OK, here’s the joke: A guy goes to work and sees his supervisor in the parking lot, stepping out of a new Corvette. The C8, a red one, the one with the engine in the middle.
“Wow,” the guy says. “That’s an amazing car.”
“Well,” the supervisor replies, “if you work hard, put all your hours in and strive for excellence, they’ll give me another one next year.”
The number of Americans who believe this country is on the wrong track reached a record 75% in a Morning Consult/Politico poll, Newsweek reported in July. Just what the “wrong track” denotes is in the mind of the respondent, but it is what it is, as they say. I submit that greed, formerly known as enlightened self-interest, but define it as you wish, may be the reason.
Greed goes back to the Bible and beyond, of course. It is not new. Those currently on the planet accept it, if not find it acceptable. Don’t call it a vice or merely one of the seven deadly sins of Christian or ancient Greek teaching. Think of it as an anti-virtue. Think of it as a force clouding your interactions with the world and perhaps the times you get philosophical about yourself. It’s relative, of course. Ask yourself “Am I a good person?” and the answer will change according to time spent pondering it and the number of drinks you’re having.
I think I lived through the institutionalization of greed. Something started in the mid 1970s in this country, spreading, of course, to other cultures. The '70s were regarded, you may not recall, as the “Me Decade,” a term coined by the writer Tom Wolfe. The younger ones can Google it.
It featured a heightened focus on individual well-being, caused by a litany of external reasons, including a distrust of government because of Vietnam, Watergate, the gas crisis and a perceived erosion of faith after President Jimmy Carter’s administration (1977-1981) was certified as ineffective. There were plenty of other reasons, of course, more appropriate for a shelf of books and not a paragraph, but many people sought to perfect themselves instead of society.
While some went to meditation, others went to drugs, discos, an assortment of fads and the accumulation of a boatload of money, or its mirror, the yearning that the aforementioned boatload would solve all problems. The television program “Dallas,” which went on the air in 1978, encapsulated it: these were greedy, petty, outwardly attractive, venal people we watched, but boy were they rich, and thus could get away with anything. We rooted for them, and we wished, a guilty pleasure, that our lives were more like theirs, at least in some ways.
“Dallas” ran until 1991. In between, MTV showed us a way to get popular and rich in a hurry, as did the stock market and any number of ideas — memes, we might call them — suggesting that greed was the way to go.
Go rent a DVD of the 1987 film “Wall Street.” You won’t want your children to turn out like these characters, but I’ll bet some of you will wish you had just a little of whatever can be observed within them.
Of course, the ‘60s — hey, my time! — helped lay some of the groundwork. The Woodstock Festival of 1969 demonstrated a number of things, not the least of which was how much money was available to those catering to the peace-love-and-music crowd.
Flash forward to 2020. For some of us, all those years did indeed flash forward. It no longer suffices to watch out for those seeking to gain power through money, influence through money, more money through money. The attitude has permeated the culture, and it is assumed that any success has at least the element of greed behind it.
Perhaps that’s why no one considers himself or himself a “philosopher” by profession. It’s just too hard. It may also be why some people react to promise-heavy late-night television advertisements with disdain, while others hurry to send in their money. It is why the opinions of teachers and scientists get shunted off while successful business people end up influencing government through donation and then appointment.
If Mr. Biden thinks he can get elected president and then quickly kick everything back to someone’s idea of normal, he should be aware that divisions within the populace will not be easy to patch. There is a red-versus-blue divide, of course, but there is also a lack of belief that this land is on the right track. While I can point to malefactors in the current government, or in modern capitalism, and mutter “This guy should be in jail,” anyone can provide such a list, with a different assortment of names. Turning this country around will be harder than he thinks.