth. Our portion came to around $50-$60.

So what’s the deal?

The deal is this, sort of.

There were eight of us around the table yesterday. Between us, we easily ate the equivalent of several of the bags of food that I had helped put together earlier in the day without giving it a second thought. Each of those bags was intended to last a week. And, as I’ve said, I had eaten before that during the day.

There’s an inequality here that’s giving me a stomach ache and a headache.

It’s so easy for us to eat that we don’t think about how hard it is for some people. Years ago I abandoned a dissertation on a farmer movement, but before I abandoned it, I learned well the words “cheap food policy.” What that means is that it is a policy of the United States to keep food prices low. This is accomplished through price supports that allow—and in some cases, require—farmers to sell their produce for low prices, and so permit food processing companies to operate with much lower costs.

This has several consequences that I’m not going to discuss, but one consequence that it’s far less expensive to buy food in the grocery store (or restaurant) than it would otherwise be.

And still some people in this country go hungry.

This afternoon, I was a little hungry, so I had a piece of chocolate. Just a little bit, broken off a nce bar from Trader Joe’s, and it occurred to me that for the people I met yesterday, this would be an almost unthinkable luxury. But I can’t imagine what it would be like. I mean that—I cannot imagine it.

Can you imagine what that’s like?

So what are we going to do about this?

Well, there’s charity, right? What I was doing at the food pantry, right? But that gets complicated. We took care of 260 people for one week. Sort of—I know I couldn’t live on that much food for a week. How many didn’t we take care of? I’ve written before about Palotta Teamworks and Dan Palotta’s view that we need to stop worrying about the overhead involved in ‘charity’ work. That we need to ramp it up But there’s a point where that breaks down.

Charity is still charity.

In an article in today’s New York Times, Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet’s son)  takes on even this model of what he calls the “Charitable-Industrial Complex”. As he writes

Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time . . . . [the growth rate of non-profits] now exceeds that of both the business and government sectors . . . .

Philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field . . . .

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street) someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Buffet’s writings (philanthropists concerned with the ROI of their donations, etc.) could serve as an indictment of people like Pallotta, or (alternatively) of our entire society. I think it makes sense to see it as the latter.

It’s not ‘charity’ that the 260 people at the food pantry (and their unserved brothers and sisters) need. It’s something else. Something that fights inequality. As Buffet writes:

It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.

What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.

There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff).

So, to sum up:

1. We live in a society of vast inequalities;

2. We are trying to put a band-aid over those inequalities by throwing money at the problem; this provides some temporary sustenance to the worst-off, but ultimately does nothing about the structural problems causing them to be badly-off (this is the road to hell, paved with good—but ineffective—intentions);

3. To solve the problem, we need to make some fundamental changes in our society.

Buffet disclaims any prescriptive knowledge of a solution. So do I. For all of its warts, I think he and I agree that capitalism has proven itself an incredibly creative and powerful engine.  As he writes, “I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.”

A change is coming, sooner, I think, rather than later. What it will be, I don’t know.  But if it’s not in the humanistic direction, it may be in a very ugly one.  As the masses sing in Marat/Sade,

We want our rights and we don’t care how
We want our revolution NOW!

I’d like to close with some thoughts on the Gospel of Luke. I’ve always liked Luke, if for nothing other than the redemption of the thief on the cross. And Luke is the gospel that contains the story of the good Samaritan. But I read something today that pointed out that Luke is the one gospel that does not include language to the effect that “the poor you will always have with you.”

In Luke, the blessed are not “you who are poor in spirit,” but simply “you who are poor.”

Beware the easy road.  The bike is just there to get your attention.  Ask why?

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