Monday, October 17, 2011

Greed: The Real American Dream

At my college graduation in 1984, a candidate receiving a degree in American Studies stepped up to the podium for his diploma, and someone in the audience proclaimed loudly, “What the hell can you do with a degree in American Studies?”

I had taken an American Studies course, the “American Dream,” as part of my training as a journalist and Communications major, a degree for which one might have asked the same question. Still, I remember thinking, “What an asshole.”

Thankfully, I found my study of our “you-can-have-it-all” myth eye-opening and took the enthusiasm from that one course into my work as a journalist and found it helpful, if not enlightening. It gave me a newer, more critical perspective on our ad-driven, commercial culture, where standards are measured by how much you earn or own rather than by your character or how much you contribute to the welfare of others.

I’d enjoyed a semester of uncovering the many layers that go into the often vague definition of what that dream is supposed to be. Is it a house in the suburbs, a family, a beautiful wife and a new car? A steady job? A climb up the career ladder? That was about the extent of my dream when I started college. It’s become so much more than that now.

The term is so flippantly tossed around, and those who use it seem to assume that it’s the same for everyone. But it’s not. My dream isn’t about money. It’s about something more than that. I’ve learned to live small and work hard to be a helpful presence in my community. My American Dream is simple: Small is beautiful, and people are more important than money. 

That same year, another questionable degree, the highly touted MBA, began arriving in newsrooms across the country, turning down the money meter and pinching editorial departments. If you wanted to make real money, you got an advanced degree in business. That was the way to go. 

With MBAs, came tightened purses, reduced expenses, and newspapers were soon inching up profits from the desired 12-15 percent to the more wealth-inducing, newsroom-destroying 20-25 percent. 

The resulting clash between the advertising and editorial sides of the enterprise, of course, could only end in disaster for journalism. More and more, the strength of editorial decisions was given over to the ad department, and newspapers, now big money-makers, became a vehicle for promotion and propaganda. Sticky ads began appearing on the front pages, pasted over the tops of headlines and stories that some sorry sap editor and reporter busted their asses to produce for the front page.

“We have to do it,” said a local publisher once when I complained of the practice, “it’s the only way we can stay competitive and make money.” I argued that he should let the editor decide what goes on the front page but it fell on deaf ears.

It marked the beginning of the end for newspapers. Money killed newspapers just as much as advances in digital information exchange. The more money owners made, the more they tried to squeeze out profits, laying off workers, demanding more and paying less to those who remained, the more irrelevant newspapers became. To be accurate, it wasn’t just money but “the love of money,” as greed is described in the Bible, that killed not only the news business and the quality of news but other industries as well.

Greed, the love of money, became a 1980s mantra and the guiding principle in most schools of business, and we all bought into the idea that more is better and that we can live large while the rest of the world starves or ekes out a living; it was a message that permeated every level of American culture but apparently one that only really worked for those who had massive amounts of capital. The rich, of course, got richer.

Even the once-sacrosanct newsroom, bedrock of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, where stories on government or corporate corruption could be written “without fear or favor,” couldn’t compete with money—or people with MBAs. It became an extension of the ad department.
The people on Wall Street know this better than anyone: Money—not just money, but lots and lots of it—talks. When it concentrates into fewer hands, however, there will be trouble as witnessed in occupations around the U.S. these past several weeks.

A Facebook friend, an activist for human rights, posted the following comment, pointing to the rage of Occupy Wall Street, and challenging The Nation Magazine’s recent bright cover, which listed selected occupied cities in the U.S., over which were the bold blood-orange letters: “Wall Street Invented Class Warfare.”

I don't buy that!,” he wrote. “In my humble opinion, when the Founding Fathers wrote & codified a Constitution which initially granted and protected ├╝ber rights and privilege to ‘white, male property owners’ - [that] created class warfare.”

In other words, white male property owners who codified rights and privileges allowed only to a select few more than 200 years ago created the class warfare evident in the Occupy Wall Street protests. My friend’s comment raises both the issue of privilege and race, not just class warfare, which can be enforced through the validation of greed and ownership as promoted in American culture.

Class differences have always been a factor of American life, even though we like to imagine there aren’t any class differences, and if there are, all you have to do is work hard and be smart and you’ll get rich one day too.

Wall Street showed its disdain for the common person long before its operatives looked down their noses at protestors marching in the street below while sipping champagne on the balcony above. That image played on YouTube was Wall Street’s “Let them eat cake” moment, when it became screechingly evident that indeed there are class differences, and that perhaps soon the mighty, and maybe a few others, will fall.

Class warfare keeps us divided but it isn’t the root issue. 

More fundamental even than class warfare is greed, which permeates our culture, from Wall Street to Main Street. Of necessity, the whole system must implode, it will by nature destroy itself, unless we learn to live within our means. Greed, like pride, as the Good Book says, always leads to disaster. Some are saying it’s already too late.

Greed is the root problem. I’ve always thought of greed as having more than you need to live, which is probably too narrow a definition. By such a definition, we might all be guilty of greed. 

I say this as a person who owns absolutely nothing. I have nothing but my skin and bones, and yes, I’d like to have more than I do now, yet I'm still willing to learn how to live with less. In  the future, I suspect, that’s how things will be. I doubt we’ll ever see such an explosion of growth and wealth as the U.S. experienced in the years following WWII. 

Americans are today more fat with more wealth than any nation in history. Blame Wall Street all you want but in many ways we also are to blame for thinking there is never enough.

Greed permeates down to almost every detail of our lives, from the cars we drive to the houses we build, enormous, monstrous things. That we continue to manufacture and drive gas-guzzling cars is but one example of not only our pride and lack of thrift but a lack of imagination, an odd unwillingness to think beyond the endless waste brought on by cheap fossil fuel.

It’s in everything we do; so entrenched is it that we can’t think of a way out, or imagine that another way is even possible. 

Endless growth, unlimited growth, bigger and more are better, all these were never meant to be more than a bubble, a hope gone delusional, that we can continue to strip the planet clean of its resources and think that it will never end.

The “American Dream,” as it took shape through the ‘80s, had to end; it couldn’t go on forever, an ever-expanding economy to drive a lavish lifestyle unlike any the world has ever seen and one that could in no way go on without finally breaking down. Greed gets a reckoning. Sooner or later, it takes everyone—the guilty and the innocent—down.

It won’t be long before the disenfranchised, the hungry and the poor, the angry homeowners who have lost their homes to the bank, begin tearing down the ramparts that protect and insulate Wall Street from the commoners.

Meanwhile, for those who still hope, it’s time to re-scale the dream, think smaller and lessen our impacts, as has been suggested for nearly 40 years by those who saw this upheaval coming. It’s time to think about how to live with less.

A friend said recently: “I just have this feeling that suddenly everything’s going to get really small really fast.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean we’re going to have to start depending on our neighbors. Thank God,” she added, putting a hand on my shoulder, “we’re in a good place to do that.” 

Yes, we are in a good place, where there’s water, healthy agriculture, and people who care. Will the system break down as my friend imagines? It sure looks that way.

These days I don’t worry so much about what I’m going to do with a degree in Communications. I’m happy to have a roof over my head and food to eat, and I look forward to getting to know my neighbors better as the world economy and Wall Street falter, verging on imminent disaster. §