Karl Marx had is wrong. It is prosperity, not religion, which is the opiate of the masses. The United States has experienced decades of surefire prosperity. Most have lived their whole lives accustomed to what is actually a historically rare era of unusual affluence.
Now, much of the population is going ‘cold turkey’, unwillingly sobering up without knowing the deeper causes for the withdrawal symptoms they now feel. I’ve found prosperity has a real dark side linked to desire and pleasure— not surprisingly. (1)
I spent fifteen years living abroad, from age 20 to 35. Much of this time was at the ‘grass roots’ in the developing world. I truly came of age during those years. Returning to America after all that time away enabled me to see this land with fresh eyes. I was particularly surprised to see how little people actually appreciated their abundance and easily went into debt for more—get it now, pay for it later. This get now, pay later had become a way of life here during my absence. This matched my precautionary motto, “short term pleasure, [leads to] long term pain“, (and visa versa). It appeared to me that American culture was now on the path of gluttony, with pain to follow.
This term is apparently based on an American Indian form of barter where upon giving a gift he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned (see Etymology). This reflects a straightforward sense of balance, in my view. I first noticed a profound lack of this virtue though a personal experience in Vietnam.
I went to Vietnam soon after the war began to work, save money and return to Thailand where I intended to settle down. (Oh how plans change.) Knowing Vietnamese, I was able to wrangle a job as a surveyor for an American construction firm. Every morning I’d pack extra food from the well-provisioned base camp to share with my Vietnamese crew for lunch. We had a feast every day; times were good. Some months later, the company clamped down and banned that practice. When I told my crew the freebees were finished, they got surprisingly angry. I was dumb founded. The freebees had been a lucky windfall, so why were they reacting as though it was a ‘human right’? The angry protests aimed at current belt tightening (Greece, Italy, USA, etc.) are recent examples of this irrational expectation. It is so much easier to receive than give up. None wishes to pay now for past prosperity. It is just so ‘unfair’, as my Vietnamese crew would say.
Chicken Come Home to Roost
Surely, I thought, some awful visitation will descend upon them. Perhaps another Great Depression was in store for us. After a while I figured ‘the awful visitation’ that was waiting to happen, while inevitable, wasn’t just around the corner, so I stopped waiting and settled in to have a family. Then 2009 Great Recession came along. Wow, I thought, are the chickens coming home to roost? Perhaps the ‘awful visitation’ is now in progress.
Naturally, not knowing the deeper causes, like having a proper sense of awe, folks seek out scapegoats. In this case, the corporations and banks appear to fit the bill on the left, and government and taxes fit the bill on the right. Of course, the banks had a hand in the Great Recession of 2009. However, the laissez-faire government oversight was the ultimate cause, and whom can we ultimately hold responsible for the government? In the end, the people from whom the government takes its shape, especially in a democracy! More over, the fact that only half the population usually bothers to vote puts the responsibility even more in our (we the people) laps (2). Put simply, it is not the corporation’s fault, bank’s fault, government’s fault, taxes’ fault… it is our fault—those who vote as well as those who don’t. Of course, we will never hear that mea culpa will we? It is so much easier to ‘cast stones’.
There is also the fundamental ignorance of the role banks and corporations play in our lives. They are the engines of prosperity. So, ironically, these engines are the source of the drug of prosperity we crave. Do you see the problem—the conundrum? People are condemning the very thing on which they have become so dependent. The same is true for much of the scapegoat rhetoric of the ‘Tea Party’ faction. They rail against Tarp, without which world economy may well have totally collapsed. The irony here is that most banks have paid back the Tarp fund, with the government actually coming out $billions ahead (a big part of the outstanding debt lies with the governmental controlled institutions of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In fact, these two still need and will receive billions).
Again, sloppy governmental oversight made the reckless actions of Wall Street possible. After the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Congress passed laws that provided good regulation. These laws were dropped in recent times, which made the Wall Street recklessness possible. How is this any different than dropping the laws against drunk driving? Without such laws and stiff penalties, reckless drunk drivers would be much more commonplace. Indeed, woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant,
We Are Trying To Change the World
“The corporations control the government” is a complaint I often hear. Certainly, their lobbyists have a huge hand in things. On the hand, lobbyist for labor and progressive causes push their case from the other side. I often voted for the ‘losers’, like the Libertarian and the Green parties just to send a “don’t take my vote for granted” message to the dominant class. People tell me that doing this is “throwing your vote away”. However, voting for the dominant class ‘winners’ only continues the status quo. In a democracy, ‘we’ are the Government, which makes us responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. In my view, this is a fine example of our irrational desire to have it both ways.
All this amounts to simply waiting until symptoms develop before seriously asking “why”. We are invariably ‘a day late and a dollar short’. As is natural for all animals, we react to events. As Buddha put it in his Second Noble Truth, “The surrounding world effects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamor for immediate satisfaction“. Our desires (thirsts) choose and we follow, and when things go wrong we cast stones at our favorite partisan scapegoat.
Likewise, I used to wish that there were ‘justice’, and always found someone to blame. I finally realized, “It’s my fault too”. I suppose that is the non-sectarian equivalent of the Christian original sin. I now find peace in seeing it as nature’s way (3). As chapter 34 says, The way is broad, reaching left as well as right. Any lingering distress I feel about circumstance just reflects my own lingering desire.
(1) Not surprising that is, if you concur with Buddha’s Second Truth, “…The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain”.
(2) Even when most people vote, democracy can still be very frustrating because up to 49% of the population is going to be unhappy with the results. For many, democracy is good especially when it goes their way. Alas, democracy may end up a lot more problematic in the future (human nature being what it is). It may turn out that democracy requires more maturity from us as a whole, the governed, than we are capable. For some sobering details, hear what Martin Wolf, Micheal Lewis, Tom Freedman have to say in this interviews, Friedman, Lewis and Schultz on the economy with Fareed Zakaria. (Go here for Fareed’s weekly podcast http://rss.cnn.com/services/podcasting/fareedzakaria_audio/rss.xml )
Finally, I must reiterate my long view. The causes run so much deeper than we care to admit or consider. Recent centuries of cultural fragmentation is a natural consequence of progress: the increasing rate of change in populations, mobility, communication and wealth brought about by the harnessing of first steam in the 1800’s, then electricity and oil in the 1900’s. In the great scheme of things, this is a very recent change; the full impact of which we have only barely begun to experience. It can take centuries for culture to adapt itself to game changing innovation.
However, the single most ‘un-natural’ and worrisome aspect of modern economy is that it is all based on continuous growth, I repeat, continuous growth. The only natural phenomenon that is based on continuous growth is cancer! The chickens will always come home to roost.
(3) Although while I do see thinking in general and civilization in particular, as the cause for much the dilemma in which we find ourselves, I wouldn’t bane either, even if I could. Both are natural phenomenon evolving into a presumably more balance state, or winding down towards extinction. Time will tell. In the meantime, it is helps (me anyway) to be aware of the causes of current imbalance.