Dr. Jonas Salk

Fair Play and True Heroism

Dr. Jonas Salk
Dr. Jonas Salk

Today we really don’t understand how horrible Polio was. It was a devastating diagnosis in the not-too-distant past: paralysis and death. Jonas Salk created a safe and effective vaccine, a cure, and Polio has been virtually eradicated from the face of the earth.

When Dr. Salk was asked who owned the patent for the vaccine, he replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” This man liberally gave of his intellectual property for the benefit of human kind. He believed, as do a variety of cultures around the world, that some things are too important to all of humanity to be owned by a single person or corporation: pure water, clean air, his vaccine, land, perhaps even crude oil?

Based on our cultural notion of fair play, Dr. Salk was absolutely entitled to become wealthy from his extraordinary discovery. He could have become one of the wealthiest men every to walk the planet, but, instead, he chose to do the most humane thing: to make his vaccine available to everyone.

How things have changed today.

Bill Gates didn’t do what Dr. Salk did. He chose to become insanely wealthy and only started his foundation* after years of public goading and embarrassment by Ted Turner and others. Some will argue that Bill was entitled to his wealth. Legally, well, yes. But who has the power to actually shape the very laws of the land? Morally, I personally doubt that any human being is entitled to shift so much of the earth’s wealth to himself. We could all begin a list of people who chose outrageous personal gain over giving even some modest portion of their largesse simply for the unencumbered benefit of humanity.

Don’t misunderstand me. Bill was entitled to a measure of wealth because of what he accomplished. But the astounding extent to which he profited by using his initial wealth to buy up** and shut out competition while charging high licensing fees violates my sense of fair play.

Giving freely to others today? Well, that’s called kindness. That’s socialism. That’s liberalism. That’s love. That’s actually the teachings of Christ and all of humanity’s holy teachers.

My really conservative friends, and I have many, tend to have a shared belief deeply rooted in their conservative world view. This belief is centered around their sense of fair play. From my vantage point it looks something like this:

Our nation is, in part, in the mess that we are in financially because of entitlement programs. People are sponging unfairly off of you and me. They are taking advantage of the system. They are lazy and pay little or no taxes while the rest of us work hard and pay more than our fair share. They don’t deserve what they feel entitled to. Ronald Reagan popularized, even championed this belief.”

I get this. We all have a shared, culturally-defined sense of fair play. When our sense of fair play is violated, we naturally bristle. Our culture values fairness. It is a manifestation of the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. We can’t always define what fair play is at any given point, but we know it when we see it, and we know it when we don’t. I respect this.

Let me share with you one of the reasons I have become increasingly liberal as I have aged: my sense of fair play is being violated. I think people are entitled to profit from their hard work, but never at the expense of basic humanity.

Today, CNN reports that the nation’s CEOs are making 343 times more money than the average American can ever hope to make. They aren’t making twice the average, not 5 times more, not 10 times as much, not even 100 times more. These people, mostly white men, are making 343 times more money. At what point does this level of obscenity become evil, immoral, and just plain wrong?!

Let’s put this into perspective. For every dollar you or I make, they are making $343. So, for those making minimum wage in California, $320.00 per week, these executives are making $109,760.00 per week. Working as a school principal with a doctorate and years of experience in the state of Georgia, I didn’t make that much money in a year! For a monthly wage, the minimum wage worker earns $1,080.00 and the CEO makes $439,040.00, nearly a half million dollars!

This violates my sense of fair play.

If CEOs were busy creating quality jobs of actual, real opportunity all over the US, I would still feel that their work was not worth 343 times more than the average guy on the street, but my sense of fair play would be less violated. But to dissuade us from holding the CEOs responsible for this complete failure on their part, they cry that America’s workers are ill-equipped and unprepared for the workplace. Bill Gates leads the outcry. What the CEOs are actually doing is outsourcing the jobs oversees for a fraction of the cost (exploiting human labor abroad) and pocketing the difference—the fruits of their “labor.”

Increasingly average Americans don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever achieving the American dream of living better than their parents lived. In fact, we have all heard of the increasing numbers of “children” in their 30s returning to live at home with their parents. They simply can not find gainful employment consistent with their ability and training, employment that will afford them even a modest living.

If the CEOs were paying their fair share of taxes and having their corporations pay their fair share of taxes, my sense of fair play would be less violated. But GE paid no taxes at all last year?! [The list of companies that paid a pittance (less than 5%) is much too long.] This violates my sense of fair play but probably earned the CEO of GE a big fat bonus on top of his already big fat salary and his big fat stock options and his big fat expense accounts, and his access to the corporate jet, …

All people are not presented with the same opportunities. All people do not have the same advantages. All people do not have the same abilities. All people do not have the same physical or intellectual capacities. And our capitalist system, rife with greed and selfishness, is exaggerating these differences in ways that are simply inhumane. Capitalism amplifies inequality, denies equal access to wealth creation, thrives on consumption, and “self-corrects” only after people and the earth itself have been exploited.

This violates my sense of fair play.

Our current economic system is one that enshrines 90% of the country’s wealth in only 1% to 2% of the nation’s population. It creates Bernard MadoffKenneth Lay, Charles Keating, Jeff Skilling, and many, many more who have used their unprecedented gains to work the legal system to their favor while taking grotesque advantage of the unsuspecting men and women on the street that have trusted the system to be fair to them.

This violates my sense of fair play.

Our economic system allows a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks***, who died of cervical cancer in 1951 to have cells from her body harvested without her knowledge or consent. These cells have not only never died, they continue to this day to serve as the basis for untold profits by the pharmaceutical industry as they are easily reproduced and have been used repeatedly in the development of treatments for cancer and numerous other horrific diseases. Neither Henrietta nor her family have ever received any financial remuneration from her unwitting contribution to science and the outrageous profits of others. In fact, tragically and ironically, her surviving family is so poor they can not even afford health insurance to this day.

This violates my sense of fair play.

I want an economic system that provides more evenly distributed opportunity and wealth for everyone****, one that creates more visionary men whose brilliant intellect, generous character, compassionate heart, and moral compass (as demonstrated by Dr. Salk) lift the world to a better place for everyone. I want balance. I want my sense of fair play back again. I want my fellow Americans to demand this as well.

No one is self made.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.  As Barry Switzer has said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” The playing field has become too unfair.

*Foundations are all too often more about furthering a political, social, or financial agenda than they are about truely giving to those in need.

**Word and Excel were not created by Microsoft. Bill purchased them and then made them indispensable to the business community. Many believe that the only thing Bill actually created was MSDOS. Everything else he bought or took and then successfully defended his “acquisitions” in the courts.

***The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

****Including those who, through no fault of their own, face significant limitations and disabilities.

One thought on “Fair Play and True Heroism”

  1. I am thankful to Dr, Salk for this shot, My baby sister had it in 1940, and my best friend and class mate had it a couple years later. She was in this BIG iron lung fot I do not remember how long but Mary Ann died. Will never forget how hard it was to see her in that CAGE. thank YOU Dr Salk. MY SISTER WAS LUCKEY, SHE HAS A BAD FOOT AND LIMPS SOME AND i THANK GOD FOR THAT. You know Dr. they put a sign on Mom and dads house Quarantine, and people would not walk past our home they were so afraid.we lived in town and would cross the street.

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