A Parable of Envy
Once a man named Rich had an idea for a gadget he thought would be useful. He was sure it was an idea God had given him since it popped into his head while he was praying. He pictured a widget that would be made of nuts and bolts and feathers and toenail clippings and red beads. It would help people organize their junk drawers. Rich built a prototype, got his patent and his permits, mortgaged his house, purchased his raw materials and started his business.
He was right. People loved the Widget – before long every household in the country had one. He sold them in five different colors and several sizes. He developed new versions – Widget 2.0 created great excitement and everyone rushed out to replace their old ones. Widget 2.5 included a phone and an automatic grocery-list generator. They sold like hotcakes. The junk drawers of the country became cleaner and cleaner. No one lost his keys anymore. People always knew where their scissors were. And Rich got rich.
Rich spent money. He bought a huge house and breathtaking cars; he sent his kids to fancy schools, joined the country club, and took up golf. His wife hired a gardener, a chef, a housekeeper. She bought beautiful clothes and handmade furniture.
It wasn’t just Rich who got rich; many people were better off now that Widget Inc. was doing so well. Rich had hired several thousand people to run his factories. The companies that made nuts and bolts and red beads also had to hire more people to meet the demand. The farms that raised the birds that dropped the feathers invested in more research and developed several new breeds that produced more feathers on less feed and laid great purple eggs that became quite popular in their own right. A whole new industry was built around retrieving toenail clippings and the pedicure business had to kick into high gear – suddenly everyone could afford pedicures.
The people who worked for Rich spent the money he paid them. They bought houses and dresses, cars and furniture, food and baseball mitts. All the people who worked at producing those things also had jobs and were paid money which they spent on houses and dresses, cars and furniture, -- and on Widgets.
Rich was really amazed at his success and felt he should give back to the community and to God who had given him the idea – as if providing jobs for half the town was not enough. He set up scholarships, funded research grants, and built hospitals. The people who worked for him and for the other companies also set up charities to help those who were sick and injured, handicapped or unable to work.
But, as is usually the case, some folks weren’t happy – some because Rich was richer than they were. Some because they didn’t want to work as hard as Rich wanted them to. Some were afraid of the power Rich’s money gave him. Some were unhappy because they were afraid of joy. Many of these people felt that their unhappiness was somehow Rich’s fault. After all, he had more than everyone and that didn’t seem fair. These folks thought they’d be happier if he had less and they had more.
They groused and complained and wrote books about how evil Rich was. They held rallies, shouted slogans, and dissatisfaction, like the flu, spread. Eventually they passed a law that took more than half of everything Rich made. They passed another law that taxed a third of what Widget Inc. made. Then they set up an agency to oversee the treatment of the birds on the Widget farms and to control the red dye used in the beads.
Rich had been planning to expand his factories, but much of the money went to the government. It went into programs like Faircare (to “even up the playing field,” though no one knew what that meant), or like Restgrants (to provide vacation funds for everyone, largely at the expense of the employer, though one didn’t have to work to qualify). Rich also had to spend a small fortune complying with the latest purple eggs regulations, finding a new source for his red beads, and picking up the tabs for all of his employees’ resort charges.
Rich cancelled his plans for the new plant, which meant that the design for Widget 3.0 would have wait. He moved his bird farms to Mexico where he didn’t have to bother with the egg regulations. Of course, he raised the price of the Widget, but China was now manufacturing a cheap knock-off, so that didn’t help much. Eventually he had to lay off 20% of his workers and shut down one plant. The people who once worked for Rich, and the people who once worked for Rich’s suppliers, no longer bought Widgets and no longer gave much to charity.
They also didn’t pay much in taxes. Neither did Rich because his income was way down. Widget Inc. didn’t have much profit to tax either. So the government had to borrow money from the Chinese, who made the Widget knock offs, in order to pay for all the programs. Then they sought to raise taxes again to pay the interest on those loans and to pay unemployment to all the workers Rich had to lay off.
But then Rich had another idea – he’d been praying a lot and he wasn’t stupid. It occurred to Rich that he could make Widgets elsewhere. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sell his factories – everyone else was in the same pickle, but he mortgaged his house, bought a small country off the coast of Finland, and talked many of his employees into coming with him. There he started all over again and eventually began producing Widget 3.0.
Back home, Widgetopia became an empty ghost town. The factories stood vacant and waited while all the windows broke. Rich’s beautiful house was turned into a mental hospital. The bird farms were used as housing for the homeless, and there were many homeless. The charity organizations all dissolved and Rich’s hospital was taken over by the government.
In the end, Rich was still rich, and the unhappy were still miserable, even though their numbers had increased by the thousands.
But somewhere in a damp basement a woman named Hope is fiddling around with an idea, one that showed up in a dream, one that involves violets, chocolate, and screen doors and soon she’ll begin production. Perhaps she’ll be allowed hire someone. Need a job?