Let’s revisit “The Fisherman’s Wife,” an old fairy tale. You remember the story.
A poor but content fisherman catches a talking fish. This fish claims to be an enchanted prince and begs to be spared. The kindly fisherman agrees. When the fisherman relates the story to his wife, she demands that he return to the magic fish and request a new home as a reward for his mercy. The fisherman reluctantly goes back to the sea and the fish grants his request.
The fisherman’s wife is satisfied for a time, but decides she would be happier in a castle. She sends embarrassed husband back with this additional request. Granted. But she’s still not satisfied. She wants her husband to be a king. But he has no interest in being a king. So she insists he persuade the fish to make her a king. Granted. Now she wants to be emperor. Granted. The fisherman’s anxiety is growing as his wife’s dissatisfaction magnifies. Now, she demands to be pope. The fisherman is not only mortified, he’s terrified. But still, her wish is granted.
With all this, she’s still not content. She wants to be able to command the movements of the sun and moon. She browbeats the hapless fisherman into going back once more to the fish and telling him she wants to be God. The enchanted fish hears the absurd request and, in disgust, tells the fisherman to go home. He’ll find everything as it was in the beginning.
There are plenty of laudable lessons to be gleaned from this story, but let’s consider how it might shed some light on the concept of “relative poverty.” See, modern economists tell us there is more than one type of poverty that must be addressed. There’s absolute poverty, which means you don’t have the resources necessary to secure life’s basic needs — food, water, shelter, clothing, a minimum threshold of basic medical. Then there’s “relative poverty,” which means no matter how much you actually have, you’re poor because you don’t have as much as your neighbors.
Here’s the paradox. Our humble fisherman was not impoverished in the absolute sense when he was eking out a meager living in his modest home. If he was impoverished in the relative sense, it really didn’t bother him. His wife, on the other hand, was profoundly disturbed by her relative poverty even though she was elevated to the status of “king.”
Our tormented fisherman’s wife had not spent enough time giving mature thought to the difference between needs and appetite. She was completely out of touch with the relationship between labor and reward. She did not recognize or could not control the character-rotting effects of covetousness.
What happens when an entire social fabric is infected and mal-colored by the shortcomings we see evident in the fisherman’s wife? Such a society might be plagued by certain widespread symptoms. People might believe they’re entitled to their hourly wage whether they show up and work or not. People might skim off huge salaries and bonuses from the dwindling resources of failing companies. People might amass huge fortunes by lying, cheating and stealing from those who trust them. People might intentionally sell defective products if that’s what it takes to magnify the bottom line. People might be on the constant lookout for any opportunity to “get something for nothing” no matter who gets damaged in the process.
For what it’s worth, I’ll just throw this out as food for thought. One synonym for “relative poverty” is “income inequality.” The remedy for absolute poverty is logical and measurable; access to reliable necessities. The remedy for relative poverty/income inequality is just as simple. Everybody has the same income.
Remember Huey Long’s 1935 campaign song, “Every Man a King?” The slogan was a catch phrase for his “Share Our Wealth” proposal. The problem is, if everyone is king, no one has to do anything to earn the position. And then, someone will always come up with a scheme to be emperor.
May 6 is the 70th anniversary of the day John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” won the Pulitzer Prize. Just exactly what are the grapes of wrath and how do we know when harvest time is upon us?
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, May 5, 2010
by Michael Hinkle