People Should Have More Than Zero Talents

“Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” – that’s my favorite thing in the Bible. The verse is Exodus 23:2 if you want to look it up. I always thought the Commandments would have been better if they included that one, instead of railing on about god and Saturday. But what I really want to talk about is my least favorite thing in the Bible. All the way in the back of the book Mathew says – “Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” That’s a mouthful for us in the new century but the meaning is easy: Poor people have holes in their pockets and rich people have funnels in their gullets.

What I respect about Mathew is that he’s honest about the economic situation but he isn’t mean about it. He’s just pointing to something ugly and true. And the ugly truth is that I couldn’t turn ten dollars into eleven dollars if you gave me a hundred dollars to start with. Meanwhile there’s guys like Jeff Bezos who can turn a garage full of old books into an empire. It’s just plain true that we both exist, and it’s also true that the hundred dollars you gave me went to some old books that I bought from Jeff. I added my one talent to his ten and now I have zero talents and he has a hundred billion. I don’t understand the math but those are the numbers and that’s how they happen. Neither of us meant to do anything evil. We just did as the good book says.

And the Bible isn’t the only good book that I found in Jeff’s garage. In a box under his tool bench I found an old copy of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s a book that tries to give some good advice to despots in the 15th century. Some people think he shouldn’t have given out that kind of advice, but he was just being a good Christian and giving his talent ‘unto him which hath ten talents’. Early on in the book Machiavelli tells the despots that “men must either be caressed or extinguished; because they avenge themselves of light offenses, but of the grave ones they cannot.” What he means by this is that a wise despot should either treat his people well or kill them outright, because happy people are happy and dead people don’t complain. I think Jeff should have read this passage more carefully before he sold the book to me. Right now his people aren’t happy but they also aren’t dead. Instead they are broke and alive, and that could become a problem for him if Machiavelli got it right.

I also found The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Jeff’s garage. It was on the shelf that hangs over his recycling bin. I’m going to quote the Contract twice because I found two good quotes in it: “The body politic, no less than the body of a man, begins to die as soon as it is born, and bears within itself the causes of its own destruction” and “Laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing.” I put those quotes together because I think that in America they are inseparable. Our version of capitalism could be one of the causes of the destruction of the body politic, because it allows the people who have all the talents to write all the laws. And if the person who has everything also makes the rules, then everybody else is probably going to be called a criminal, especially if they try to get something for themselves. A country full of criminals, like a body full of cancer, destroys itself; or even worse, it goes the way of Australia and fills up with spiders.

I found another book in Jeff’s garage that was hiding under some ceramic figurines. It’s called The Histories and it was written by Herodotus of Halicarnassus in the time of Socrates. Some people call Herodotus the Father of History and some people call him the Father of Lies. He’s the guy who told us the story about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who fought Xerxes at Thermopylae. The Histories is one of my favorite books, and one of my favorite moments in the book is when a doomed Persian says, “The most hateful grief of all human griefs is this, to have knowledge of the truth but no power over the event.” The Persian knows that he is going to die in the climax but he can’t do anything to prevent it. I bring him up because I think many of us feel that way about everything all the time. We feel as though we are watching our homes slide into the sinkhole of globalism, or the sinkhole of automation, or whatever sinkhole you nightmare about. We feel that the corruption has metastasized and that the death of our body politic is immanent. We feel that we are either caressed by propaganda or extinguished by debt. We feel that in spite of all the terabytes of knowledge we’ve picked up since Xerxes drank the rivers dry, we still have no power over our own lives. It’s a hard feeling, and we’ve been feeling it for at least twenty-five hundred years. I don’t know if there’s a cure for it but we should definitely keep looking.

There were many other books as well, too many for me to remember. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser taught me that the ‘American Dream’ is at least as ugly as it is beautiful. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand taught me to squint at people who like Ayn Rand. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein taught me that humans may one day learn to grok each other. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky taught me that a good person can do bad things for philosophical reasons. The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught me that a good nation can do horrifying things for ideological reasons. A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman taught me that the world almost ended in the 14th century and that things aren’t actually all that bad today.

So I came away from Jeff’s magical garage with many wonderful books. But now I don’t have any talents and that’s a big problem for me because I need talents to live. I don’t blame Jeff for it. I don’t blame Bill, either. A lot of people get fatalistic, and they say if you’re broke it’s because you’re no good and the universe is against you. But I say that’s too easy. Whatever you believe, you shouldn’t wear the universe like a butt plug.

I just thought of another good line but it didn’t fit in that last paragraph: We wouldn’t put god’s name on money if he was supposed to be around all the time.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing all these silly paragraphs is because I think people should have money, whether or not god writes their stories into the universe. I think we should start trusting in ourselves a little more, so I say we rub out the old smiter and start passing these dollar bills around. The curse of Mathew has been on us for two thousand years, and it’s time to break it. People should have more than zero talents – because zero is a really low number and because people are people. If we can’t figure out a world where people have more than zero, then I don’t really feel like being a person anymore. I don’t feel like consuming, I don’t feel like voting, I don’t feel like working. I won’t even notice when I become a criminal and America floats away, because zero isn’t something I’m going to cry about when it’s gone.

I don’t really care that Jeff ran off with all the gold and left me with a cruddy old pile of books. Fair trade, I say. But if he didn’t want me to steal it all back he never should have sold me Treasure Island – because that one’s about how to be a pirate.


2 thoughts on “People Should Have More Than Zero Talents

  1. This reminded me of a friend I worked with while toiling for a government social services agency. A pay raise was being negotiated with the county by our union. I believe it was about whether we would get a 1 or 2 percent pay increase. My friend told everyone who would listen “I want zero or nothing.” No one understood what he meant. I kind of thought I did understand, now I know I did. He ended up buying a cabin in Canada. Think I’ll read A Distant Mirror. I had no idea we almost bought it in the 14th century. I must have had a textbook from Texas when we covered that period in school.

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