Political formulation:

The justification for inequality is that wealth compensates one’s contributions to society. Here are some problems:

If everyone worked equally hard there would still be inequality. Different people have different amounts to contribute. The breakthroughs of Albert Einstein are not realistic goals for anyone. The largest contributors express “gifts,” talents which they honor rather than exploit. And so there is inequal potential for compensation, no matter how hard you work.

Rarely, if ever, are the largest contributions inspired by monetary compensation. In fact, top contributors would be insulted by the insinuation. Yvon Chouniard, who did so much to bring social and environmental accountability to the corporation, taught his kids to be “a little embarrassed” by their family’s wealth. Einstein didn’t believe in the use of monetary compensation in general. He said, “I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure individuals is the only thing that can lead us to noble thoughts and deeds.”

Sometimes, compensation counteracts the potential of one’s contribution. If Tim Berners-Lee patented the internet, it would’ve been limited, expensive, and lacking in all the innovative and democratic power that has made it as important as it is. He had the foresight to realize an open and unencumbered product was far more important, a thing apart, from personal compensation.

Conversely, there is more money to be made if contributing to society is not your primary goal. You can only make so much by “simple, honest” (I’m sure there’s a better description) wage-earning. But it still needs to be done. America’s financial innovations are often credited for leading it along the path of greatness. But where wealth is “created” by abstract processes, the resources still come from somewhere: from people doing vital work, now making relatively less (due to inflation) than they would have otherwise.

The separation of work, compensation, and contributing to society, and the greater complication and blurring of these relationships, disincentivizes “work.” When you see flagrant, unaccountable, and careless displays of wealth, you see that this trifecta have ceased to inform one another, even taken divergent trajectories. When you work for a CEO who makes an astronomically disproportionate salary you know you are being taken advantage of. When you feel like you don’t have access to the self-perpetuating system of wealth begetting wealth, millionaires begetting millionaires, you start to realize that much of the available work is essentially meaningless. Worse than nothing.

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

–Mary Oliver

five days across the beartooths

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Rivers seem to be discreet entities like mountain ranges or forests, but like mountain ranges and forests they are not. The Mississippi is often called the longest river in North America ever since 72 miles of meanders were snipped off the Missouri during that river’s re-channeling. But what defines the Missouri and what defines the Mississippi? The Missouri discharges a larger volume of water into the lower Mississippi at its confluence at St. Louis every year than the upper Mississippi does– but it has large seasonal fluctuations, so it often looks much smaller.

The Missouri “Headwaters” is a spot where the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers all come together in Montana’s Gallatin valley within a mile of one another. (It’s about a half hour from where I grew up but for some reason I didn’t go there until this weekend.) Lewis and Clark dropped the Missouri name at that spot because they couldn’t figure out which of the three forks was bigger. If you travel up the Jefferson, though, then turn up the Big Hole River, then turn up the Beaverhead, then turn up the Red Rock River, and then Hellroaring Creek, you’ll get to Brower’s Spring– which isn’t really a spring but a place water percolates out of a mountainside like it does in every other drainage. And you can look at that water and tell yourself it’ll flow a really really long ways– the fourth longest waterdrop journey in the world. When really it’ll get sucked out or evaporated by a thousand and one irrigation canals and reservoirs, first.

***

Headwaters of Hellroaring Creek, Centennial Mountains. 6/27/2013

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Success Story, by A.R. Ammons

I never got on good
relations with the world

first I had nothing
the world wanted

then the world had
nothing I wanted

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the town and I keep a respectful distance.
a fountain cup spins like a wheel of fortune
in a wind eddy of the alley
until I leave. it could be
that human lives are shaping these scenes,
lives not my own, lived elsewhere, now,
but I only find them alone
and I can’t separate out my role
in their creation. but if I could
I’d say it in leather, and I’d say it in wire,
I’d say it in those old car seats
(apples embedded in foam cushions
like Gregor Samsa’s back),
but I’d stack them two mountains tall.