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The Road and Today’s Economic Cannibalism

Cormac McCarthy’s book-turned-movie The Road has been described as “bleak,” “haunting,” “grim,” and even “creepily spiritual.”  A. O. Scott of the New York Times writes about the movie’s “serious, anxious question”: “In the wake of a planetary catastrophe, how will humanity survive?  Not the species itself, but rather the repertory of behaviors and impulses that we like to think separate us from other animals.”

Scott’s question is worth asking, but I would phrase it differently.  In a very real way, The Road is not merely a “fable,” or simply a painting of a devastating possible future.  America is already living out the miserable future portrayed in the book.

The Road, for those of you unfamliar with it, is about a father and son trying to survive in a ruined world.  Everything is dead, and many of those who live are cannibals, feeding off of others.  The father and son try to survive without losing their humanity, as Scott explained the term.

The central theme of the tale could be described in a single question: when is it all right to take?  Is it all right to take things from a man’s unused house?  Is it all right to take the clothes off a theif’s back?  And is it okay to take a life to secure your own–to literally eat another human being, if it will prolong your own life?  While America may not yet be populated with literal cannibals a la Jeffrey Dahmer, and while our land may not as yet have been rendered completely unusable, we face cannibalism personally every day: economic cannibalism.

Today, it is estimated [1] that around 63 million American tax-filers are not responsible for paying personal income taxes; there are only 300 million total Americans.  If 63 million American tax-filers are not responsible for income taxes, this translates into almost one third of all Americans paying no income taxes.  While some of those people are productive and merely have low-paying jobs, many others are simply taking parasitically from the system.   These people are economic cannibals.  They are taking from the productive the stuff of life, the money the productive have worked hard to earn.

This economic cannibalism happens in a myriad of ways.  Social Security and similar welfare programs are by far the most egregious examples: the old and infirm many suck the monetary marrow from the young few, with the help of an intrusive and insensitive government.  Often, these younger workers abused by the system are single mothers with low wages, and black workers who are not likely to live long enough to receive any benefits from the programs.  When Social Security first began, there were 16 workers to each beneficiary; today there are fewer than 2 workers to each beneficiary.  This means each worker–young, older, poor, well-off, black, white–must have more taken away from him or her, to pay for those taking advantage of the system.  These people taking, much though we may love them, are economic cannibals, feeding off the young to survive.

In the field of education, we have national taxes levied to fund education.  People without children have their money sucked away to pay for often terrible teachers at worse public schools, and in return, these tax payers get riding generations who cannot compete at an international level–despite the fact that Americans spend more on education than people of any other country worldwide.

With gas taxes, we see the drivers of America taxed to pay, if indirectly, for public transit they don’t use.

If it is okay to take anything from the haves and give it to the have-nots, where does it stop?  When does taking monetary lifeblood translate into taking the literal stuff?  Is there a clear place where the taking stops, or are we on an unstoppable slippery slope?  When does it end?

Movies are an important medium in America: they address issues in a way that most media cannot.  If you have the opportunity to go see The Road this winter, take the time to think about it afterward.  Perhaps you’ll find that there is more to the movie than meets the eye.