Friday, November 24, 2006

Wealth and Goodness Not Equal

In this season of Thanksgiving, I am, of course, counting the many and huge blessings in my life. What’s on my mind, though, is a trend I am not thankful for. I almost never find myself allied with property rights advocates, whose causes seem to be that their need for something, usually money, should trump all other needs of the community and the planet, laws or no laws. There seems to be an exception, however, in which we have become foot soldiers in the same cause.

The first ripple of this trend that I refer to happened in Connecticut a couple of years ago. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split decision in June 2005, upheld a decision allowing the City of New London to use eminent domain to take land from a set of working class individuals and families and transfer that land to private developers “for the public good.”

Now, there is a disturbing echo here in Central Florida. In Daytona Beach around 1970, two 13-story high rises were constructed by the Federal Housing Authority. Today, each building houses 150 units occupied by elderly, many disabled, low-income senior citizens. What has changed since 1970 is the value of the Halifax River and city marina view that the apartments enjoy. Today, that view and the land the buildings occupy is worth multimillions to avaricious developers. They are drumming on city officials and the federal authorities to move the residents and sell them the site for luxury condominiums.

There is a seriously shameless message here in each case from the pro-development side. They state, with nary a blush, that homes for the wealthy and upscale businesses are “better” for the community. Is it just greed for higher tax revenues? Maybe, but there seems to be a subtext, particularly in the Daytona case, that the poor and elderly should not have the million-dollar view, that they don’t “deserve” it since they haven’t had to pay through the nose so some developer can build his own million-dollar real estate.

It harks back to the days when the wealthy and landed automatically enjoyed, in the eyes of their peers and the law, reputations for truthfulness and when they automatically had right on their side. In an incident pitting one of them against a member of a poorer class, there was no contest. Debtors, the poor, went to prison. Virtue and wealth were equated.

Since that is no more true now than it was then, and has been proven not to be true endlessly over and over again in our streets, our towns and our courts every day, I find it disturbing that the increasing trend to materialism, accumulating things, wealth and the value of name brand goods may be leading to a return to the clearly erroneous idea that having wealth makes one somehow deserving.

So, in this season of thankfulness and blessing counting, let us remember what real virtue is—not what you have, but what you do. That is what makes you who you are, none of us more deserving of life’s bounty than any other.

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