Advocate On The Hudson

Empathy and a Nickle's Worth of Change

Mar 23, 2014

When you're down to your last ten dollars, do you buy food, medicine or gas for the car?

Migrant worker picking strawberries in California

I want to propose a simple way to begin to change society for the better. It costs just a nickle, but first let me set the stage.

We need water, air and the occasional snack, to survive. Clothing and a roof over your head may not be quite as essential, depending upon local climate and social customs of course, but are still pretty important. If you are a person of deep faith, you have the conviction that all of this will arrive, in good time, due to the grace of the Almighty. All that is required of you is patience and fortitude and the ability to suffer the pain which comes from realizing that there is still something missing from this picture. It can even feel as if all of this seemingly undeserved and unnecessary distress was put there on purpose, to put your faith to the test, since it feels otherwise to be so purposeless and random.

If you are more modern in your ideas, you might consider it the job of the government to make sure that you can fulfill these basic, human needs. Some would put companionship in the “absolutely needed” column too, but, aside from our sentimental preferences, we have a demonstrated ability to exist, even prosper, without any nearby two-legged accomplices, for quite some time. Got to have drinkable water and breathable air no matter what though. So why are our supplies of both under attack and in jeopardy? Are we completely out of our minds? Do we think that playing Russian Roulette with our essentials makes the game more interesting, raises the stakes and creates excitement out of the mundane? Is it possible that what we have always taken for granted, as belonging to us, is being completely commodified, and that everything has, or will soon have, a price tag, even the air we breathe?

Meanwhile, if so much has been reduced to numbers, pushed so far into the abstract that we can hardly recognize its connection to our reality, how do we push back and reassert the need to recognize, acknowledge, even celebrate that linkage? Since passivity is the ocean that we swim through to reach our life rafts of activity, it is no wonder that there is so little coordination amongst us in this continuous, ongoing process. Each person is too involved in staying afloat, paddling towards their destinations and making sure that there is plenty of oxygen in the immediate vicinity, to worry much about anybody else, except their own blood and kin.

So, if a problem arises which requires the coordinated effort of these various arbitrarily-distanced souls, there is no mechanism for enabling that to take place. The institutions we formerly relied upon, as narrow-focused as they were, religion, proximity and the rest, are moribund. Sports teams serve as place setters for real community and symbols replace actuality. You root for the home team, maybe win a few and probably lose the rest. Then a Katrina happens and we are all brought back down, for a little while, kicking and screaming, to raw reality. Then the Dream Machine kicks in again and we are glued into our easy chairs, back on the program, braced for the next wave.

The ultimate injury suffered here cannot be quantified and in most cases does not even have a name. It is embodied in a concept which we named “empathy”. It is the ability to share someone else's pleasure or pain, accomplishment or loss. It is natural to us, as is the mechanism which permits us to shut it off and become absorbed in ourselves. If you listen to popular music, the most common word in songs is always “you” and close behind that “love”. The focus is constantly directed to the other, because that is where your affirmation lies, with your lover or your child. The ability to care more for them than for yourself is the path we have been given to escape the tyranny of our own bodies and selves, to displace our attentions and affections on another. Since the other primary drive programmed into us by our natures and our conditioning is to focus on ourselves and to relegate others to bit parts and extras, this is the exposure of our centers to the light, the closest we may ever come to a revelatory experience.

When we can provide all who are alive, and all that is alive, with the grace afforded by these flashes of unselfishness and unification with what is outside of ourselves, this can be a long sea voyage to the land where change lives. Without mechanisms to sustain you on your way, it becomes very difficult to hold your course though, so we need to become designers and builders, to re-form the institutions and methods that we have contrived, or which, in most cases, been imposed on us over time. Since so much of this existing framework was constructed with only minimal feedback from the consumers of all of this society-building, there is obviously a lot of slack to take up.

When the equipment provided to us to help in our encounter with raw nature has been in the manner of weapons, to force nature back into a predictable and beneficial state, for the sake of distributing ever bigger prizes to the populace, there is no reckoning of the long-term effects of so much manipulation of our resources. This is a giant experiment, which many reckon has gone off the tracks, literally, when it comes to trains and figuratively, when it comes to everything else. Take the food supply. Here is one thought about how to help put it back on the tracks.

A Nickle's Worth of Change

Pickers and gatherers of produce, People getting their hands dirty, by pulling roots and breaking stems, filling baskets and boxes, are making about a penny a pound for their work, give or take. When the final products of their efforts are passed along to the consumer, the price will be measured in dollars a pound.

If retailers were willing to mark prices in increments of 5 cents (not a common figure currently) this could be used to signify that they are passing this much down the line, to these hard-working men, women and children, an additional 5 cents per pound for their hard labors. Consumers can make certain this way that those employed to supply them with their needed nutrients are being compensated in a more reasonable way than is common today.

How are foreigners and migrants going to be able to keep track of and report what they are due? Rewarding cooperating growers with better sales will help and a well-monitored program of verification and tracking of funds. Of course a mechanism must be implemented, to make certain that these funds are not diverted before they reach their intended recipients. For these reasons, one cent of the five will need to be used to devise and operate an efficient and honest process to make certain that everything works as well as humanly possible.

Any funds not needed to administer this program are to be used to enable other populations who are accustomed to receive a miniscule portion of the profits generated through their sweat-fueled efforts, apparel workers, etc., to accomplish this same purpose. Perhaps clothing prices will include a 25 cent additional payment to the gatherers of the raw materials, along with those who sew or dye the cloth, with $.25 prices reflecting retailers' participation.

Will employers simply lower wages by the amount of these “bonuses”? Unfortunately, some will try to, so effective means must be employed, and constantly improved and updated, to thwart humanity's worst impulses and habits or nothing will change. Great public shame must be heaped on criminals who rob the poor to help themselves and they must know that they will be identified, blackballed and ejected from civilized commerce.

The details needed to make this a reality must be gleaned from a number of conferences, by telecommunications and in person, and the participation of all those to be affected by these measures, workers, growers, retailers, distributors and consumers of food. Time is of the essence since this has already taken far too long to implement. These actions must be carried out in harmony with not in place of other attempts to improve the working conditions of all farm laborers.

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