Playing chicken with the chicken soup

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Rick Horowitz
December 7, 2010

So you’re walking down the street, another cold December morning, and you’re on your way to work, and you’ve seen this view a thousand times before and you’ve trained yourself to ignore it. Except that this time, something about it catches your attention.

There’s a crowd outside the soup kitchen.

No big deal—there’s always a crowd outside the soup kitchen. (People have to eat.) Only this time the crowd is bigger than it usually is. It’s a bigger crowd than you’ve ever seen there, and they’re just milling around. Normally, they line up, and the door opens, and they file in for a meal.

This time, though, the door is still closed, and the people are just milling around on the street, in the cold. And then something else catches your attention: They’re not the only ones out there.

There are the people waiting for the door to open, waiting for a meal, and there are these other people standing in front of the door, holding signs. The people waiting for the door to open are wearing what they always wear at this time of year: ski jackets and scruffy boots. Big mittens. Floppy hats.

These other people are wearing topcoats—camel’s hair and cashmere. Their gloves are leather, and their shoes look newly shined. They’re holding signs. Their signs say “Fair Is Fair!” Their signs say “What About Us?”

You break off your walk and move in for a closer look.

The topcoat people are blocking the door. The camel’s hair and cashmere people are protesting. It’s not right, they’re saying, that the soup-kitchen crowd is getting something for nothing. The camel’s hair and cashmere people aren’t going to let the soup kitchen open its doors anymore unless they get something, too.

They don’t look like the sort of people who need a bowl of soup, you’re thinking. And you’re right: They tell you they don’t want any soup. They want steak. They want lobster.

“What’s that got to do with a soup kitchen?” you’re wondering.

It’s got everything to do with a soup kitchen, they tell you. You can’t do favors for one group unless you do favors for everyone.

“But you don’t need any favors,” you point out. “You’re doing just fine already.”

That’s irrelevant, they tell you. If you’re going to cut one group a break, you have to cut every group a break. Besides, they tell you, it’s patriotic: When the camel’s hair and cashmere people get their steak and their lobster, they feel better about things—and that’s good for everybody.

You hadn’t thought of it that way before. The way you’d been thinking about it, you help the ones who need the help, not the ones who don’t. The way you’d been thinking about it, the ones who don’t need the help might even pitch in a little extra to help the ones who do, instead of climbing on their backs to try to get even more for themselves.

That’s not the way things work, they tell you. The way things work is every man for himself, and get it while you can. The camel’s hair and cashmere people have the power to keep the soup kitchen’s door closed, they explain, and they have the power to open it up again—once they get what they want. Can you think of a single reason in the world not to take advantage of that situation?

“A sense of shame?” you start to suggest, but you let it pass—it’s pointless.

You’ve seen this view a thousand times before.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

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