October 19, 2006

In an Upside-down World

2006 1530 page5 capnce a year the Parade magazine that appears in the Washington Post publishes a cover story on “What People Earn,” depicting a series of head shots; with the name, occupation, and earnings of each person featured. My reaction every time is the same: a mixture of curiosity and bafflement.
Their March 12, 2006, report included, among others, the following: 35-year-old Denise Bassham, a high school librarian in Katy, Texas, makes $50,300 a year; auto mechanic Roland Davis (44) of Mason City, Iowa, makes $25,900; registered nurse Nichol Zimmermann (32) of Fort Wayne, Indiana, $45,000; and Ron Tussing (59), mayor of Billings, Montana, $9,600.
But there were also the following: Kobe Bryant (27), basketball player, $15.9 million; Angelina Jolie (30), actress, $30 million; Howard Stern (52), talk-show host, $31 million; Terry Semel (63), Yahoo’s chairman/CEO, $120 million.
2006 1530 page5These are the bare facts. And the question is: What to make of them? How to process them—theologically and philosophically? It’s a complex issue, and I confess I don’t have the answer.
One thing that cannot be denied, however, is the gross imbalance of the situation. Take the case of Howard Stern—foul-mouthed purveyor of the coarse and the prurient. He makes $31 million, while Nurse Zimmermann makes $45,000. What kind of upside-down world is this? Something has to be wrong with that picture!
Of course, my focus here is on the 2006 Parade report. But as many readers know, these figures are not the highest—either for sports, the movies, or the corporate world. And one has to wonder about the integrity of a society with such grossly lopsided compensation patterns. Back in September the Ford Motor Company, struggling to keep afloat, offered buyouts to 75,000 of its workers (some for as little as $35,000!), while hiring a new CEO at $2 million (base salary), plus a hiring bonus of $7.5 million and $11 million to offset lost benefits from his previous job.
Millions around the world struggle to perform their daily (often humdrum) duties to put food on the table, to make ends meet. Such people should be very close to the heart of every Christian. I think in this connection of the guys who collect our household trash, making only little, if any, above the minimum wage. What time they get started in the morning, I do not know, but they arrive on our street as early as 6:30—twice a week, in good weather and in bad. My heart goes out for them, especially on those cold, wet, snowy winter mornings in December and January. I try to imagine what it must feel like for them to roll out of bed, perhaps as early as 4:00 a.m., don several layers of clothing, and head out into the frigid morning air, to handle dirty, smelly stuff for hours!
Last Christmas, we gave them a little tip—just to say: “We appreciate what you do!” And what surprised us was their reaction. It’s not uncommon for these trash collectors to simply toss the empty bin on the sidewalk or on the curb and drive away—after all, they have so many homes to cover. But following that small tip, these guys would bring our trash bin up our driveway, sometimes as far as the door to our garage, many times picking up our newspaper too, and placing it on top of the bin!
Now there are unwritten protocols for all these things; and our understanding is that trash collectors, as a rule, are not tipped. The common idea is that they do their job with no expectation of personal recognition from homeowners who, 98 percent of the time, never come into any contact with them, anyway. But rule or no rule, my wife and I can hardly wait for Christmas to come around again to tip them—and this time (we’ve agreed already) it will be big. (Well let’s just say, bigger than last year.)
All these high-paid bigwigs mentioned earlier can go on strike and few of us would know the difference. But let (low-paid) nurses walk off the job, or police, or teachers, or trash collectors, and we’d all feel the pinch in one big hurry. And in the case of the trash collectors, we’d smell the difference!
Jesus loved all people, appreciated all people, accepted all people. But He had a special heart for the little people, the humble ones, those on the margins of society. And I get the impression He’s still the same today.

Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist Review.