Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Universal Destination of Goods

My mother-in-law was taking the bus up from Cincinnati to come help with the bed-resting MrsDarwin for the next week. With the Columbus area getting 4-6 inches of snow, both the bus and I had arrived late, but within minutes of each other. MegaBus doesn't stop at a terminal, however, they pull off at the side of the street in Downtown Columbus and discharge their passengers on the sidewalk. So for ten minutes my mother-in-law and I were wandering up and down the sidewalks in the wind driven snow trying to find each other in the vicinity of the Nationwide building.

We found each other and shivered out way back to the car. She'd had a long wait for the bus in the cold and wind on the Cincinnati side too. I turned up the heater as we drove home, and, finding out that she hadn't had any lunch, pulled off at the first Panera we could find to get her some hot soup.

It was an unfamiliar part of town and I turned into the wrong parking lot and had to circle the block. On the corner, as I waited for the light, a forlorn figure in a big old blue parka was standing on the corner and approached the window -- a woman who looked around fifty who asked if I had any change, claiming she needed seven dollars to get into a homeless shelter. I'm a cynic about these things: I didn't believe that the homeless shelter charged or her claim that she hadn't eaten in three days. But I'd been out in the driving snow a while before and I was willing to hand someone money to get them out of the cold for a bit. A ten dollar bill was what I had in my wallet, so I gave her that, thinking that if that were a lot for a panhandler maybe it made up for all the similar people I'd refused to make eye contact with in less inhospitable weather.

She hurried off down the street, and by the time we'd parked behind the Panera and gone in ourselves, she was seated inside with a big guy in a nice track suit who had a large duffle bag on the floor next to him. She smiled nervously and waved to us as we ordered. The guy was talking to her and gesturing towards the outside. We'd been scammed, I figured. A team effort with the more sympathetic one out in the snow, or some guy with a hold over this lady was making her collect money for them to split. Who knows. But I'd given her the money in good faith, and I figured at least she was in from the cold for a while, enjoying a coffee. After a while they left together.

We finished our soup and coffee and left as well. I let my mother-in-law into the car, went around to my side, and saw the smashed window, back driver side. Her bags gone and my work backpack too.

We looked at the tracks in the snow. There were very few. Probably someone pulled another car up next to it for shelter, threw the bags quickly in their car, and drove off. I talked to an owner of a nearby shop. "That homeless woman was out here again," he said. "This stuff always happens when she's here." Who knows. And in a sense it doesn't matter. Someone did it, and in the end whether it's someone I handed money to or someone completely unrelated doesn't matter much since either way it's someone I don't know and who sees me as a source of a few items of disappointing value.

I called the Columbus police department and was informed that unless someone had been injured or I knew the name and address of the person who had broken into the car, I need to use an automated system to file the report. So we drove home, with the wind and snow thrumbing through the back seat as we reached highway speeds.

It took a few hours of phone calls to deal with the various issues relating to being robbed. My mother-in-law got her cards stopped -- though not before whoever stole our bags had used her debit card to buy $25 of gas at a UDF. I reported my work laptop stollen via the IT helpdesk at work. The dispatcher took it stoically.

"Happens a lot," he said. "Though usually in airports. We'll get you a replacement by Monday, or at least a loaner. At least they didn't get your iphone or someone they could actually get money for. Those corporate laptops don't even sell for a hundred bucks at a pawn shop."

This morning I called around a found a place that can replace the window today.

The things that have me feeling low aren't the cost of the window or the few slightly valuable things (work laptop, my own portable hard drive) which were taken. Money got them and money will replace them. A few hours of my wages will go for paying for the loss, and the people who took them are surely a lot worse off than I am -- though what they took did them little enough good.

What has me feeling low is the different values assigned to things taken by us and by those who took them. My mother-in-law's prayer book, with little notes and pictures of many years tucked away in it. The two slim notebooks full of four months worth of research notes for the novel which were in my backpack. The rosary that a friend had given me years ago, which I kept in my backpack but used less often than I should.

These are things that meant a lot to us -- not in money but in thoughts and memories and history -- which have no value to those who took them. I doubt they got a second glance before being thrown away.

In the wake of the pope's recent exhortation, various fellow Catholic geeks have been arguing about topics like the universal destination of goods and the non-absolute nature of private property. It's one of these things that people like to argue about in the abstract: For the starving man taking the loaf of bread is not theft, because it's owed to him.

I'm not hear to say that's false, but I do think that when people get too caught up in thinking about the theoretical deserving poor and the injustices of society and the situations in which something we'd normally think of as wrong might be okay, it's easy to forget the real social disruption that's caused when one person decides to take what is another person's. Our loss was much greater than the thieves' gain. So much of what was taken had value to us but none to them, or even if it had value to them had much less than it did to us. That dead loss is the result of one person taking from another -- a deliberate rent in the social order that involves more than the transfer of value from one person to another. Value is lost. Trust is lost.

"We should pray for whoever did it," my mother-in-law said last night. It was surprisingly easy to do. They gained so little. They are so lost.


BenK said...

There is much more to be said on this topic; because there is actually an entire topic that is missed when people spend their time focused on the universal destination - and it is the same point that is missed when people focus only on the current position of the goods. The process, the path, of the transition can matter.
One might say that all water ends up at the sea. Whether it plunges over a gorgeous fall or trickles down a navigable river, it still exhausts its potential energy and ultimately even kinetic energy, in erosion or turbulence and spray. However, along the way, it is possible to capture that energy for purposes such as grinding corn or generating electricity. The water would reach the same place if it were dammed up and slaves were forced to carry buckets down the hillside, but in that case, not only would the energy be wasted, but injustice would be generated in the process.

All goods ultimately meet the same fate. They are also generated from sources such as resource extraction, human organization and effort (value added), and good fortune. But the process of their movement through the world matters. Their exchange for other goods allows people to access things which are mutually beneficial. The exchange for labor actually validates the value and dignity of the labor itself. The free gift allows for the expression of virtue and sacrifice and (should - ) generates gratitude. In this exchange especially, goodness is created for all parties, including witnesses.

To take all this away through coercion - even, or especially, coercion that gives goods to people who need them - is to force people to carry water downhill. It is ironically more valuable to force people to carry water uphill, because at least the potential energy of that water can be recaptured in some tiny fraction. The implications of this statement are actually quite shocking.

Barb said...

Oh no! I felt bad about your backpack with your notebooks last night when I read it on facebook and now adding Amy's things makes it worse. I've seen her using that little prayer book many times with pictures of the kids in it and it makes me feel so bad for both of you. Prayers for all of you and for the thief...maybe someday we will find that our prayers for him/her will have made a difference in their salvation...

Donald R. McClarey said...

When I have represented thieves in my practice they sometimes act as if it is no big deal. I usually point out to them that sweat is always a big deal and that is what they have stolen from their victims, along with peace of mind. Please consider posting this at TAC. It puts a human face on some of the issues we have been debating.

Banshee said...

That stinks.

Many years ago (and in Columbus, though it could have happened anywhere), I lost a treasured rosary to theft. It was made for me not long after my birth by a relative who was a nun, who passed away before I could ever remember her.

Obviously it was wrong that somebody stole it. Obviously I lost big time.

OTOH, it may have been the only contact the thief had had with a sacramental, and the blessing of Christ and the prayers of the relative who made it may have done that thief some good. I hope and pray that it's so.

Still, it is very clear that God, Who expects us to feed the poor, also spent a fair amount of time in the Bible talking about property rights. He wants us to give; He does not want other people to take by force or guile.

I hope you and Mrs. Darwin's mom are okay.

Emily J. said...

Woe. Feel your pain after being robbed last spring of cheap but sentimental jewelry. Who else would want my grandfather's goldplated baby ring? Your trust has also been stolen. I never forget to lock doors anymore. Somewhere I recently read a factoid about how the percentage of people who distrust others has skyrocketed in the last generation.