Saturday, July 31, 2010

God Bless the Child

Mama may have
And Papa may have
But God bless the child
Who's got his own
Who's got his own.

Anyway, that's what Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr. wrote in 1941. But, of course, for the vast majority of people in the world today – and certainly the majority of those who live in Thailand – Mama doesn't have and Papa doesn't have, and their mama and papa didn't have, either.

And a whole layer of people at the top of society would be just as happy to make sure that the child doesn't have, too.  The haves and the have-nots are engaged in one of the world's most prevalent dynamics, and it's seen with special clarity in those countries where the gap between the two is glaringly visible.  The Rolls-Royces and the palaces over here; the water buffalo and the sagging shack, or the begging bowl, over there.

The invisible walls that keep the poor in their hovels are based on the immensely resilient fallacy that an economy is a zero-sum game -- that if a million peasants, to oversimplify, are given one dollar each, that represents a million dollars snatched from the grasp of the rich -- or, at least, a million the rich can't gather up and salt away in Switzerland.

Most economists would argue that keeping the majority of people in a society poor and ignorant actually limits how rich the rich can get, especially in a corrupt country.  And while there are lots of reasons why economics is called "the dismal science," it makes sense to believe that, as the poor prosper and pay more taxes and consume more goods, the profits and the benefits flow largely where they've always flowed -- into the pockets of the rich and powerful.  

It is very difficult to find photos of the Thai rich looking rich - they're too smart for that.  So we're using this photo of a middle-class couple in a fancy Bangkok restaurant, although they'd look plenty rich to the little Isaan girl above.  There are only two ways she's ever likely to be in a place like this: she's a waitress (not probable at all -- those jobs go to the daughters of people who know someone) or she becomes a prostitute and is taken there by a customer.

It's not fair to tar Thailand with the brush that should be reserved for such thuggish regimes as Myanmar and the worker's paradise of Kim Jong Il.  Literacy is nearly 100% in Thailand (higher than in the US) and free education is available to all, even if most poor kids drop out of school to support their families.  Every adult has a vote to cast (or sell), and new millionaires and professionals do emerge from the shanties from time to time.  Still, the walls are high and topped with broken glass.  And that, of course, is at the root of the problem that brought the Red Shirts to the streets of Bangkok.

When you look at the little girl above, or at the beautifully dignified older man to the right, still dressed for the village but washed up on the sidewalk of Bangkok with nothing but a bag and a bowl, you want to do something, anything, to make life easier and more fair for them.   But what?

The quick fix doesn't look any more likely when you realize that Billie Holliday based her song on a verse of the New Testament that was old when the book was assembled, probably in the 4th century, AD.  It's from Matthew, verses 25:29:

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.  

The rich get richer, in other words, and the poor get poorer.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. The verse you cited is at the end of Matthew 25:14-30.

    This is the parable of the rich man who gives his slaves talents (coins) before he goes on a journey. He instructs them to use them well. The first two use the coins and double the value. The third one is afraid to lose his talent and invoke the master's wrath, so he buries it, making it useless. He wastes his "talent" so it doesn't benefit anyone.

    When you have written about writers taking a risk when they begin to use their talent, you are paraphrasing the parable. Everyone can do something to improve the lives of others. Christianity does not promise wealth; it demands that wealth of all sorts be used for others.

    Timothy 1 6:10 says "the love of money is the root of all evil." The first three words are usually cut off. Having money and using it in whatever way one can is spreading the talent, the wealth, to those who are in need. The love of money is love of the thing rather than love of what it can do.

    There is the story in the New Testament about the rich young man who asks how he can gain salvation. He is told to sell everything and give the money to the poor. He can't do it, he can't give up the money because he loves it more than he loves his hope of heaven.

    I hope there is a special place for those televangelists who preach the prosperity Bible. They encourage those who have so little to send the little they have to them and, in this way, they too will be chauffeured in a Rolls Royce and have a fleet of private planes. They pervert the message and play on the lives of the innocent.

    It is greed that keeps the people of Isaan poor. It is greed that keeps cars on the road even when the company knows that in an accident the gas tanks can rupture and explode. It is greed that sent tainted baby formula to poor countries, telling mothers that it was healthier than the natural way to feed their infants. It is greed that peddles the flesh of women and children all over the world, reducing them to objects.

    Gutenberg has a lot to answer for. The Bible is the best and the worst of everything ever printed. In the hands of the "evil doers" it has been used to cause wars, to keep the poor poor, and to justify their actions as being Christian.

    All creatures great and small would grow and thrive as soon as someone figures out how to spread the wealth. Not much chance of it happening.


  2. The verse you quoted is at the end of Matthew 25:14-30. This is the parable of the slaves who are given talents (coins) by their master as he leaves on a trip. When he returns, he finds that two of the slaves have increased the amount of coins they received. The third, afraid of losing his talent, buries it so it accomplishes nothing for anyone.

    The story applies to real talent and real money, using them to grow something of benefit to others. The Bible doesn't advocate or promise wealth; it demands that money be a means to a far greater end.

    Timothy 1 6:10 describes "the love of money as the root of all evil." The first three words are generally left off. Money can change the lives of the poor, the sick, the weak. The love of money is the basis of greed and greed is the basis of sin.

    I hope there is a special place for those who preach the prosperity Bible, televangelists who convince the poor that they will be better off if they send the little they have to the rich who play on their faith. How's that for a sin?


  3. I'm sorry, Tim. When I posted the first one, there was a message that it was too long. So I edited it, posted the second, and both are up. I don't know how to erase them.


  4. Tim: sounds as if the country needs some sort of oranized welfare system for the poor, such as the U.S. or Canada, or Britain have.

  5. Beth --

    I bow to your Biblical knowledge. The Buddhists, of course, would agree with the Timothy verse since they believe that worldly attachment is the root not only of all evil but also of all suffering. I agree with you about the televangelists: they should spend eternity starving to death watching the cooking channel with a remote that's been superglued to make it useless. The problem with spreading the wealth is that it disinclines people to do the work necessary to create more wealth, which is why no government-run economy (including our current one) works worth a damn. I think the key is to lower the barriers to power rather than money, so anyone can rise on merit and those who rise from the poorest can make the path smoother for others.

    Bird Dog -- There's no safety net at all. Basic social security would be helpful, but it doesn't exist. The big problem, I think, it that access to power is reserved for a relatively small number of Chinese-Thais who have held it for centuries. Crime is the most open enterprise -- the path to power there (at least to the secondary level) is open to anyone with the brains and the lack of caution to try to seize it.