Greed: The real American dream

October 20, 2011

Stacey Warde

OPINION By STACEY WARDE

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 über 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. §

Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos where he tends a local two-acre stand of blueberries.


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35 Comments

  1. Shane says:

    Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, freedom’s all that the great all-knowing invisible eye left me…

    (-2) 2 Total Votes - 0 up - 2 down
  2. justme says:

    Ahhhh, clear and clean analysis. Breathe it in, while it lasts.

    (0) 6 Total Votes - 3 up - 3 down
  3. rogerfreberg says:

    The two great tools of con artists and sales folks alike: fear and greed. Advertising is all about making choices… being informed is your responsibility.

    Greed may seem like a bad word… and it can be… was it ‘greedy’ of those looking for more when they invested in Heritage Financial? No, but I do think they were parking their brain somewhere else when they made the decision.

    There are plenty of folks besides the Wall Streeters to point fingers at… or have we forgotten how much greed has seeped its way into the public sector administrations, including the administrative salaries in academia? Someone who gets the security of a job-for-life system should be willing to shed a few pounds… and dollars in salary.

    Lastly, in the real world , it is all about performance. A country bent on anything but a meritocracy will not succeed on the world stage or have a voice… and by the way, ‘Greed’ will be there regardless of the political or economic system…

    (5) 13 Total Votes - 9 up - 4 down
  4. Shane says:

    No, MKANEY, our FREEDOM is not gone, it’s just beginning. When you know what’s happening then you are free….While I agree the article was a bit sophomoric and idealistic, it was representative of a broader naivete spread across the land: we’re losing something. NO, we are not; we’re gaining something , and I’ll leave it up to you decide what it is, if we are…

    (-6) 8 Total Votes - 1 up - 7 down
    • mkaney says:

      gaining the ability to see through smoke and mirrors and realize we never had our freedom? i’ll go with that.. lol

      (1) 7 Total Votes - 4 up - 3 down
  5. mkaney says:

    This is an interesting piece. But about halfway through it occurred to me that you making a dubious connection between greed/marketing/profit and the downfall of “journalism,” at least as far as newspapers. You idealize journalism as some kind of unbiased provider of information to the people (well maybe not unbiased, but sincere). The problem I’m having is finding a period in U.S. history where this was actually true. Was it true in the coverage of the Vietnam War, and its beginnings? Was it true for the coverage of the Kennedy assassination? Was it true when Hearst and others were priming the public for making hemp/marijuana illegal?

    To be honest, journalism in this country have always been happy to pick and choose information and sell-out. It has always sucked up to the seats of power, or been directly controlled by them. The problem is journalists tend to idealize journalism on the coat-tails of the occasionally good journalist. Good journalists will seek whatever outlet is effective to release their information. It so happens that newspapers were the primary conduit for reaching the public for many years. I don’t think any great journalist really every gave a rat’s ass what the medium is though. But because it was newspapers, all “real” (read: fake) journalists rally around that medium and declare blogging and wikileaks to be a perversion of media. In fact, the good journalists don’t care and the ones that will be remembered are the ones that got the information out. Twenty years from now they will base whole college classes on the work of Julius Assange and friends.

    No, journalism is not exiting it’s golden age as the result of greed. Journalism never had a golden age, only an occasional golden journalist. Greed is nothing new, it has changed nothing, and it is not a plague upon our society. You think our advertisements and political dialogue are dumb, go watch what they were like in 1952.. http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952

    So.. all of these things remaining constant, what has changed? Our freedom is gone, our opportunity diminished, private property ownership is a joke (you can’t own something that a tax assessor can take away), and the rule of law has been made a mockery of. And this is partly BECAUSE there has never been golden age in journalism where greed did determine the news of the day.

    (10) 16 Total Votes - 13 up - 3 down
    • r0y says:

      This was much better than the original essay. Thanks, mkaney

      (4) 12 Total Votes - 8 up - 4 down
      • WiseGuy says:

        Who are you to talk, “rOY”? I’ve never read anything from you that was worth the effort. Most of what you write on this forum contains at least some non-sensical statements, misleading comments, or just plain foolishness, or is simply some snarky remark that’s more about you and your ego than anything else.

        It seems to me that as far as writing coherently and of substance, you can learn from Stacey Warde.But instead, in your typical twist, you go out of your way to criticize in the most lame way.

        (-5) 13 Total Votes - 4 up - 9 down
    • swarde says:

      Mkaney:

      We’re probably more in agreement than not on most points that you make. It’s not my intent to romanticize journalism but to note that there was indeed a significant change in newsrooms across the country during the 1980s. I got into the field because I was inspired (wanted to ride the “coat tails,” as you say) of Woodward and Bernstein, whose work, of course, represents what is best about the press. The beauty of the death of newspapers, whether self-inflicted or not, is that in their place we have those who, as you also say, will carry on the real work of exposing corruption, places such as Wikileaks and even this site, CalCoastNews.

      Indeed, regarding greed, nothing’s new, except for the fact that it has permeated our culture to the point that it’s not even recognized as such. Most of us don’t even know what greed is. My argument is that taking more than you need is greedy, and if you look at the American lifestyle, the one we take for granted and assume as our birthright, is itself excessive and in need of change.

      (0) 8 Total Votes - 4 up - 4 down
      • mkaney says:

        swarde: It is interesting you mention Woodward. After he seemed to sell-out to the Bush-Cheney cabal I started looking at him in a new light. Is it possible that it was not truth he was after in Watergate, but recognition? Or, Is it possible that Bob Woodward, a naval intelligence officer who landed a job at the Washington Post was actually attempting to discredit Nixon because of Nixon’s diplomacy with Communists, in particular China, and was fed the information on Watergate from people loyal to the military industrial complex? Maybe he’s been part of the Bush cabal since Sr,’s days in the CIA. Just some ramblings I’ve heard around.

        (3) 3 Total Votes - 3 up - 0 down
      • mkaney says:

        Don’t misunderstand me, by the way, I’m not trying to attack your general ideals. I admire you for your principles.

        (-2) 2 Total Votes - 0 up - 2 down

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