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September 01, 2008

Taking advantage of people's poverty

(Due to today being a Labor Day holiday and being ontravel, I am reposting an old item, edited slightly because I can never stop tinkering with what I have written. New posts will begin again tomorrow.)

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and the youth offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.

But at some level, I feel that I am not being consistent. In earlier postings I have said that we should not concern ourselves and interfere with what consenting adults do. And in this case we have what seems, at least on the surface, to be a purely consensual transaction between two adults. The homeless man was not forced to pour the soda over himself. He did so because he wanted to obtain $100. So on one level, one can view this incident as saying that he was paid for a job. And as things go, there are a lot more disgusting things that one can be asked to do than pour a soft drink over oneself. In fact, as a society, we pay lots of people do things for us that we would shrink from doing ourselves. We pay them to go into sewers, to execute people, clean public toilets, etc. and we do not feel repelled by this. So why did I find this particular story so repellent?

Perhaps it was because we consider the homeless man is in too weak a position to freely give consent. After all, $100 was a lot of money to him. To offer very poor people what is to them a lot of money in return for doing acts that we would not do seems to offend our sense of fairness. But it is not only poor people who can be tempted in this way.

Many years ago, I saw the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with the former as a millionaire who enjoyed seeing what he could get people to do out of greed. The point the film was making was that people at any level of society would do almost anything, even wading through a disgusting mixture of urine and excrement, provided the price was right.

At that time I thought that the film was an overly cynical representation of human motivation but now I am not so sure. Some of the reality shows on TV seem to indicate that money and fame (however fleeting) are enough for many people to overcome their normal sense of propriety and self-respect. It is a disturbing thing to ask oneself the question as to what one might be willing to do if the price were high enough.

This is why I feel that it is so important that everyone be paid a living wage and have the minimum living requirements of food, clothing, and shelter, so that they are not forced to trade their dignity in exchange for these basic necessities of life. If they do have the basic necessities and are yet willing to do things in exchange for further riches, then that is up to them.

But clearly the homeless man was not in that position and perhaps the reason we are so repelled by this story is that there was no redeeming purpose at all for the action, unlike the situation where people do jobs that society requires but which we might find personally distasteful. Here the whole point seemed to be to flaunt rich people's power over the poor and to gain enjoyment from the humiliation of another human being.

But what constitutes humiliation is also tricky. What for one person is a humiliating act is for another person a chance to proudly flaunt their lack of concern for society's expectations and mores. If the homeless man thought there was a market for his actions and decided to be entrepreneurial and launch a career by offering to pour soda over himself to anyone who would pay, would the action now become respectable, just another job that many of us personally would not do but is otherwise acceptable?

After all, some comedians are willing to have pies thrown in their face as part of their act. And reality shows like Fear Factor show that people are willing to do the grossest things just to be on TV. The only difference between these things and the homeless man story seems to be that the homeless man was destitute and the event was spontaneous, not planned and scripted.

It seems like all these questions come back, in some essential way, to the issues of justice as fairness as the only sound basis for constructing society. Under those conditions, the only power that one person has over another is that freely yielded.

But the soda-pouring episode still angers me.

POST SCRIPT: The world's cheapest car

The Tata company of India introduces their $2,500 Nano. Its engineers show off the car and explain how they managed to obtain a nice looking and seemingly safe car for such a low price.

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Comments

I think that there is a difference between what should be legal and what is a moral thing to do.

Sure, offering someone 100 dollars to pour soda on himself should be legal. But that is also a tasteless, tactless thing to do and those of us who are offended by that have every right (obligation?) to speak out.

But I'd never vote to make it illegal.

I agree with what you said about living wages and the like.

Posted by ollie on September 1, 2008 11:54 AM

I remember the Tata Nano from the auto show where the concept car was put on display - and the immediate demand (indeed, families went to the show clutching enough cash to buy the demonstrator).

The problem is, motorizing vast numbers of Indians (and that's assuming that this car isn't heavily exported) will put vast amounts of pressure on an already tight energy market, not to mention the increased pollution from the subcontinent. Sure, it's nice to have an affordable car, but the overall balance of things is positive for the segment of people that can afford the car but not really a more expensive one and negative for basically everyone else.

Posted by Rian on September 1, 2008 08:07 PM

The soda story seems more to illustrate the fact that too much money can turn one into a spoiled brat. There are circus workers on the wrong end of a knife throwing act who would gladly take a soaking for $100, in place of their risky job without a second thought of damaged pride.
The greater exploit of poor people happen daily in less dramatic ways, poor working conditions, higher interest rates, poor political representation and more that their circumstances prevent their redressing.

Posted by Jake Brumble on October 8, 2009 07:14 AM