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To Live or Survive: The Choice Made for Others by Some

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The World’s Most Extraordinary Income Inequality

Recently, my husband and I began watching a Netflix show called “The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes.” My husband’s a retired builder and frequently tunes in to various programs on HGTV. We also enjoy a British series called “Grand Designs.”

While some of the other shows reveal an enormous amount of entitlement—“I could never live in a house with only five bathrooms!”—other aspects make them tolerable. But this “Extraordinary Homes” series is a slap in the face to humanity.

Imagine the luxury of a walled-off home on the Israeli coast, complete with heavily watered landscaping in the middle of a desert, with a built-in swimming pool, only miles from Gaza. These particular homeowners may be fine people, but the immorality of an economic and political system that allows such extreme differences in living conditions for its citizens is impossible to ignore.

Let’s use what we see to strengthen our resolve to ensure housing is considered a human right. Let’s work for Universal Basic Income.

As viewers, we’re supposed to celebrate the wonders and beauty of what we’re seeing.

I’m watching in horror.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate beautiful architecture. I own books showing “Five Hundred Buildings of Paris” and “Five Hundred Buildings of London.” When I lived in Italy, I loved going to the Coliseum in Rome, even knowing it was a place of death and misery. I marveled at the beautiful cathedral in Florence. I’m aware that almost every incredible building ever constructed came at the cost of exploiting the humans who built them and lived in their shadows.

But it’s one thing to appreciate architectural marvels from history and another to actively cheer and encourage exploitation and abuse in real time. Even the former is problematic, like saying, “Well, that elephant has already been killed, so I might as well enjoy its ivory.”

I’ve watched several episodes now of what I call “The World’s Most Extraordinary Income Inequality.” Weekend homes in India with floor space five times my primary (only) residence in privileged America. The owners can’t even be there most days, working miles away in Mumbai, where over seven million people live in slums (55% of the city’s population). One of the homes featured in the episode showcased an elevated swimming pool, high above the ground to keep the snakes and rats out.

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Could there be a more accurate depiction of the dystopia created by capitalism?

All that said, I can’t help but recognize my own privilege. I do live in a house (the bank still owns most of it, but in relative terms, it’s “mine”). I have a television, and cable. I stream Netflix. I have a job. I have electricity. I may be poor compared to the folks living in the luxurious homes on this television show, but even I’m a pampered aristocrat to those seven million Mumbai residents living in abject poverty.

Everything’s relative.

But that’s the problem with this and similar shows. We’re watching the top few percent of the world’s elite, when those handful at the top keep pulling farther and farther away from the rest of us.

It’s like watching a departing spaceship carrying the world’s richest man.

We can enjoy the trip vicariously, exclaiming in delight at every well-designed, beautiful feature of the extraordinary properties. Everyone needs a little escapism, right?

But at the very least, let’s use what we see to strengthen our resolve to ensure that housing is officially considered a human right. Let’s work for Universal Basic Income. Let’s campaign for tuition-free college and vocational training so that more folks living in poverty have at least a fighting chance to rise above it. Let’s finally establish Medicare for All or some other form of universal healthcare so that tens of thousands of families in the U.S. don’t lose their homes to medical debt every year.

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Those battles are exhausting and it’s OK to treat ourselves a bit so we’ll have the strength and courage to continue.

Perhaps tonight, I’ll watch an episode of “Snowpiercer” or “Squid Game” while eating some genetically modified, monoculture popcorn.

Johnny Townsend