Karl Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses. I say it is prosperity, not religion, which is the opiate of the masses. The United States has experienced decades of unprecedented prosperity. Indeed, most people have lived their whole lives accustomed to what is actually a historically rare era of unusual affluence.
Now, the Great Recession is forcing many to go ‘cold turkey’, unwillingly sobering up without knowing the deeper causes for the withdrawal symptoms they now feel. Prosperity has a real dark side linked to desire and pleasure, and not surprisingly. (1)
I spent fifteen years living abroad, from age 20 to 35. Much of this time was at a grass roots level in the developing world. I truly came of age during those years. Returning to America after that long time away enabled me to see this culture 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 and pay for it later. This approach had become a way of life here during my absence. This exemplified my precautionary motto, “short-term pleasure, [leads to] long-term pain“, and the opposite, short-term pain; long-term pleasure. It appeared to me that American culture was now on the path of gluttony, with pain to follow. (See Naturally Unnatural, Naturally!)
‘Indian giver’ 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 ‘Indian giving’ reflects a straightforward sense of balance — a natural virtue perhaps. I first noticed a profound lack of this virtue though a personal experience in Vietnam.
I returned to Vietnam to work when the larger war broke out. My plan was to save money and return to Thailand where I intended to settle down… Oh how plans change. Being able to speak peasant Vietnamese, I was able to wrangle a job as a surveyor supervisor for an American construction firm. Every morning I’d pack extra food for lunch from the well-provisioned base camp to share with my Vietnamese crew. 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 the free food treat was a ‘human right’?
The recent angry protests aimed at current belt tightening in Greece, Italy, USA, etc., are 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. Clearly, a sense of appreciation is not innate, nor should it be. The survival instinct drives us to feel ‘more is better’.
Chicken Come Home to Roost
Initially, chapter 72’s When the people lack a proper sense of awe, then some awful visitation will descend upon them came to mind when I retuned here. Perhaps another Great Depression was in store for us. After a while, I figured out that whatever ‘awful visitation’ would descent upon us wasn’t just around the corner, so I settled into American life and had a family. Then 2009’s Great Recession came along. Wow, I thought, are the chickens coming home to roost? Perhaps the ‘awful visitation‘ is upon us.
Having little wish to probe deeper causes, like lacking a proper sense of awe, folks seek out scapegoats. In this case, the corporations and banks 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. However, the laissez-faire government oversight was the ultimate cause and whom can we ultimately hold responsible for the government? In a democracy, ultimately, responsibility lies with the population from whom the government takes its shape! Moreover, the fact that only half the population 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 a fundamental ignorance of the role banks and corporations play in our lives. They are the engines of the prosperity we enjoy. Ironically, these engines are also 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.
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. Congress then dropped these laws in recent times, which allowed Wall Street to be reckless again. 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. Chapter 16 sums up the inevitable, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant. The ‘constant’ in this case parallels past realities of which Congress ignored. Memory is short when dazzled by promises of gain.
We Are Trying To Change the World
“The corporations control the government” is a complaint I often hear. Certainly, corporate lobbyists do have considerable influence. Conversely, lobbyists for labor and progressive causes push their case from the other side. I’ve often voted the inevitable ‘losers’, like the Libertarian and the Green parties, just to send a ‘don’t take my vote for granted’ message to the politicians. People say, “You’re just throwing your vote away”. However, voting for either dominant party — the ‘winners’ — only continues the status quo, which is fine if you’re happy with that. However, I suspect most people aren’t and in a democracy, ‘We the People’ are the government. Doesn’t that make us responsible for the status quo?
In my view, this is a fine example of our irrational desire to have it both ways. We want better government, but we don’t want to rock the boat or risk anything. As is natural for all animals, we react to events. As Buddha’s Second Noble Truth says, “The surrounding world effects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction“. Our desires (thirsts) choose and we follow, and when things go wrong we cast stones at partisan scapegoats.
Similarly, I used to wish there was justice in the world, and always found someone to blame when I saw injustice. I finally realized, “It’s my fault too”. I suppose that is the nonsectarian counterpart of the Christianity’s original sin. I find peace in seeing this as nature’s way (3). As chapter 34 says, The way is broad, reaching left as well as right. I know that any lingering distress I feel about circumstances just reflects my own lingering needs and fears.
(1) The dark side is not surprising 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 a significant minority of the population is often 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. Democracy may require 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.
Causes and effects run so much deeper than we care to admit or consider. Recent centuries of cultural fragmentation are a natural consequence of progress… The main aspects being the increasing rate of change in population, mobility, communication, and wealth brought about by the harnessing of 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.
Perhaps the most imbalanced and worrisome aspect of the modern economy is that it is all based on continuous growth, I repeat, continuous growth. That bodes no better for the future than cancer would — continuous growth is cancer! The chickens will come home to roost one day.
(3) Although while I do see thinking in general and civilization in particular, as the cause for much of the dilemma in which we find ourselves, I can’t blame either one. Both are natural phenomenon evolving into a presumably more balance state, or winding down towards extinction. Time will tell. In the meantime, it helps to be aware of the causes and effects of current imbalance.