Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Not So Grand Test of Virtue

"Once again it was jolly autumn weather,
and the road was quiet, with few cars passing.
The air was like sweetbriar . . .
We two seemed the only tramps on the road."

~ from Down and Out in Paris and London (177)

Fuqua dozing and reading his Orwell

Despite the autumnal charm of Orwell's irresistible imagery, his grim account of underemployment in Paris and unemployment in London in the early 1930s is anything but jolly; and I admit to pulling out just about the only romantic sentence in the entire book for my epigraph above.

More in keeping with the tone of his book is this sad conclusion:

It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary "working" men. They are a race apart--outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men "work," beggars do not "work"; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not "earn" his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic "earns" his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar's livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course--but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout--in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?--for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honor; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.

See Chapter 31, 153 - 155
in Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell (1903 - 50)
English writer and social critic

Now, compare what Orwell wrote in 1933 to Wayne Muller, writing in 1999 about the mathematical formula of the Gross Domestic Product:

For when wealth is measured only in terms of goods and services bought and sold, only those actions involving money are seen as good and useful. Anything done in time is seen as useless. . . .

This horrific paradox is the very foundation of the world's official economic policy. It is repeated a billion times a day, everywhere on earth. Actions performed with love are dismissed, while actions performed with money are honored and rewarded.

What is the true measure of the wealth of a people? The creation and preservation of beauty? A strong and healthy citizenry? An educated and compassionate leadership, ensuring justice for all? A palpable sense of civic joy? A collective sense that serving our neighbor is our highest civic good? Sadly, none of these rises to the top of our list. By current standards, the Holy Grail on the altar of civilization is the health of the economy, measured by the G.D.P. Economic growth is the measure of a life well lived, a nation well run, a civilization well built. . . .

Waste, stupidity, and evil all cost money, and are, by extension, economic goods; each feeds the machine of growth.

Today we are relearning to assign economic value to parks, endangered species, air and water quality, and even solitude and sunsets. We estimate the ratio of benefits to costs when we build roads and parks and reservoirs. But these "nonmarket" values are not reflected in overall measures of the national wealth. In fact, G.D.P. rises if we replace a park with a factory, and it rises even more if the factory happens to pollute the environment. Paying for the cleanup adds yet another monetary benefit to our total.

What have we done? How have we so disordered the value and meaning of human endeavor? . . .

How do we value these simple acts of kindness? This is what the official statistics will show: Nothing. Nothing noteworthy, nothing of any value was achieved through these actions.

Yet every time someone gets cancer, the G.D.P. goes up. Every time an infant dies, the G.D.P. rises. A drive-by shooting improves the economy by $20,750. If the victim dies, and there is a murder trial, the benefit to the economy leaps to well over $100,000. . . .

But anything that grows without money changing hands--parents who care for their children, people who voluntarily care for the sick, the dying, or the homeless, people who pray or meditate or walk in the woods--these, at best, have no value. At worst, they take away precious time and energy that could be used to grow the G.D.P.

. . . [without these] things that grow only in time, we will become more impoverished than we will ever know.

See "Why Time is Not Money," 108 - 112
in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives
by Wayne Muller (b 1953)
Contemporary American author and community advocate

As my friend Len wrote:
"It's important to give cats access to the great books."

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