Friday, February 12, 2010

Going the Way of the Biltmore

"Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, 'I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.' So he makes large windows in it, panel it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the Lord. "But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding of innocent blood and on oppression and extortion." Jeremiah 22:13-17

The prophet Jeremiah spoke these words of the Lord "about Shallum, son of Josiah, who succeeded his father as king of Judah," but it could have very well applied to a number of Judah and Israel's kings, and yep, to you and me as well.

Do you come from a God-fearing family of humble means? Did your parents work hard to provide you with a good, but simple home and put you through college? Maybe it was something they didn’t achieve, or Dad did, but Mom didn't. Or maybe both parents went to college and your family was financially secure, but even so, the bar is now higher for you. Whatever the starting point, it seems there is always the expectation that a child should do better than his parents did - more education, a better job, a nicer home.

When you live in a country of pioneer heritage, it's not so hard to improve on the last generation. We still live in such a country, with today's pioneers being immigrants. I have some dear friends whose parents were all immigrants. His mom and dad came from Croatia, and her mom and dad from Mexico. Both sets of parents are so incredibly hard-working, even to this day! Their reward has been to see their kids not have to work so hard to have a nice home, money in the bank and leisure time.

I'm not an immigrant’s kid and my parents weren't pioneers either (please! I'm not that old!), but I have a similar story. My mother never went to college and although my dad got a degree, he supported the family through blue collar labor. I count it both a privilege and my duty to have gone to college and grad school and be working in a field where only my fingers actually have to physically work (clickety-clack on the keyboard).

Is there anything wrong with this - wanting our kids to do better, and as kids, expecting to do better than our parents? I don't think so. Joseph did better than Jacob, who did better than Isaac, who did better than Abraham, who did better than Terah. Psalms 112: 2 says, "His children will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed." Clearly God is good with this sort of upward mobility. That’s not what the prophet Jeremiah is condemning - it's the means by which Shallum moved up: oppression and extortion.

I note that the prophet decries against using one's countrymen as unpaid labor, but I think it's not too much of a stretch for us to apply this principle to underpaid labor, and stretch a little more and we can apply it to foreign, underpaid labor. Do you see where I'm going with this? Straight to WalMart, and let me just make this quick and dirty. No need to belabor underpaid labor. WalMart's slogan is, or used to be, "Always Low Prices." That describes the wares they sell, the wages they pay their store employees (not corporate and distribution, necessarily, but store employees) and it also describes the wages paid the people who make the wares WalMart sells.

However unlike other WalMart bashers, I'm going to shoulder some of the responsibility here, because I shop at WalMart. Even if you don't, I can guarantee you have something in your closet made in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. Even those fastidious "buy American" consumers are driving around in cars made with parts manufactured in China. It is hypocrisy for any American to criticize WalMart, since the corporation only supplies our demands. WalMart is an easy target because of how big they are (makes them harder to miss, you see), but honestly, there is hardly a business or household in the United States that isn't in some way benefitting from underpaid labor. 21st century Americans, who has built your house?

So many Americans are simply not willing to accept this reality, and I believe it's because we feel powerless to do anything about it. Really, what can I do about it? Buying American is not a solution in our global economy - there is no such thing as an American product any more. Buy local? Sure, that works. How about we all buy local from here on out and turn the clock of progress back to before trade routes began. Sorry, not realistic. And even if it were, if all of the sudden the U.S. stopped trading - ships stood still in our harbors - it might free us of the guilt of building our house on underpaid labor, but it would cause a global economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (cute subtitle), author Thomas L. Friedman makes it clear that as China, India and other countries serve and produce more and more things that Europeans and Americans used to do and make for ourselves, the disparity between the economies (and wages) of these developing countries and our own is flattening. It's far from flat at present, but instead of a Himalayan global economic landscape like we might have had in the 1980s, with the measures of economic prosperity in the world's most prosperous countries towering into the stratosphere above underdeveloped countries, we've got more of a Rocky Mountain landscape at present, and can expect a Smokey Mountain landscape by mid century.

Will we ever find ourselves in a Sahara Dessert global economic landscape? Herein lays the greatest, unspoken fear of opponents of globalization. We're no dummies, we can see what's going on here, the underpaid labor is starting to get smart and that worries us. Let's be transparent with ourselves - it scares us because it threatens our hope of a more prosperous future than our parents had. Yes, it's very scary stuff if we care more about wealth and prosperity for ourselves than for our fellow man.

In the early 1900s, George Vanderbilt constructed America's largest private residence, Biltmore, in Asheville, N.C. So massive was this construction project that he actually formed a village, Biltmore Village, just off the property to sustain the workers. From all I can ascertain from the history (which I know must be heavily skewed in Vanderbilt's favor), George seemed like a decent fellow who did not underpay his workers and, in fact, raised their standard of living. Long story short, George builds this most incredible house, lives in it about 10 years then dies, leaving it to his wife and daughter. They lived in it for about 20 years more, and then, ut oh, the Great Depression hit. You know, it's so hard to maintain a monster home in a bad economy, isn't it? The Vanderbilt ladies did the only thing they could to keep it in the family, they opened it up for touring to the public. From that day to this, it has never again been a single-family dwelling; it has been open for the public to enjoy. It's still privately owned, unlike its West Coast counterpart, the lavish Hearst Castle, which is now a state park, but its purpose is public enjoyment.

Maybe we're not planning a construction on the scale of Biltmore or Hearst Castle, but in a quickly changing global economic landscape, will our children be able to maintain the McMansion we're living in today, or planning to build tomorrow? The bigger question is: Why are we living in, or planning to build, such a monster home? Did not our parents have food and drink? They did what was right and just, and all went well with them. They defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know God?

Contemplate this: Is having more and better than my parents had more important to me than doing what's right and just?

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