Chapter 53 – Some Dogs (and Sages) Appreciate Word-Play
If I had any learning
Of a highway wide and fit,
Would I lose it at each turning?
Yet look at people spurning
Natural use of it!
See how fine the palaces
And see how poor the farms,
How bare the peasants’ granaries
While gentry wear embroideries
Hiding sharpened arms,
And the more they have the more they seize,
How can there be such men as these
Who never hunger, never thirst,
Yet eat and drink until they burst!
There are other brigands, but these are the worst
Of all the highway’s harms
Translated by Witter Bynner (1944)
Now as through this world I ramble
I see lots of funny men,
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1939)
A great thing about the Tao Te Ching is that although it was written 2500 years ago its insights remain valuable today. In the commentary for Chapter 19, I mentioned the story of how Lao Tzu became disgusted with the corruption at the royal court so, the story goes, he left town on a water buffalo to follow the Way and commune with nature. Apparently he remained disgusted as he wrote this chapter lamenting that rulers use their wealth and power to tax and coerce the common people – robbing from the poor and giving to the rich (themselves), as it were.
Even today, there are many people in many parts of the world who have the same view of governmental oppression. In the United States, we are also becoming irate over the perceived greed of huge corporations and their executives. Although Lao Tzu was writing about the abuses of rulers, the thoughts on inequality in this chapter are meaningful when considering the acts of the corporate elite.
This issue was recently given considerable news coverage in connection with the annual shareholders’ meeting of Chipolte Mexican Grill. That company has two co-CEOs, and between them they were paid just under $50 million last year. The fast casual restaurant chain has about 45,000 employees whose median salary is less than $9/hour – or about $18,000 per year. If you do the math, you will see that each of the co-CEOs received as much income as 1,400 of their typical employees.
Let’s take a quick poll. How many of you out in cyberspace believe that a corporate CEO provides as much value to a company as 1,400 of its employees out in the field doing the work to bring the company income? . . . OK, I see one – no, two – hands. It looks like a CEO has raised both hands for this vote. No one else?
That is just about the result I expected. At Chipolte’s shareholders’ meeting it wasn’t quite that lopsided. Still, 77% of the shares were voted against the proposed executive compensation plan. It was a non-binding vote, but I assume that the recent publicity is going to cause Chipolte to make a show of some type of compensation reform.
For the last few years of my career in the title business, I worked, through no fault of my own (which is a story for another time), for a Fortune 500 company that not only underwrites title insurance but also owns restaurant chains, an auto supply chain and other businesses. I still work for the company part-time and I own some of its stock through an employee stock purchase plan. A few days ago I received proxy material for the annual meeting which, among other things, asked me to vote to approve the new executive compensation plan.
Because of the publicity surrounding the Chipolte executive compensation, I did some research to find what our CEO is making. I learned that it takes him three weeks to earn $1 million. That is only about 60% of what the Chipolte guys were taking down, so I wondered how our CEO is able to live that hand-to-mouth existence. Then I found an article from Forbes that pointed out that our company paid nearly half a million dollars in 2011 (the year before the article was written) for company executives to unwind at a guest ranch in Montana – a ranch that was owned by the CEO, personally. The company spent another $55,000 at wineries, restaurants and a hotel owned by the CEO, personally. That made me feel better. That supplemental income was probably enough to keep him off Food Stamps for one more year.
I then voted against the compensation package.
I was planning to write more about societal inequalities*, but I got a bit carried away talking about CEOs; so I would like to change the subject and tell a story about my smart-aleck dog, Darcy.
The other day Darcy and I were out walking. She had gone down by the creek and I was standing up on the bank. When I thought it was time to move on, I called, “Darcy, up here!”
She didn’t come up. Rather, she looked at me and said (yes, she thinks she can talk), “Why? Did you think I disappeared?”
I waited a few seconds, and then said again, “Come on! Up here!”
“Whose peer,” she asked, “yours or mine?”
Now, when I think a dog doesn’t understand what I am trying to say, I often try communicating with repetition, so I said, “Let’s go! Up here! Up here! Up here!”
She looked up and said, “We’re going to have a peer appear up there? That sounds interesting.” Then she bounded up the bank
When she didn’t see anyone else, she took it to mean that she has no peers. Then she chased a squirrel.
That story is relevant to this chapter because . . .
According to translate.google.com, the Chinese word for “robber” is 強盜, and is pronounced “qiang-dao” The Tao which is the subject of the Tao Te Ching is pronounced “dao.”
One of the premises of Lao Tzu’s teaching was that a ruler should, by his example, lead the people in the Way of the Tao. So he was saying, “What the government is doing now is showing us the way of the qiang-dao, not of the dao.”
Thus, Lao Tzu was making his point by playing with words. Darcy says she appreciates that in a sage – especially if he likes to chase squirrels.
* While there is too much greed in the world, there are refreshing exceptions. At mass last week here in Arvada, a visiting priest told about a hospital run by the Church near his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a budget of $11,000 per month. If an American hospital had to operate on that budget it could hire a part-time administrator or a part-time doctor, but certainly not both (and no other staff). He told us that a $10 donation to that hospital could literally save a life. I believed him, so I gave some money.