a response to greed

by ananya mukerjea

Dear Dean,

I just read your piece about upward mobility and whether it could ever conceivably be reconciled with anti-poverty commitments (and my off-the-cuff response is, "ummm… no.") and immediately wanted to have a conversation with you about it. It's a really complex issue between us because we come from such very different backgrounds and have ended up in such similar places.

I definitely grew up professional-middle-class (as Barbara Ehrenreich would put it) with parents who made significantly more money than any of their family did (especially since their families were earning rupees as opposed to my parents' dollars) but significantly less than the people in their new immigrant peer group. They never acted like they didn't have enough; but, for a long time, they acted like it could all slip away if they weren't careful. They felt like they had too much but that it wasn't at all stable and, so ultimately not be enough. It's an interesting childhood from which to grow into a graduate student because it's an uncommon approach to wealth and to professional status. Well, actually, it may not be so uncommon an approach for a lot of immigrants or for a lot of other people who feel, for a variety of reasons, that affluence as we see it depicted on T.V. is not for them and, yet, is in fact the norm for most people. A sense of entitlement to affluence can't be and, indeed, isn't the norm for the vast majority of people, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that it shouldn't be for anyone because it's precisely that type of attitude about ownership that requires poverty of others.

I have this professor I really respect who always tells me that the problem with leftist economising is that everyone's playing a zero-sum game so that giving something to someone necessarily means taking away from someone else. She says that redistribution's distasteful to people and that a better solution would be the creation of more resources. I have serious doubts about that. Wealth is relative; and, whether you think about it in terms of amount of cordoned-off private space or in terms of size of and number of bank account(s) or in terms of the portion of goods you get to have, hoard, hide away for Y2K, the vast amounts some people have is necessarily directly linked to the amazingly inadequate amounts other people have. We've all read the stats that (and I'm taking this from Doug Henwood) the richest one-half % of the U.S. population own more of the nation's wealth than the poorest 90 % and that the richest 10% own over 75% of the total U.S. private wealth. In New York, especially, we see very plainly that gentrification results in the loss of affordable and decent living space for lower-income people. We have to think very carefully and critically about what constitutes financial security and what contitutes greed and whether social power has to equal economic power.

I do believe that I-and all my fellow socially-conscious, social-change- focused comrades in graduate or professional schools-should absolutely have to spend long periods of time in impoverished areas with impoverished people, to whom we feel emotional ties and with whom we share a sense of mutual responsibility. This should be understood not as a path to greater anthropological awareness or as a charitable thing to do. It's just good to have multiple perspectives… to know that, for those of us who grew up in the middle classes, all the while feeling as if we weren't there yet, there is a wide, deep range of economic classes on either side of that narrow sliver represented on whatever prime-time show.

Even I, in my elite position getting an elite degree and living large in Manhattan (eating out from time to time, buying wine by the pricey glass at Lower Eastside lounges, going to first-run New York-priced movies every so often)-if I were to compare my public school's facilities to the Ivy Leagues everyday and compare my pathetic emergency health-care plan to my corporate friend's Blue Cross/Blue Shield spread, might start to feel slighted and to forget. There are a few things to remember here: (1) that I'm damn lucky to have the cash in hand to pay $9 for two hours of entertainment every other week and to have any health insurance at all; and (2) that Hollywood's culturally normalised opulence demands mass amounts of money fed into it and that super-millionaire actors and producers don't really care whether welfare dollars should be usable for tampons or movie tickets or alcohol or about who might be "entitled" to entertainment; and (3) that everyone should have access to good healthcare.

I'll finish all this, Dean, by acknowledging that it is hard, that I do envy Columbia its library and my financial analyst acquaintance her spacious apartment. It's hard not to want things, things, and more things and not to feel keenly everything that seems like a sacrifice. So, I always return, like a good post-colonialist feminist to the matter of subjectivity and to the all-important relevance of perspective. I think it's conversations like these that keep us vigilant and critical and remind us that social responsibility is mostly about staying constantly engaged with the world… Thanks for your words, Dean…

ananya mukherjea is a teacher, scholar and activist living in nyc.

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