Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cause and Effect: The Dynamics of Poverty

In order to survive, all species, intelligent or otherwise, have two basic needs: food and water. Some species, depending on the climate in which they live and how much protection their bodies naturally provide, may also have a third requirement: shelter. Our species happens to be one of these. As a species, we've apparently managed to obtain these three requirements adequately to allow us to survive on this planet for roughly 200,000 years so far.

In today's society, people who don't have money, for the most part, tend to starve and live on the streets. We accept this as a society as if this is the way it always has been, but it couldn't have always been this way. Money hasn't always existed; if we really needed money in order to get these necessities then our species would have died out completely within the first few weeks of its existence. We apparently were able to find our necessities just fine before money.

So what happened? Why do we need money in order to get such a basic necessity that, at one time, we found just fine without it?

Let's speculate for a moment on how this whole "money" thing began in the first place:

Like all species, we started out trying to meet our requirements by using what we had at hand. We foraged and hunted for our food and water and found shelter in caves. It wasn't ideal, of course; since we had no control over the environment, food would sometimes become scarce, water hard to find, and caves were often damp, rocky and uncomfortable. So we didn't exactly survive in comfort, but we survived.

Over time, as our average intelligence grew, we learned better ways of living. We learned to cultivate plants and developed weapons for hunting, making food shortages less likely. We learned to use mud, grass and wood to build structures aboveground, getting us out of the cold, damp caves into warmer, drier shelter. These techniques were taught to our children, and they taught their children, and on down the generations the knowledge was passed.

These techniques were improved upon by each successive generation. Basic food grown from wild seeds evolved into cultivated vegetables which eventually gave rise to genetically engineered vegetables (though whether the latter is truly an "improvement" is debatable). The grass hut became the log cabin which eventually gave way to treated wood, stone and concrete. The club gave way to the bow and arrow and crossbow which eventually gave way to the gun.

Unfortunately, as a species, Humans are a greedy bunch. Some people who came up with ideas for improving quality of life wanted to somehow profit personally from their ideas instead of just sharing them. So, people who had superior skills began to trade things to provide services for others. What was traded and how much one got for performing a service depended on how much they wanted and how badly the other party wanted the benefits of his or her skill.

In the beginning, trading was undoubtedly confusing. For example, suppose I developed a new method of tiling floors and you wanted me to tile your floor; how much is my service worth? A bushel of wheat? A bag of gold? Diamonds? Since nothing had a set value, what I'd want would depend mostly on my personal tastes, needs and my perception of the value of my skill; in such an environment, it was impossible to determine what something is worth objectively.

At some point, someone realized that a standard currency would make trading simpler. Like many species, we have a fascination for shiny things so shiny rocks like diamonds and attractive metals like gold formed the basis for our first primitive "currencies." This wasn't a perfect system; there was still no objective value attached. It solved the problem of what to ask for when asking for payment, but how much to ask for was still as hard to determine as ever.

One day, probably when someone was thinking about how malleable gold is, someone came up with the idea of breaking gold and other precious metals into standard sizes and shapes and assigning these numerical values; coins were born. Finally, we had a unit of currency with hard values attached. In time, "going rates" were established for particular goods and services; this made it much easier to assess the relative value of one good or service over another.

Eventually, the numbers became more important than the metals they were printed on; paper money was born. This was the purest form of currency, completely independent of the value of the medium on which it is exchanged, finally providing for the first time a truly undifferentiated currency; one dollar, pound or Euro is identical to any other. In fact, today currency is frequently only a number in a computer; physical currency is unnecessary.

Today, anything you want can be bought by simply subtracting a number from your account and adding it to someone else's. I look around my apartment here and I see the computer I'm writing this on, my TV, my couch, my bicycle, my kitchen table and realize that every one of these items, and countless more, all came to be here when someone, either myself or someone else, gave some of their hard earned Canadian Dollars to someone who had these things to sell.

Then my eyes land on my refrigerator. I think of the food inside. Suddenly, I realize something: everything inside that refrigerator was also paid for by the Canadian Dollar. Even the cucumbers Lisa's father brought for us recently, though he grew them himself, started out from seeds he bought.

Food is a basic necessity, something that every person on the planet needs... and we have to pay for it.

How did that happen? I mean, I can understand why we should pay for nonessentials. TVs, for example. Technically, we don't really need them; those who want one should pay for it. But food? Something we all would die without?

Here, we come back to greed. Somebody in the past figured out that, since we need food, anyone who controls the food stands to profit enormously. Somehow, we've gotten ourselves into a situation today where, if you want to eat, you have to have money. How do you get money? You work for it. This sounds reasonable except what do you do if there is no work, or if you're simply not able to do the work available? Starve?

Then there's shelter. If you want shelter, you either have to rent a place to stay (as I do), pay someone to build a house for you or build one yourself. Even if you take the final option, you still have to pay for the building materials; again, a basic Human need that one must now pay to have.

It's still possible to get free water most of the time but even that is being bottled and sold. Unfortunately, thanks to the damage we've done to this planet (thanks to the shortsightedness of greed again, preferring profit over environmental protection), it's getting harder and harder to find drinkable water, so we end up paying for that, too. We're not so much paying for the water as its processing or collection, true, but the end result is the same: we pay for it.

This doesn't seem right to me. It never has. Even when I was a child, I used to say, "If I ever owned a store, I'd give all the food away for free." It just always seemed wrong to me somehow to ask someone to pay for something they need in order to live.

Some might say, "The world doesn't owe anyone anything." That's true; if you're a member of a society, you're obligated to contribute to that society. In North American society, one is generally rewarded for one's contribution by being paid in currency. Sounds like a great idea in principle. In practice, however, it doesn't work so well.

We have wealthy; we have poor. In theory, assuming one is compensated for what one's contribution is truly worth to society as a whole, the wealthy should be the ones with the most valuable skills and the poor with the least valuable.

It doesn't always work out that way.

Look at the entertainment industry. I'm an aspiring filmmaker; I used to dream of working on big "Hollywood" films. While I'm still interested in making films, nowadays I'd rather make small films; I'm no longer interested in working in the larger world of show business. Why? Principle. Honestly, I think these people are way overpaid.

Filmmakers do work very hard, don't get me wrong. It's not an easy job; it can be quite grueling (I've done it; I know). However, I don't care how good your work is; if you're being paid more than $250,000.00 to write a screenplay, you're being overpaid in my humble opinion. It's just entertainment, not brain surgery.

Now look at teachers. As I said earlier, our advancement depends on passing ideas from one generation to the next. There are so many ideas and skills now on which our society depends that we need professional teachers to aid in the passing on of this complex knowledge; without them, the ideas that support our society and maintain our infrastructure would atrophy and our society would collapse.

A profession that important, you'd expect those who work in it to be well compensated yet, compared to the aforementioned filmmakers, teachers are paid a mere pittance despite the fact that they, for all intents and purposes, are the very foundation upon which our society rests.

So, why do we have this situation? Two basic reasons:

One. While currency is an objective measurement, one's contribution to society is very difficult to measure objectively. At the instinctive level, we tend to judge a person's contribution on the basis of how good they make us feel. This explains the above dichotomy. Entertainers make us feel wonderful; teachers are synonymous with boredom. So, people tend to want to pile money on the entertainers, not recognizing the importance of the teacher's contribution.

Two. Once again, greed rears its ugly head. The entertainer, realizing how much people want to see his or her performance, can successfully lobby for huge amounts of cash lest they refuse to perform; if the entertainer is greedy, he or she will do just that. People love watching them so much that they're willing to pay what they want, even at the expense of more important services like teaching.

This goes a long way to explaining why filmmaking technology has reached such a pinnacle with CGI effects, HDTV and digital soun
d while people are graduating from high school who can barely read and write. A hugely disproportionate chunk of the North American economy is driven by the entertainment industry because new technologies have made entertainment such a profitable, and much more popular, endeavor.

I'm not saying that entertainment isn't valuable; it is (I even use a few snippets from movies later on in this essay to illustrate a point; there’s often quite a bit of truth in fiction, and fiction presents these truths in much more compelling and memorable way than any other method of Human expression can). I simply think that we've blown the value of entertainment way out of proportion when compared with how much we value other goods and services.

For example, I personally feel that the average screenwriter is probably worth objectively about $40,000.00 per feature length script (a fair amount since the average screenwriter probably writes about one script per year, and $40,000.00 is a reasonable yearly salary); only the most extraordinarily talented and/or prolific writers like the James Camerons, Ron Howards and Kevin Smiths of the world would be worth the $250,000.00 I mentioned earlier.

Herein lies the problem with the fact that one needs money for necessities. The $40,000.00 screenwriters have talent but, in order to show it off, they have to compete with the $250,000.00 screenwriters. Sure, there's an audience out there for the $40,000.00 screenwriter but, if they were to put in the amount of work they'd need to gather enough public attention to their talent to make a living at it, they'd have to give up their proverbial "day jobs."

Of course, they can't do that. Their "day jobs" pay for the water, food and shelter. They can't promote their talent unless they give up their day job but, if they do that, they die. Catch-22.

That's why the poor in our society are at such a disadvantage. There are many people out there struggling at low paying jobs trying to make ends meet because it was the only work they could find. One of these people might well be the next Francis Ford Coppola but no one will ever know that because they spend their whole day slinging french fries or collecting garbage in order to pay for their basic necessities so they end up not having time to develop their talents.

I think, if I tried, I could find an audience out there for my film work. The problem is, I'm stuck working in an office eight hours a day. By the time I get home, I'm too stressed and tired to do any significant writing (some people can write fiction when they feel that way; I can't) so I can't even get a screenplay written, much less make a film. My first completed screenplay, The Crystal of Truth, took me six years to write because of this.

Then there's my friend Robert Martell. He is a phenomenal artist. If you clicked through the link to my screenplay The Crystal of Truth above, you'll also have seen the "movie poster;" that's Rob's work. That was drawn and colored by hand, by the way. Just looking at that piece of work, it's obvious this man should be working in the art field but, like me, he's working in an office; he works even longer hours than me, actually. He never has time to draw anymore.

(By the way, Blog Action Day also happens to fall on Rob’s birthday so Rob, if you’re reading this, Happy Birthday, buddy! ;))

My former life partner Riin Gill is another great example. She spins and dyes her own yarn. Her work is gorgeous. Unfortunately, she's also a victim of an eight hours a day office job. She's gotten further with her talent than Rob or I have, having established an online business, Happy Fuzzy Yarn, where she sells her creations, but her "day job" prevents her from having enough time and energy to make Happy Fuzzy Yarn viable as a primary source of income.

Now technically, neither Riin, Rob nor I would be considered "poor" by society's standards; we're all reasonably comfortable as far as standard of living goes. However, as far as our dreams and talents are concerned, we're all "poor" because, while we're physically comfortable, we're working our fingers to the bone to maintain that comfort. None of us has enough time to put the amount of effort and attention into our natural talents as we should.

By this definition, I think that most of us in everyday society are "poor." Too many people in today’s society are working to live rather than living to work. This situation is brought about by the fact that we must work for the necessities we need to keep ourselves alive and this, in turn, was brought about by the greed of the first people who realized that controlling food, water and shelter allows one to control the world.

The poor are already at a disadvantage; the fact that one must pay for their necessities only puts them at a further, and in my view unnecessary, disadvantage. I believe we all have something to contribute to society but I think most of us never truly get the opportunity to live up to our full potential. We end up struggling just to survive, never finding the time to nurture our talents or chase our dreams.

So how do we level the playing field? How do we make it so that those with talent, regardless of how much money they have at their disposal, can compete with the wealthier?

The ideal solution seems obvious: make the basic necessities free. Food, for example: if you want luxury food items or if you want to eat at a restaurant, you pay for the luxury but, when you walk into a supermarket for your groceries, your cart is automatically loaded with the basic necessities; if you don’t want anything else, you can just walk out right there. You’re given a place to live to keep you healthy and comfortable.

With the basic necessities covered, this would free one to dedicate oneself totally to developing a talent; no one’s talent would go to waste only because one has to spend most of their day just working for what they need to live. Now, if one wants luxuries, one would simply find out what one is good at and develop that into a skill that people would be willing to pay for. One’s talent, then, would support only their rewards for their contribution to society, not their life.

A simple idea. The execution of it? Not so simple.

The first problem: what constitutes a "necessity” versus a “luxury?”

Water? No problem; water is water as long as it’s clean and drinkable. Water is also the only beverage we absolutely need to survive, so that places all other beverages firmly in the realm of “luxuries;” it would be hard to defend the inclusion of any other beverage as a “necessity.”

Shelter, however, is a bit more problematic. In theory, the fair idea would be to set a certain minimum, reasonable comfort level and provide everyone with whatever they need to reach that level of comfort. The problem is that comfort is such a subjective thing that it would be virtually impossible to objectively determine how comfortable anyone is, and some people with medical conditions would require special accommodations, too.

Food is even more difficult. Food tastes vary widely. Some people’s food choices even have ethical components. Vegans, for example, frequently choose to be vegans because of animal rights issues. Myself personally, if I was setting up the rules for what’s “essential” food-wise, I would put meat squarely in the “luxury” category. The problem is, not everyone would agree with me; again, this would be next to impossible to determine fairly.

Then you run into the problem of how much food each person requires. Caloric requirements vary widely with individual metabolisms body sizes, ages and activity levels. On top of that, what if the talent someone is trying to develop requires more food than the average person? Athletes, for example, will require much more food than screenwriters or teachers. How do we determine fairly how much “extra” food someone developing a physical skill will require?

Then there’s the problem of how to compensate the farmers who produce the food. Someone who has the talent to be a farmer and is spending their entire day maintaining their crops deserves to be rewarded for that contribution to society but, if no one paid for food, where would the money come from? The government?

Of course, that raises the question of where the government would get its money. Again, ideally like the people getting their life’s necessities free, it’d be nice if governments could simply get essential things done without having to pay for them but, then, we run into the same problem again: how do we reward the people doing work for the government for their contribution?

Eventually, as you come full circle, you realize that there really is no solution to this problem. It seems to me, then, that the whole idea of compensating one for their contribution to society with money is a fundamentally flawed concept. Money, it seems, is the root of most of the evils of the world. Without money, there would be no “rich” or “poor;” we’d just be people.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Lily, a woman from the 21st Century, happened to ask Captain Picard how much it cost to build the Enterprise. His response was interesting: “The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th Century.” In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Captain Kirk, while on 20th Century Earth, also makes many references to the fact that he’s unfamiliar with money and that it’s not used in his century.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had said many times that he felt that money would not exist in the future. I’ve always wondered, however, how that would work; flawed system or not, it’s hard for me to imagine a world this complex functioning without some form of currency.

Again, in First Contact, Picard provides a clue to the mystery when he responds to Lily’s incredulity at the fact that he doesn’t get paid for the work he does. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives; we work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.”

In other words, in the Star Trek universe, we all work together, solely to help one another and become better people in the process.

It’s a nice thought. Unfortunately, it’s simply not feasible in today’s world. If my basic needs were met, I would be willing to work only for the benefit of others; I’m sure there are many out there who would do the same if they could. Unfortunately, there are not yet enough people who’d be willing to do this. As a whole, our species still too greedy and selfish; right now, such an economic paradigm would have no hope of succeeding.

So, ultimately, what’s the cause of poverty? Greed. Plain and simple.

The system forces us to work to benefit ourselves (and our families if we have them). Maybe that is the ultimate flaw in the system. Maybe if we, everyone in the world, redirected our focus to working for the benefit of others rather than ourselves, maybe things would get better. After all, if we were all working for one another, we would ultimately end up providing for each other’s needs; we wouldn’t have to worry about our own needs anymore.

In the Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Edith Keeler said to Captain Kirk, “Let me help.” Captain Kirk smiles and says, "A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over 'I love you.'"

“Let me help.” Maybe that is the key to a better world, free of poverty.

We have the key, but we have a lot of growing up to do before we’ll have the strength to open the door.


  1. You have put a lot of thought into this. Very well put and O so true.

  2. Monica11:12 AM

    These are valid points, but it also has a lot to do with supply and demand and that old market economy. Whether I write an effective ad for a local small business, charging, say, $60 an hour, or I write an effective ad for Coca Cola, charging who even know what I could get away with, I'm supplying the exact same talent and taking the exact same time, it's just that a large multinational company has more advertising budget than a local small business. Same thing with directing/writing a blockbuster Hollywood movie or an indie film; the work is pretty much the same, the income is just vastly different because people like paying for entertainment but small business owners try to save wherever they can.


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