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Jan. 31st, 2009 @ 10:24 am
Thank you for your response, Dawn. I feel this is a good conversation to have. You aren't the first kindhearted, intelligent social worker I've known who holds political views (that's what this amounts to, really) that are exactly the opposite of what one would expect. Hearing you explain the discrepancy is helpful. I hope you're getting something useful out of this, too.

Everyone seems to have read this story (about the old guy freezing) except me. :o) I was commenting only on your post. Still, depending on the part of the country and the size and condition of his house, $1000 could easily be for three months, especially if they added any penalties for late payment.

But I still feel like things like this need to handled on a smaller scale...

Ideally, that would be best, but as you know, not everyone has that option. And while you can point fingers and say that this or that person should have made friends who would help, that doesn't take into account the people who are unable to do so. Do you think a severely autistic person can be blamed for not being popular and loved by his neighbors? As a civilization, we're supposed to be above "survival of the fittest." We should take pride in not letting anyone fall between the cracks. While I agree that it's usually best for a person to be helped by their own, that doesn't address the problem of people who don't have anyone. I don't think you'd say that an orphan should be left to die of exposure just because she has no family.

This reminds me of a news story I read yesterday. There was a young woman planning to go to a concert with some friends. They picked her up and started driving, but it turned out these "friends" were really mad at her--the article suggested a couple possible reasons--and they dumped her out of the car along the highway. I think the story said it was about 8° outside, and, after the struggle with the other people in the car, she was wearing only a dress and one shoe. This was along a highway, remember. Lots of cars going by. After trying for quite a while, she did manage to get one car to stop, but the person wouldn't let her get in the car. They only let her borrow their cell phone. Now, to me, the smart thing to do there would be to call the police, but I recognize that that's a culturally biased response. There might be people who would fear further victimization by the police, whether that fear is rational or not. There are still other people--and I wouldn't be surprised if you were one of them--who would say that this has nothing to do with the law, and you don't expect them to give you a free ride just because you had an argument with a friend. These people would call a relative or somebody else they could trust to come pick them up. Others, isolated from family or simply not having any, might call around for a taxi.

This girl didn't do any of that. She called the same people who dumped her out in the first place. Then the person who had let her borrow the phone took off and left her there. An hour later she got someone to stop and give her a ride to a hospital, where they did surgery on her frostbitten feet. When I read that, I thought, "Dipshit, why didn't you call emergency services when you had the chance? This was an emergency situation. You needed rescued." It's entirely possible, though, that she, like you, didn't feel she should be counting on some government agency to bail her out of trouble.

...rather than expecting the utility company to provide free service for non-paying customers "until the spring".

Dawn, if a person is caught stowing away on a ship, is it your opinion that they ought to be thrown overboard? Generally speaking, if they're too far out to have the Coast Guard pick them up, they're on for the duration, and they're turned over to the authorities when they reach their destination. Outside of the mafia, we don't murder people for not paying a debt. You can rationalize until you're blue in the face that a stowaway doesn't deserve a ride he didn't pay for, and you'd be right, but that doesn't justify killing him. Your position--if it's consistent with your position on the frozen old man--would seem to be that you ought to throw him overboard, and his friends or family will come fish him out of the water before the sharks finish him off, and if he doesn't have any friends or family, then it's his own fault if he dies because he should have made some friends. Or, if we don't blame him, we just shrug our shoulders and say his death is an act of God or something, just "one of those things" that nobody can do anything about...um, except by not throwing him overboard in the first place. (Speaking of which, here's a relevant parable I wrote about five years ago.)

Utility companies are making jillions but they have employees to pay, bills to pay, taxes, upkeep, investments to make for expansion.

Of course, companies have to turn a profit. If they're publicly traded corporations, they have a legal responsibility to their shareholders to do whatever will yield the greatest returns. If some innocent people die, so what? Business is business, right? Oh, right...that's those mafia ethics again. We're pretending to be civilized.

You've said lots more I want to comment on, and some challenging of my own values I'm going to dive into, but first, I'd like to come back to something you keep bringing up. You talk about "drawing a line." I'm familiar with the concept. Mayda often has customers who don't pay or are really slow about paying. I think she cuts them too much slack. She could go disable their website, basically holding their business hostage until they pay up. Of course, if you take away their means of earning money, they're not going to be able to earn money to pay you, so that's not the best strategy if they actually are broke. She finds it's better customer relations to float them for awhile. Most pay up eventually, and are grateful enough that they come to her with more work later. But occasionally there's a deadbeat, and she does have to stop hosting them or let their domain expire or whatever. That's never resulted in anybody dying, though. All that dies is a website, and even that can be brought back to life once she gets her money.

So what I'm wondering, Dawn, is where do you draw the line when a human being's life is at stake? When I learned CPR as a kid, I was taught that once you start to resuscitate someone, you don't stop until someone else takes over for you or until you are so exhausted you're physically unable to continue. Not just until you have something better to do. Not, "Oh, hey, it's been fun, but I have to be at work in five minutes, so you're going to have to start your own heart now." Not until you think you've given that person all the chest compressions they deserve. Not even until you think there's no point anymore, unless you're a licensed physician certified to declare them dead. If something you do is the only thing stopping a person from being dead, you keep doing it until it is literally impossible for you to continue doing it.

Now, that's not to say you can't get somebody to help you. There's such a thing as two-person CPR. You can use a bag-valve mask instead of blowing with your mouth. You can insert an airway so you don't have to hold their head in just the right position the whole time. You can even switch off with a bunch of other people, all of you taking turns so nobody gets too tired all at once. That's called "sharing the load," and it's why we have government. I can't afford to build a paved road all by myself. I'm guessing you can't either. Most of us who drive can't. But if we all agree to share the same roads and just chip in our share, we can build lots of roads. If there are 500 homeless people in my city, I can't shelter all of them all by myself. It would be a tremendous burden for me to even try to keep one or two. But when I join with the other four-hundred-some-thousand people in the city who have homes, we can all chip in and offer shelter without even diminishing our own personal lifestyles. We can all still enjoy relative luxury, but each add a teeny little piece, and those pieces add up to do something powerful--they save lives. You talk about how if the utility company let indigent people have free service, it would make it more expensive for others; but if you take an honest look at the numbers, I bet you'd see that the cost of the amount of energy needed to keep the poorest of the poor just alive, when split up among all the paying customers, isn't going to cause anyone to miss any meals. 

But I'd like to suggest something even more radical--that is, getting right down to the root:

They have probably thousands of customers that can't afford their service...


I'm still not clear on whether we're talking about a gas company or an electric company, but it doesn't really mater in this case. Gas is, in most cases, a fossil fuel, extracted from the earth that belongs to all of us. Electric, usually, is powered by coal or oil or uranium, all of which is taken out of the earth that belongs to all of us.

I claim oxygen, Dawn. Some people have thought to produce it through electrolysis and bottle it, but I'm more enterprising than that. I claim all the O2 in the air. It's mine. It belongs to me. I'll pull some strings and get the signatures of some powerful people to say it's true, if need be, but for now, just take my word for it. I am the rightful, legal owner of the air on this planet. You're welcome to keep breathing the oxygen in the air around you so long as you pay your bill in full and on time. I'm also going to have to charge a fee for carrying away any CO2 you exhale. You might have to work a few extra hours a week if you want my oxygen, but I promise you, you won't regret it. Of course, if you decide you don't want to buy oxygen from me, that's fine. It's a free country. You can quit breathing, or you can make your own oxygen, or you can just buy some from one of my competitors, like the guy who owns the oxygen in the polar ice caps of Mars. See? You've got options! Aren't you lucky? Now, I see you're already racking up quite a bill just reading this, and you haven't applied for a line of credit yet, so I'm going to have to ask you to stop breathing now. If you don't cease and desist, I'll have to send someone around to disconnect your service.

Ridiculous? Why? They do it with water. In some parts of the Southwest, as you've probably heard, it is actually a violation of the law to catch rain off your roof in a rain barrel. They tend not to go after homeowners doing it, but I read about a stadium and a big warehouse or something that got busted. That water is supposed to soak into the aquifer and be portioned out to people via the water company, who claims exclusive rights to the water. Maybe a person can't afford to have water service or even a bottle of water, but they would technically be breaking the law if they stood with their mouth open in a rainstorm, because they're stealing. Coca-Cola has allegedly damned up entire rivers in India for its bottling plants there. The people downstream now have no water. They're welcome to buy all the Coke they want, though. That'll eat just about any stain out of your laundry, and it makes potatoes nice and soft when you boil them in it. Why does Coca-Cola get to do that? *shrugs* It's theirs. They said so, or they paid somebody some money. Business is important. So what if some people die? They've got to draw the line somewhere. If they just let people have free water out of the river, that would drive up their costs, and then consumers of Coke would have to pay more. That wouldn't be fair, would it, for paying people to have to pay more just so other people can get something for free? Much more fair to not let the deadbeats downstream have any water.

"Oh, but that's not the same thing at all," you're probably thinking. "Gas and oil and coal take a lot of work to extract, and all that equipment costs money." Well, I'll tell you what--let's go into business. The price of oil is relatively low right now, meaning the companies with huge overhead are going to be struggling. You and I could just buy a bunch of pipe and drive it down into the ground over an oil well. We can hook up a hand pump, and do the work ourselves, or rig up a windmill to pump it out. We'll make our costs back in the first day. But...where do we drill? I mean, we can go out to L.A. and see lots of active oil wells, but if we tap in right beside those, I think we'll run into some trouble. They won't let us. Same deal with the coal. It's all over in this part of the country. You dig down under the clay, and you find that the land here is practically made of coal. So why can't we dig it up? Who does it belong to? What about if we buy some land? We wouldn't need but a square foot to drive a pipe into the ground. A square foot of real estate has to be affordable...except we probably wouldn't have mineral rights. Other people already own those.

Wow...so you're not allowed to drill out oil or gas for your own personal use, even if you're willing to do all the hard work. So, if you've got a gas furnace, how are you supposed to feed it? Um...biogas! We can rig up a tank to put manure and water into, and it'll digest to produce methane, which can be piped to the furnace to be burned...except that the health department and zoning would never allow us to accumulate a bunch of stinky manure in a combustible contraption like that. So I guess if you heat with gas that comes out of the ground, you have no choice but to pay the company who claimed it. Interesting. I don't recall getting a chance to bid. No recollection of losing a coin toss or anything that said someone else gets to claim that natural resource and I don't.

Did you know that if you go into a state or national forest and cut down a tree, you can be fined several dollars per foot of the height of the tree, but if a logging company wants to clearcut a whole ten acres of trees, they can buy the rights to for a lot cheaper? Doesn't seem fair.

So what about food? You brought up going to a grocery store. That's a little different, but not entirely. Again, we're talking about a natural resource--fish or game or soil fertility--being consumed. In this case, though, we don't have one company or government agency claiming exclusive rights to all the food-making resources. If you have a plot of ground, you may not able to catch water from a shed roof on it, and you may not have mineral rights or be allowed to cut trees, but (unless you live in a neighborhood ruled by a homeowners association), you're probably allowed to grow your own food on it. If you try to distill your own alcohol to fuel your car, the government will bust you for it, but if you grow lettuce and tomatoes to put in your belly, that's fine. Not everyone has the ability to do it, but most people are free to do it. You have a choice as to whether it's a more efficient or more enjoyable use of your time to work at growing food, or to work for money so you can pay someone else to grow the food for you.

If I've been spending my days growing food, and you've been spending your days earning money, it's only fair that we trade the fruits of our labor. And because we're civilized, compassionate people, we'll all join together and each chip in a little sliver to feed the people who have neither food nor money, and it won't hurt any one of us to do so.

That would be like you giving your hard up friend some free chicken. Then, they need more free chicken because they're still hungry and still in the same situation that got them hungry in the 1st place. Then your other friend says "hey, I want free chicken, too!" Then yet another friend is broke and says "gosh, I am going hungry... can you give me free chicken, too?" Where do you draw the line? Your chicken is your livelihood. If you give it away, you won't have much left to sell and support your family with. There will come a time when you have to tell your friends "I'm sorry, I have to keep x amount of chickens so I can feed my family- unless you can pay me like my other customers, I have to use my chicken for my business."

This begs the question: why do my friends have neither money nor food? If they don't have a job, don't they have time to grow food, or hunt, or fish, or forage? I'll show them how to gather dandelions and gut squirrels. People are omnivores. We can eat many, many, many kinds of things to stay alive. If you're freezing to death, though, and the only heat-producing machine available takes a certain kind of fuel, and some big company claims exclusive rights to making that fuel, the rules are a little different.

I have an even better solution, though, one that would feed my friends, give them the means to feed themselves, and earn myself a profit, but I'm tired now and need to sleep. I'll get into this more later when I have a chance. TO BE CONTINUED...
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