Image © Austin Cline
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There's been a lot of, uh, "interesting" discussion about John McCain's personal housing crisis. He's obviously clueless about how many houses he has (which makes this different from every other issue, how?), but I'm not sure that anyone else knows either. I've seen several numbers bandied about but the numbers have changed and risen more than once. If no one else can figure out how many homes he has, perhaps we should all just give him a break? Nah.
McCain's problem figuring out how many homes he owns has been used to exemplify some of problems with the Republican Party generally and McCain in particular, for example McCain's age and forgetfulness or how the Republicans represent primarily the interests of capital and wealth. I'd like to focus on the latter because I think it tells us a lot about the sort of options which American voters have when faced with a choice between Republican and Democratic candidates (not that the difference is as great as it should be, but the differences exist).
Actually, let's do step back and help John McCain out a bit. There is a way he could have answered that question truthfully but without making it easy to mock him. All he needed to do was say something like "there are a couple of residences we spend any significant amount of time in, but we own several investment properties as well and I'm not sure of the current number right now." This is probably accurate and doesn't sound ridiculous because people who have a lot of investments can't always give you all the numbers.
Just because this isn't easy to mock, though, doesn't mean it's harder to criticize as well; quite the contrary, this phrasing highlights some important issues which merit more critical attention. It's made clearer that John McCain comes from a context of so much wealth that he can't even remember how many investment properties he owns. His wealth has reached the point where he just can't keep track of it anymore, not even in rough numbers of the really big things like buildings. We can contrast this with the increasing numbers of people who can no longer keep even one home, people who are barely managing to keep that one home, people's whose wealth is entering negative numbers, and people who can't keep track of all the bills coming in.
I don't want to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with being wealthy, even to the point of being so wealthy that you can't keep track of how much you have anymore. The real issue is how wealth affects a person. For some, it can separate them from the rest of society to the point where the problems which affect others stop affecting them — the wealth creates such a large buffer that even huge economic, social, and political shifts can be held back and allow them to believe that the old policies and laws are adequate. This can even allow for the expression of latent, pathological tendencies because some imagine that they are wealthy due to their own smart choices while others aren't because of their bad choices — and so they are only getting what they deserve.
For others, though, the good fortune of wealth allows them to develop a more realistic and compassionate perspective. They recognize, at least dimly, the extent to which their status is dependent upon luck and contingent events over which they have had no control. These can range from being born while, male, and/or American to being in the right place and time and meeting the right people. So instead of assuming that those who are less fortunate deserve what they are getting, it's recognized that we are all equally victims of chance and circumsance.
The "ethics of personal responsibility" thus means not leaving others to suffer the consequences of events outside their control, but instead being responsible enough to reach out and help others simply because they are human beings in need. Which of the two do you think is best represented by John McCain or the Republican Party generally? How many wealthy Republicans, whether politicians or supporters, exemplify the ethics of reaching out to help others in need?
To find very many people like that, we'd need to turn to the Democratic Party. It's not hard to think of several prominent Democrats for who social responsibility has been an important virtue, including among Democratic presidents. Neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy were ever hurting for money, but they never treated their wealth as something due them because of personal virtues nor did they treat the suffering of the poor as the just deserts for personal vices.
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
We all have the "choice" to sleep under bridges or not, to beg in the streets or not, and to steal bread or not. For the wealthy, it's an easy choice to make because they also have so many options to choose from. For the poor, the choice can be harder because the options can be so much more limited. Indeed, there are times when there are no real choices at all in how they survive during their daily lives. The one thing which genuine democracy is supposed to provide, unlike other political systems, is the ability for us all to play an equal role in making choices about who will lead us.
Do we want political leaders and representatives who think that the poor should be penalized both for circumstances beyond their control and for having to make hard choices never faced by the wealthy? Or do we want leaders with enough sense to recognize that the distribution of fortune in society is not something which anyone "deserves," whether in a positive or negative sense, and those lacking in good fortune deserve help simply because they are human beings in need?
I won't even get into the fact that we all benefit, directly and indirectly, from a society which upholds certain minimum standards of universal education, health care, and well-being. Even the wealthy, however much they may be taxed, are ultimately wealthier when their income is derived from a wealthier and happier society than from a poor, fearful, and desperate society. It's unfortunate that we would even need to point this out to get people to support the right policies, but even worse is the fact that people ignore or even deny this anyway. At least there are good reasons for being merely selfish, but they are stupid and selfish because the support policies which ultimately make them worse off.
This poster was originally a plea for help for the victims of the fascist airplane bombings of Madrid.