American politics seems to boil down to the longtime struggle between me and we, mine and ours. This appears to be the essence of the conservative/liberal divide. Conservatives view government as an agent to protect personal rights while the lefties see it as the Constitutionally-established instrument to “promote the general welfare”.
My view is that the litany of cries for “liberty” and “freedom” from the mouths of conservatives and libertarians reduces pretty clearly to “me first” — pure self-interest. Proverbs had it right, “A greedy man brings trouble to his family.”
A big bunch of us are Boomers, the self-involved “Me” generation known for worship of self-realization and self-fulfillment above social responsibility. And we’re not alone.
A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that “Millennials, the generation of young Americans born after 1982, may not be the caring, socially conscious environmentalists some have portrayed them to be.” The study of the next generation shows an increasing trend of valuing money, image, and fame more than inherent principles like self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. We have no generation WE.
The truth is we live in a culture of narcissism, one driven by self-interest and greed.
Greed and self-interest are very different and have wildly different consequences. Self-interest CAN be a good thing – it drives innovation, efficiencies, personal introspection and a lot of voting decisions. Greed is another animal altogether.
Merriam Webster defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed”. Wikipedia elaborates: “Greed is the inordinate desire to possess wealth, goods, or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one’s self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort.”
Conservative politicians from the time of Ronald Reagan are and have been manifesting greed in our country. Their work on behalf of corporate interests and the wealthy have had significant consequences. Corporations, through tax loopholes, obscene tax credits, policies that keep profits offshore and untaxed, and establishing off-shore headquarters in tax haven scams have drastically reduced their contributions to American tax revenues. And then, the Bush tax cuts greatly reduced the revenue contributions of the Über wealthy.
Much of the business world, not locally-owned small businesses but the large multi-national corporations, have moved income from workers to the wealthy.
Bloomberg reports that average annual income of the top 1% in the U.S. grew from just over $1M/yr in 2002 to just about $1.9/M in 2007. During the same period the rest of us, the 99%, barely grew from $38,400 to $41,700. And this happened while productivity of the American worker increased significantly.
For a longer view, the IRS reports that from 1992 to 2007 the Median Family Income grew 13.2% while the top 400 Earners grew 476%. Other studies document huge increases in CEO and senior executive pay as most workers actually saw their total compensation shrink or, at best, remain unchanged.
Greed raises its ugly head in the conservative anthems to cut taxes and shrink government. Our country’s commons – our roads, our bridges, our military, our courts, our police, our prisons and our social safety network are in the province of “we”. The greedy have diminished their commitment and contribution to the commons with a few notable exceptions. While on a tear to whack the social safety net for the poor and government jobs, and defunding maintenance of our country’s infrastructure while it crumbles, they insist on irrational military spending because they see it as protecting them personally.
The missing element that betrays most “me” thinking and greedy behavior is time, the differentiation between consequences today and in the future.
For example, the exploitation of workers producing today’s historic corporate profits is, in fact, a major cause of our current economic woes.
The root of our sluggish economic recovery is a demand problem. What’s left of the middle class and the poor aren’t spending, either because they don’t have money or they are so financially fragile and vulnerable they are hoarding what little money they have.
Corporate profit maximization and hoarding of cash is, in fact, causing the continuing lack of sales needed for economic health. This is greed winning over good judgment.
This recession has led to a lot of bad behavior by many businesses – racking up huge profits by firing people, changing full-time jobs to part-time to end access to health insurance, reducing pay and benefits, creating inconsistent and intermittent work schedules and other employee abuses. They may have gotten a short-term gain to satisfy their greed, but wait until the recovery picks up steam. Their workers are already looking for new employers willing to treat them more fairly.
I’ve spent most of this rant looking through the “Me or We” lens at economic issues but it is synonymous with other issues like gun control, healthcare, and Medicaid.
There is a cost for greed and not all of us are greedy. Unfortunately, all of us pay dearly.