Père Goriot

by Honoré Balzac

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Where in American culture is the glorification of wealth and power leading to human suffering?

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There are many examples of how American society places value in money over people. The United States is a capitalist society, or free-market economy. This means, in theory, that industry is run by private owners who compete for capital. In actuality, it has come to mean that only a select few have access to capital, while most are excluded from the competition. Furthermore, once wealth is accumulated, one’s chances of continuing to gain wealth increase. According to the US Census in 2017, 12.3% of Americans live in poverty. Economist Edward Wolf, states that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the entire country’s capital. Thus, it is statistically harder and harder for Americans to gain wealth if they fall below the 1%. These statistics bring into question the idea of the American dream, which falsely claims that the US is meritocratic. Meritocracy is the belief that hard work results in an increase in social and financial gains. However, the statistics above outline how poor Americans have unequal access to the country’s wealth.

A good public figure and activist to consider when answering your question is Dr. Paul Farmer. The book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder follows Farmer’s work and methodology in Haiti’s healthcare. Farmer says,

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.

Furthermore, he shares how the United States values individuals and countries. He is very critical of the United States’s role in Haiti’s poverty. He attributes poverty in the country to colonialism. In addition, he says,

It is very expensive to give bad medical care to poor people in a rich country.

In other words, the United States actually wastes money in its lack of care. He essentially argues that suffering is senselessly caused by capitalism.

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In the novel Père Goriot, Honoré Balzac paints a bleak picture of 19th-century French society as mired in greed and the desire for status and all its trappings. Old Goriot, at the mercy of his greedy daughters, is shunted aside to live a miserable existence while they indulge their expensive tastes and conduct scandalous affairs. There are numerous possible analogies to modern U. S. society.

One recent real life situation of unbridled avarice that generated widespread suffering was the case of Bernard Madoff. It is estimated that his pyramid scheme cost thousands of people more than $65 billion, and the ripple effects are incalculable. Building his personal financial empire by cheating the people who trusted him, Madoff continued for decades before being discovered and ultimately imprisoned for his crimes. The human costs included financial ruin and even suicide.

Because the diamond is the pre-eminent symbol of wealth and beauty, the problematic origin of diamonds has gained considerable attention. “Blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” are a specific case in which material value is elevated above the human cost. The proliferation of diamonds from countries at war, in which mining was unregulated, led to the formulation of a specific definition by the United Nations, as diamonds that are mined in an area under the control of forces that oppose a country’s legitimate, internationally recognized government; such diamonds are sold to fund anti-government military action.

In addition to the problems of use in anti-state violence, the rough diamonds so obtained enter the legitimate diamond market where their source becomes impossible to detect. A broader definition of blood diamonds has also been developed, to reflect their origin in trade that stems from any kind of aggression or violence, which would include origin in countries with poor human rights records.

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