I read this article by Nicholas Kristof this morning and thought it was, as he often is, spot on. So I shared it on Twitter and, later, on Facebook. In short, the article’s about an American Dream now on life-support at best, and touches upon the issue of ever-increasing Inequality and its impact on a struggling, and sinking, middle-class.
Concern with where we’re going, both as a nation and as a civilization, is at the forefront of my thinking most days; the increasing influence of money, and our subtle transition from a Capitalist Economy to a Capitalist Society in seemingly so few years is both frightening and sad. It does not bode well for our future and, on a personal level, I cannot bear the thought of my children becoming a part of a present and future where the worth of absolutely everything – art, music, relationships etc. – is solely assessed in terms of monetary value. This idea of defining all things primarily in terms of equivalent material or monetary valuation to determine their worth is the hallmark of what I define as a Capitalist Society.
While I remain a fan of true Capitalism from a solely economic perspective – that is defined, simply, as a fair and level playing field where hard work is rewarded, often in the form of monetary or material gain – I am mortified by the application of that principle to every facet of life. You like playing guitar? Can you make money with that? What’s the most successful career? The one that makes the most money of course! You like to express yourself through drawing? Worthless, unless you become a famous artist. It is a society that rewards Fame for fame’s sake, rather than appreciating fame as being a natural by-product of having worked hard, created something worthwhile or contributed to the world simply because you were driven and passionate about something real for the sake of doing it in and of itself, and not just for the bucks and leverageable exposure.
Sadly, that thinking has become pervasive and, by many, accepted. And, in my opinion, it is becoming taught and encouraged as the acceptable norm by corporate lobbyists and corrupt politicians who no longer consider themselves to be public servants (as they are intended to be), but instead as an elite ruling class that defines their constituents as “The American People” as if they are a herd to be manipulated, a species apart from the shepherds of Washington. You even see in in the Common Core controversy, where private, for-profit companies create agendas and materials not to truly educate, but instead to make people ‘job ready’.
The purpose of education is NOT to get you a job: the point of education IS to provide one with a broad and well rounded foundation – a toolset – that enables and empowers us to think for ourselves, to explore, to be curious, and to live a rich and varied life. It is not to train us with a punchlist of company-mandated skills to make us just viable enough to gain access to our cubicle. To be so narrowly hyper-trained in such a way as to be only useful in context of a company’s need only enables us to be used until it becomes financially advantageous to discard us, but until then to keep us going so that we can make just enough to survive and maintain our existence as ‘consumers’, with the job of greasing the wheels of an economy predicated on consumption rather than creation while contributing to the tax base and gifting politicians and pundits a talking point because the unemployment rate has dropped by an (artificially manipulated) tenth of a percent in an election year.
(And – a shameless plug for me – these are all issues that drive my upcoming book Cogh and The Machine; A Children’s Book for Adults – which will be available via Amazon etc in a couple of weeks.)
But here’s the thing: when I shared the Kristof article, and when I talk about these things, some people seem to think that I am frustrated or interested because I’m having trouble. And I think that that response too is a symptom of a Capitalist Society.
You see, I heard from a friend earlier when I shared the NYT piece and he asked, quite sincerely and in confidence, “Are you doing okay? Having trouble meeting the bills?”
The answer to that is I’m actually doing fine – my business is good, the bills are met, the power’s on and the kids are fed. I don’t have a Lear jet, nor do I want one.
But the thing that strikes me most about that question, while well-intentioned, is that it throws light on a not too often admitted reality behind this issue of inequality: the assumption that you’re angry because you’re not getting your share.
And the implication of this is, of course, that if you were doing fine, you wouldn’t care.
In my case I care because it’s wrong. Morally, ethically – even spiritually. I care because it’s not fair or right. I care because businesses need to do the right thing by their people first, rather than seeing them as a necessary expense on the balance sheet. My friend Dan says I have nobility issues and, yes, some days I’d like to get my hopefully hypoallergenic horse, grab my sword and slay the Dragon.
Maybe that’s what I’m doing when I write – there’s no promise of reward for all of the hours of work, but as I’m a lousy rider and the Dragons keep hiding, it’s my way of doing right by this world using the tools I’ve been given.
But either way, I think, as a people – from a humanistic standpoint – beyond the new ‘values’ of our Capitalist Society, I think we have a moral obligation to fight this sort of injustice, and live our lives so that we make those around us better somehow. That’s what counts. That’s the salve. That’s what fills the hole that something bought won’t. It’s true.
I’m not suggesting that we redistribute wealth, or tax the rich. But I am suggesting that corporations, by and large, have become behemoths with undue influence and not a stitch of moral thread. Look around: of course productivity’s up! In an economy that will never truly recover, despite what the pundits on CNBC spout when they point to strangely massaged financial indicators, people know that if they lose their job there’s not another one around the corner. That’s why the real rate of unemployment is far higher than whatever they’re putting out there in the media – because people have given up and left the game, and those folks no longer get counted in the figures. And if you don’t get counted there, in the Capitalist Society, you don’t count at all, do you? So yes, there are job cuts, but the same amount of work still needs to be done – it’s just that last man employed gets to do it all – great for productivity, bad for humanity. He or she is scared, so they suck it up and keep working harder for fear that they too will join the great sea of those who are no longer employable. And so, yes, productivity goes up. The folks up top get richer while the folks at the bottom get a little more stressed.
So no, I’m not speaking up for personal reasons. I’m speaking up for moral ones. For the Should. For what we Should be doing. For what businesses Should be doing.
For what we all – every single one of us – Should be doing. But we’re afraid to stand out. To rock the boat. Not now, not in these tenuous, quietly fearful times, right?
You see, it’s not ok to ignore the bigger picture, just because you yourself are doing ok for the time being. People need to speak out, but as I’ve often said, if you’re treading water to survive, if your raise your hand – or fist – in protest, you go under. The people who make policy and profit know this. In a lonely connected world where we willingly, maybe desperately, reach out and make public our opinion or try to find friendship via the perceived sociality of blogs and social media knowing full well we’re being dumped and sorted into a hundred databases, it is becoming increasingly easy for giant corporations and collusive governments to manipulate the masses and keep them at bay.
But at the same time, even knowing that that is the reality we still must speak out. And we can’t just gripe on the internet – we must Do. We can’t go silent, and accept and bleat and eat until we are sheared. I get frustrated because not only in myself, but in every single person I meet I can see such great and unrealized potential. And as a writer I can easily imagine what a true and gentle Utopia we could achieve if we listened within and did as we Should.
So yes, we all should be concerned with inequality, even if we ourselves have yet to be stung by it. It is a moral and human obligation that is not, as it’s so often wrongly portrayed, some liberal mission to hand out a ‘free lunch’ to some mythical wards of the state – you know, that bunch of deadbeats living large on food stamps (rubbish), or socialism (get a dictionary). Instead simply the right thing to do. Something that transcends politics and profit. And, yes, corporations also share this responsibility – even above their responsibility to their shareholders. Within our Capitalist Society we have forgotten what is really important, and become, perhaps, too frightened or complacent to take a stand.
But I think that we must, and I’m not alone in my thinking. And I know that I, at least, Should.
I’m concerned with where we’re going, and trying to figure out a way to fix it before we get there.
If you have children, or a soul, you understand.
P.S. For those of you wondering, the irony of the Ayn Rand quote is not lost on me – but I’d suggest considering this perspective from the Washington Post 😉