“Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.”
As I read more and more news articles about jobs that one day might be done by machines, I have been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. One of the many things the book deals with is an American economy where income inequality has destroyed the American dream. One of the reasons is that it is so in the book is automation, a topic that has only increased in relevance since the book was written in 1965. The above quote doesn’t deal with automation, but demonstrates Vonnegut’s ability to get to the truth of our culture through comic absurdity. Overall the book is a comedy that features a great deal of moral outrage at the inequality of our system. If these issues interest you, then I would highly recommend reading this book.
Here is another section of the book that is always with me:
I think it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. There’s plenty for everybody in this country, if we’d only share more.
“And just what do you think that would do to incentive?”
You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?
The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently.
From lawyers! From tax consultants! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping.
“It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.”
Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. ‘Go where the rich and powerful are,’ I’d tell him, ‘and learn their ways. They can be flattered and they can be scared. Please them enormously or scare them enormously, and one moonless night they will put their fingers to their lips, warning you not to make a sound. And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. You’ll be shown your place on the riverbank, and handed a bucket all your own. Slurp as much as you want, but try to keep the racket of your slurping down. A poor man might hear.’