As our society increasingly drives people to the point of desperation, they will do desperate acts. I have a personal story which brought that fact frighteningly close to home.
A few years ago, my two daughters traveled to South America and went from Buenos Aires to Patagonia to Northern Bolivia to Cuzco, and finished up by hiking up to Machu Pichu. They went with only a backpack, slept under the stars or in simple refugios and basically kept their parents in a constant state of anxiety. After ten months they returned, safely, to my great relief.
After they had been back for one week, my wife sent the older daughter, 26 at the time, to Pavilions Market (on Montana in Santa Monica) at 4:00 in the afternoon to get a few things. As my daughter was getting into her car, a man appeared, put a gun to her head and told her to move over. He drove away with her at gunpoint. As he was Latino, she began speaking to him in fluent Spanish. “Please, don’t hurt me, what can I do for you? How can I help?” and so on. She had little money on her, but he did tell her his wife was in the hospital, he couldn’t pay the medical bills and was desperate. Fortunately, he didn’t pull the trigger and ten blocks later he pulled over, got out, and walked away. We were lucky. Many families are less lucky, and, as the disparity of wealth widens, as poor people become more and more disenfranchised and desperate, I fear we will see more and more people acting out of that desperation.
I read recently that the top one-tenth of U.S. citizens now has a total income equal to that of the poorest 2.2 billion people in the rest of the world. And here in the USA, the top 20 percent controls 94 percent of the wealth; while the other 80 percent scrambles after the remaining 6 percent, How long can an alleged democracy survive such outrageous disparities?
Even after the public attention that is now gradually being paid to the growing gap between CEO pay and workers’ pay, the obscene gaps continue to grow. Last year, for example, the pay of the average worker rose 2.6% while CEO pay jumped 12.6% to an average compensation of nearly $10 million per year. One wonders what corporate boards of directors are thinking of, or if they are simply asleep at the switch. As John Kenneth Galbraith writes, “The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.” Whatever the explanation, CEO pay is simply one more gross example of a society that has lost its spiritual moorings and is so immersed in materialism, consumerism, glitzy life styles, and ego gratification that it is blind to the sufferings of many of its peoples.
This blindness, I believe, will hasten the day when desperation will explode and violence will no longer be containable in low-income neighborhoods. My daughter’s experience in the parking lot of a market in an upscale neighborhood may have been an isolated incident, but, nevertheless, it was perhaps symbolic of a future that lies ahead. Desperation can lead to violence anywhere, anytime. We need to make it easier to get an education and healthcare than to get a gun.There is still time to redirect energy and resources to solving the social problems we all know are solvable. Jeffrey Sachs in his latest book The End of Poverty argues that we can eliminate poverty from the earth by 2025. This may be too optimistic, but certainly the wealthiest nation in the history of the world ought to be able to eliminate poverty within its own borders. All we lack is leadership and resolve. That’s all.