Somewhere I have a picture of my daughter eating her first cake on her first birthday. She is sitting in her high chair, both hands digging in, her face covered in gooey chocolate icing. She had never tasted chocolate before, so I made a cake that I knew I would like if she didn’t eat it. Selfish, I know. But in those days I could and did eat chocolate almost every day of my life and never gained a pound.
Because I was so addicted to sweets, I didn’t want my daughter to be. Birthdays were one of the few occasions when I allowed her to have sugar. I stopped eating Reeses’ eggs and Hershey bars at home and sneakily devoured them at school or in the car on my commute home. Because the taste was so foreign to her, she didn’t learn to love chocolate until she was well into middle school.
I thought of that first birthday this week when I created a firestorm in social media by posting a link to a Daily Show segment where Jon Stewart blasted Fox News for saying that $3 billion in food stamp abuse was an astronomical amount, while on another show saying that $4 billion in tax breaks for oil companies was “a pittance.”
I get a little crazy when I think our comedians are making more sense than our politicians. In my comments on the post, I expressed my worry that we seem to have learned nothing from history, which tells us that the poor and oppressed eventually rise up against those who amass more and more wealth and ignore the poor and the vulnerable. As I watch news reports, I feel that those who defend the wealthy sound more and more like the princess who, on hearing the plight of the poor, said, “Let them eat cake.” (Or as the original French goes, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”)
My more conservative friends quickly responded. One pointed out that food stamp fraud costs taxpayers money, while tax breaks to oil companies are legal, allowing corporations to provide goods at a lower cost to consumers, i.e., to me. She also commented that if the government is going to fund clean energy, we shouldn’t complain about it funding traditional energy sources. Another pointed out that the tax breaks are legal and that if I didn’t like them, I should change them legally unless he was misunderstanding how democracy worked. A third friend ranted about his own tax bill and digressed to talk about what ObamaCare is costing him.
A more liberal friend weighed in that it made no sense for the government to subsidize established, enormously profitable energy technologies like oil, coal and natural gas. On the other hand, he felt it made sense to encourage green energy sources.
Since I try not to get distracted by social media at work, I didn’t read these responses as they came in. Instead, I read them all at once on my cell phone at lunch. For the rest of the afternoon, I despaired. If I can’t convince even my friends that the issue is too complex for us to keep arguing from the extremes and failing to work together to find solutions, what hope is there for any of us to elect moderates who listen to both sides and work together to find solutions?
My conservative friends are convinced that most people who need food stamps are people who are content to live on welfare. My liberal friends are convinced that most wealthy people care little for the needs of the poor and that the uber-wealthy have become so by less than ethical means.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I agree more with my liberal friends than with my conservative friends. But I also have to admit that the solutions proposed by our two extremes have done little to combat poverty or to improve a sagging economy.
I have come to believe that our only hope is to stop defending the unethical and even the criminal at the two extremes and to start finding a balance between serving the needs of the economy and the needs of the most vulnerable among us. History is filled with the refuse of societies that have refused to recognize that little is accomplished by pitting the needs of the people against one another.
I believe we are a great nation. But we are not immune to the ills that have plagued every great society. I find myself hoping that we will find a third way. But it is hard for someone who has never had the money of the well-off to imagine the sacrifices and the work it has taken to get there. And it is hard for someone who has never been poor to imagine what it is like to work as hard as you can and still find yourself destitute.
In the course of my life, I have lived in both worlds. My parents, who never finished high school—my father by choice and my mother for reasons out of her control—struggled all their lives for an income that was just above the poverty level. But they insisted that my siblings and I get an education so that we wouldn’t have such a struggle.
I’ve worked hard. My salary, along with my husband’s, has allowed us to send three children to college without the scholarships and loans that I had to get to finance my education. We also have a little condo at the beach—a second home that I sometimes feel guilty for having when some people don’t have a first home.
My husband and I pay a lot of taxes. And though I don’t like it when I end up paying taxes at the end of the year, I believe that those taxes are a small price to pay for the benefits I enjoy in this great experiment in democracy that is our country.
And so I worry when we as a nation seem not to be concerned for the greater good. I look at those who amass more and more wealth—wealth that they cannot take with them when they leave this life—and I wonder, how much is enough?
I wonder, too, what Christ would say to us. I imagine that he would speak in a parable, perhaps like this: There were three men (or maybe, these days, he might say there were three women) who cared deeply about their children. One man had children who were hungry, and so he stole bread to feed them. The second man worked hard to earn bread for his children and gave the crumbs to the man whose children were hungry. The third man worked hard, fed his children brioche, and saved many loaves, fearful that they would one day be hungry, too. Which of these do you suppose did the will of his Father in heaven?
So tell me a story. What shall we do with our brioche?