Every child had a pretty good shot
to get at least as far as their old man got;
Something happened on the way to that place;
They threw an American flag in our face
– Billy Joel, Allentown
I picked up a copy of the Portland Tribune today on the way home from work, as I walked to one of the MAX stations. It had a number of articles that interested me, but it also had a few letters that frankly brought me up short. Most of the writers were complaining against the city government's plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of their sharpest criticisms were leveled at proposals that seemed to be actually quite innocuous at worst, and frankly beneficial at best. Take things like adding sidewalks to streets that lack them, or making routes to schools safer (as in freer from motor vehicle hazards) for children who walk or ride their bikes to school, or making bicycle commuting safer for everyone. These didn't seem to be particularly evil proposals to me; yet some who wrote letters seemed to view these as part of a radical leftist plot to push government control onto every aspect of our lives.
The letter that really made my jaw drop was not about the proposed climate action plan. It was instead a letter asserting that the hardships endured by the early Pilgrim settlers in North America were due to socialism, because the pilgrims shared their resources. The writer states, “Lesson: Capitalism works, Socialism doesn't.” I had no idea that the early Pilgrims were so leftist. The writer's real aim, of course, was to justify selfishness. (The truth, at least as far as the pilgrims' first winter in North America, is that their hardship was due to cold weather, scurvy, lack of provisions caused by arrival late in the year, and the sickness that resulted from all of these. Later, they did in fact switch from collective farming to individual farms, and their harvests increased as a result. But that in itself is a commentary on fallen human nature.)
The justification of selfishness is not entirely surprising, yet there are aspects of it that mystify me to this day – even after all the “teaching moments” which have hit our country upside the head over the last two years. For the thing that puzzles me is the fact that so many Americans still embrace this justification, this ideology of selfishness, even though they are being burned by it.
I want to make it clear that I don't see anything wrong with private property (within limits!) or a person working to support himself and provide for his own needs. The Good Book commands honest labor so that we may meet our own needs and have something left over for charity. It also says, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” But the idea that all sharing of resources is a bad thing is unbalanced, as is the idea that the only way to build a prosperous society is by appealing to the selfishness of its members. Societies that live by such a philosophy are ruthless and have no safety nets; thus when any of their members fall honestly and unavoidably into trouble, their fellows tend to brush their hands, shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh, well!”
Our problem in the USA is that we don't share well. Many of us tend to look with suspicion even on voluntary sharing arrangements practiced by others, even when no one is forcing outsiders into these arrangements. One example: several months ago, a community group was trying to install a community garden in East Portland, on land that was vacant. This would have been a valuable asset for working-class people near the garden plot, who could have cut down on their food expenses and gained experience in growing healthy food for themselves. But the proposed garden aroused opposition from a group of neighbors who feared that the users of the garden plot would be dope-smoking hoodlums. The neighbors even said things like, “These people shouldn't be growing vegetables during the daytime. They should quit being lazy and get a job so they can buy their vegetables at the store!”
Why do we not share well? Why do we look with suspicion on those who do? And why are so many of us trying to take apart what safety nets we do have, especially those safety nets provided by the government? I think it has to do with the myth of the American dream – namely, that anyone can get rich if he just works hard enough or gets lucky – and the reinforcement of that myth by American mass culture. For instance, there's a billboard in downtown Portland – I don't remember exactly where just now – with an ad from a cell phone company containing the caption, “Teach Your Children Not To Share.”
But it goes deeper than that. Yesterday, we had a surprise snowstorm that kept most of us from getting home from work until quite late. I was on a bus next to a grocery store. We were waiting for TriMet to come out and put chains on the bus. While we waited, a young woman dashed in to the store (twice!) to buy some sort of scratcher Bingo lottery game. It cost her three dollars each time, and she won only three dollars each time, so I guess it was a wash. But who knows, she might have struck it rich if only she had bought the right tickets. Then there's the lottery pool in my office, and the people who each hope that the day the tickets are bought will turn out to be the last day they have to show up for work. And there are the TV game shows like “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, which reinforce the idea that with the right luck, some of us might have a shot at getting rich overnight (without having to work for it).
Of course, since any of us might potentially become a millionaire overnight through a stroke of luck, we must jealously guard the prerogatives of the rich, lest our own enjoyment of wealth be spoiled by the limiting of those prerogatives. At least, that's the propaganda pushed on us by the rich, who use all the media tools at their disposal to tell us how evil corporate taxes are (witness the large, expensive signs saying “Vote NO on Job-Killing Taxes!” in Oregon), how any government programs to help the poor are nothing more than “socialism!!!”, and how any restrictions on the use or means of amassing private property are totalitarianism.
This propaganda is so effective that many ordinary Americans are willing to vote against their own interests and to believe things that are against their own interests in order to preserve a supposed “right” to have no limitation or obligation imposed on their wealth should they ever strike it rich. So we have a society in which 20 percent of the American population controls 85 percent of America's wealth, and 80 percent of the population controls only 15 percent of the wealth – yet many of those in the 80 percent listen to Rush Limbaugh, and watch Glenn Beck, and voted for McCain and Palin, and oppose "socialized" medicine, and disbelieve in anthropogenic climate change because protecting the environment is “socialist.” Many of these people are sure that they or one of their relatives will be the next “American Idol,” or that if they invest just right, they will strike it rich, or that the next Lotto ticket will be the winning one, and that once that happens, it will be a sweet ride. We wouldn't want any moral obligation to our fellow man to spoil the ride, would we?
Most of us have no more chance of becoming rich than gasoline has of surviving the Last Judgment unburnt. Yet by wanting to be rich, and by indulging our fantasies of being rich, we continue to enable the selfishness of the rich. That selfishness is killing the rest of us.
Note: the figure on 80 percent of the population owning only 15 percent of the wealth comes from The New Elite: Inside The Minds Of The Truly Wealthy, by Jim Taylor, Doug Harrison, Stephen Kraus, copyright 2009, Harrison Group.