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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CitizenB

‘Bout time someone wrote on this subject. I’ve been pondering it myself lately, especially in light of OWS and Herman Cain’s comments. Since when has being rich been the be-all and end-all of American life? Sure, we all want a roof over our heads, and enough to eat, adequate healthcare, and some job security, but after that — what does being rich really mean? Why is it SO important to some people? Why are the rich so worshiped by certain segments of our society? Is Kim Kardashian a better person than I am, just because she has more money? Seriously, we talk about America being the land of opportunity, that everyone “could” get rich if they just worked hard enough (I don’t want to work that hard — I’d rather spend time with my kids –full disclosure), but is that really feasible in an economic sense? What if, say, 50% of the population worked their butts off and all became millionaires — wouldn’t that be inflationary as all get out? Would it be at all sustainable economically? Dunno — I’m with Stacey in that I’ve been uncomfortable with the culture of greed since the 1980s, it just goes against how I was raised to want more than you need, especially at the expense of others.


r0y

Since when has being rich been the be-all and end-all of American life?


Since you let it be. I do not think being rich is the be-all and end-all of American life, never have. But that is me. I also think if people WANT to live with those ideals, then let them, they will fail in the end.


CitizenB

I think it is also important to draw a distinction between personal choice and societal trends. I personally do not worship wealth and do not subscribe to prosperity gospel (which I consider to be a real perversion of the teachings of Jesus, IMHO), but when we look at society as a whole, it seems that is not a commonly held value, and it is certainly not a value that is being “sold” or presented as a good thing when you look across vast swaths of social discourse. For example, people like me who have a problem with the current disparity of income between corporate CEO’s and the majority of workers they employ are most often accused of envy. Well, if being rich, having that money, is not the unspoken value behind that accusation, then envy would not be the operative word, would it? In fact, I do not envy them their money, I am happy with what I have, but I am deeply concerned about the economic consequences of that disparity which I do not believe is good for our country as a whole. And wealth as failure? Ha, ha! Name one really wealthy person who is widely considered a failure, I dare you!


swarde

The American worker in the last 30 years or so works longer hours for less money yet produces more than ever. American workers are the best and hardest workers anywhere, but so many of us have reached our limit. We can’t work any harder and continue to have wages go down, jobs disappear, etc. How many people in SLO County alone, for example, do you know who are working two or three jobs, and still can barely pay their bills? I’m with you, CitizenB, I’d rather spend my short life with family and friends, and maintain a more balanced, sensible lifestyle built on not just hard work but useful work; I like working hard and I believe that anyone who works should earn at least enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, without worrying about whether they’ll have a roof over their heads next month, and without making themselves sick from exhaustion.


choprzrul

Very interesting read and thank you for your time and effort to put it together for us.


Of particular note, your friends’ comment “…when the Founding Fathers wrote & codified a Constitution which initially granted and protected über rights and privilege…” caught my attention. The founding fathers wrote the Constitution to stop the government’s intrusion into the private citizen’s natural rights. As such, natural rights are not granted by the Constitution, but rather protected by the Constitution.


It remains to be seen if the gardening skills that my mother imparted unto me will be required for future existence. I would rather hope not, but I only give it a 50-50 chance.


swarde

Choprzrul: I’d hope that you, or anyone who has an inkling for it, would go ahead and garden anyhow; it’s good for the soul, if nothing else. What’s better than getting your hands dirty by working with the soil? I can’t think of anything better, except perhaps for music and art. Maybe that’s what’s missing in these discussions. More music and art, please, while I plant this tree.


swarde

We’ll be continuing this conversation tonight at 6 with Dave Congalton, 920 KVEC.com News Talk radio. Give us your take on greed in America. I’d love to hear from those who wish to engage in a lively, intelligent dialog, something that has been missing from our public discourse for way too long.


r0y

something that has been missing from our public discourse for way too long.


I’ll assume you did not mean the discourse here at CCN! It’s been nothing but lively and intelligent (ok, sometimes not so intelligent, but that’s the nature of public, anonymous discourse).


I’ll tune in (I don’t call in, though)


racket

Good essay, though it blends several evils that are fundamentally disparate:


1) Greed

2) Living large

3) Class distinctions (warfare?)


I maintain we are all greedy. When we choose Walmart baby carrots because they are cheap, prewashed, last a long time, and our kids eat them; we are choosing NOT to support local growers. That’s our greed — us using our money so that it benefits us the most. Same with buying Mexican-assembled cars. Our greed for a cheap well-made automobile harpoons the Michigan auto industry. When we do it ourselves, we call it being smart. When others manage their money in a manner we consider unsavory, we call it greed.


Living large and/or unsustainably: I read a comment on this very website that said, essentially, “we U.S. 99%ers are the 1%ers of the rest of the world.” The order-of-magnitude difference that Stacey sees between his house and the ocean front estate is no broader (I would wager) than anyone looking from the New Delhi slums to the west. Living large is relative.


Which I guess *does* feed into the “class warfare” issue. And, one could probably tie all three items together by asserting “class warfare” is really a manifestation of envy (greed) of those who have more, by those who have less. It’s not jealousy (an emotion related to desire for The Thing), it is envy (an emotion related to the Possessor of the thing).


my2cents

Interesting piece??? Thanks for making me fall asleep!!! Where did all the good news go?


swarde

Sadly, I’d say a good percentage of American consumers have fallen asleep, lulled by propaganda and sales pitches, which can be dressed as “good” news, if that’s what you’re looking for. Or, if you seek “solid” good news, the kind that engages and awakens, you have to work for it. You have to dig. You have to get off your butt and turn off the TV. Unfortunately, American consumers, especially consumers of news, are too often lazy, and end up falling asleep listening to talking heads drone on about nothing. Sorry you didn’t find anything here to engage your mind. Have a good nap.


r0y

True, and mostly all good points. I’d only add that turning OFF the TV will not be as helpful. In fact, once you learn the language and nuances, as well as keeping a broad array of sources, one can easily pick up on the directed messages, etc.


There was a great smoke screen to try and hide this with Fox News (basically, whenever you see someone *hate* a news source, or call them names, they got suckered right in to providing the smoke). Most all the news is the same. To argue that MSNBC and Fox are radically different is to not see above the murky waters. That’s OK, not everyone can do that. It truly engages one’s mind to filter through all the information, pick out the patterns, see the over-all strategies, etc. There are even signatures in patterns, with enough time/skill one could even piece together who wrote the script they all end up following.


abigchocoholic

Hey Stacey,


you know how you know you’re getting old?


When you start longing for the good ole days.


swarde

Learning to live more simply has little to do with longing for the “good ole days.” Those days, the days of living beyond our means and imagining that fossil fuels will last forever, the endless consumption that Americans have come to expect as their birthright, will soon become a thing of the past. I’m perfectly content to watch *that* dream fade away. Sure, I’m getting old and I’m happy to reduce, minimize and simplify, which is anything but looking back; I’m looking forward.


abigchocoholic

Come on Stacey,


Learning to live more simply is not looking back? You think life is going to get simpler in the future? That’s a good one. Whether or not you are willing to admit it, your piece is full of “it used to be better” and “we’re now on the wrong path” and “if we could just get back to our core values we’d be better off” type opinions. Read it again from my viewpoint. and see if you see how it comes across.


Let Dr. Phil-billy tell you what’s really going on. You may be right on your content, but it’s basically irrelevant. You have zero chance of changing anything. Every generation in the last 150 years (start of the industrial revolution/technology age/scientific age whatever you want to call it and wherever you want to start the timeline–when life was dramatically different for every new generation) has said the same thing right around when they hit 45-55 years old. It’s the cross-roads— when your internal clock slowdown no longer permits you to keep up with and absorb our ridiculously fast moving and ever evolving modern culture


Observe the pattern. It’s part of life’s cycle. You may say you[‘re looking forward, but you are comparing it to the standards of the past and opining that the past was better.


swarde

No, learning to live simply is not looking back. Read Bill McKibben’s book, “Deep Economy,” James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency,” and many others of this genre that warn of the limits of the fossil fuel economy. When cheap energy is no longer available, whether 10 years or 100 years down the road, what’s going to happen? This is looking forward. These and other authors have been arguing for close to 40 years that the fossil fuel-driven economy won’t last forever. And we know of nothing, no energy resource, that can yet provide the means to power the global economy the way that oil has. Additionally, global financial structures have already begun to crumble from the weight of too lavish spending by governments, institutions and individuals who have been living way beyond their means for way too long. The only way out, as I and many others see it, is to learn to live with less. Is it Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on living simply that makes you think such an idea archaic or something from the past? Far from it, living simple is the way of the future.


calvertworthington

Thanks for a well written piece.


I recommend reading: by Ravi Batra: “The New Golden Age: The Coming Revolution against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos”


zaphod

Here is the science.


swarde

An interesting article: “Reality is so complex, we must move away from dogma, whether it’s conspiracy theories or free-market,” says James Glattfelder. “Our analysis is reality-based.”


Thanks for including the link. It’s definitely worth a read.


zaphod
swarde

Thanks for the heads up on this. There are plenty of good reads regarding the challenges ahead. I’ve been enjoying Richard Heinberg’s and Daniel Lerch’s collection of essays, “The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crisis.” Whatever chaos may come as a result of declining availability of fossil fuels can be mitigated by strengthening our local economies, re-tooling industry with alternative fuels and energy sources, and learning to live with less.


Disgusted

Interesting read.

I’m struck also by how advertising spurs our greed. Everywhere we’re encouraged to buy new houses, cars, trips, tech, fashion, hobbies, etc. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo when we meet this hype everyday.


r0y

It is not hard at all to overcome, it only takes thought. Unfortunately, for the past 40 years, we stopped teaching thought and started indoctrinating. That is for a certain ideology, a consumption attitude, a trust/rely on authority, etc. That and poor parenting (as a result of growing up in this system) are to blame for our hook-line-and-sinker falling for this commercialism… and I *love* capitalism!


I love when my kids point out the “lameness” of most advertising. Especially the crap that is targeted to their age range. Even when the zombies in their school drone on about the latest iPhone or gadget that all must have, my kids just roll their eyes and press on.


rlondon

A very thoughtful description of two “Golden Rules.” Thank you!