A friend posted something on Facebook the other day expressing frustration with the state of the country and its discourse. It concluded with the question “Are we REALLY so small-minded and selfish that debate is impossible and compromise is EVIL? What the hell is happening here?” There are versions of this question being asked on Facebook, in coffee shops, in bars, in living rooms, and around kitchen tables all over the country. How did we get to the place we are now? I don’t know if it was the emotion or the clarity of the question (or a combination of the two), but something snapped into place. It was one of those nucleation points I’ve talked about. Whatever the conditions, they were what they needed to be in order for an idea to form. This post is based on the comment I made there.
I think things started to fall apart when ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ became interchangeable terms in the popular mind. I can’t point to a specific date when that happened, but I know there was a time in my lifetime they weren’t the same thing. I hear the Gorden Gecko “Greed is Good” speech from “Wall Street” much differently now than when I first experienced it in a theater.
It’s a much more recent phenomenon than you might think. Calvin Coolidge famously stated to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925 that “… the chief business of the American people is business.” In a soundbite-driven world it may seem as if that puts an end to my thesis. In a world where that line has a context, it’s the exact opposite. Here’s an extended excerpt from the speech:
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact, the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth. [Emphasis mine]
“Of course the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence?” Who was this guy? Bernie Sanders? Coolidge is saying this at the height of the Roaring Twenties. “The Great Gatsby” won’t be published for another four months. He’ll leave office just before its all falls apart four years later and he’ll be dead before these words are ten years old. He never sees the end of the Great Depression. “So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.” Can anyone look me in the eye today and say with a straight face that wealth isn’t the end nowadays? What’s it the means to? More wealth? When did that become OK? I’m not asking that for rhetorical effect. I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
What I do know is that we lost something important when we created an environment where greed is good — as long as you’re the greedy one. The last thing you want to have to deal with at that point are people who consider themselves equal citizens. Citizenship requires active participation in a larger community with a voluntarily sense of duty to others, even when fulfilling that duty doesn’t have immediate and direct benefit to the self. It’s acting on the idea that a society is judged on the lives of the least of its members, not its greatest. Everyone counts the same. Some have more to give than others, but everyone has the same basic value. Coolidge wasn’t talking out of his butt, either. Look at the infrastructure we rely on to this day that was built in that era. Where’s all the money going now?
For “greed is good” to work you need consumers. Consumerism is based on the immediate gratification of personal needs. Period. Nothing is more important than getting what you want for as little cost to yourself as possible. If someone else suffers, that’s just too bad for them. There is no problem that can’t be solved with the application of enough money. Your worth becomes a function of the amount of money you have to spend. There is no greater atrocity than a price being raised to benefit someone who has less than you. If they get more, you will have less. You may not know how much less. You may not have any idea to what use you’ll put that which you’ve “saved.” The point is you have it and they don’t.
Citizens say “we’re all in this together.” Consumers say “I’m buying a gun so no one takes my stuff. Stuff is important. It’s more important than you.” In a weird way I think this explains the recent outbreak of zombie movies and stories.1 That’s pretty much where we are nowadays. We’re on our own. And there are all these things that aren’t us who want what we have.
I don’t know how you make citizens of consumers again. I don’t know if you can. All I know is that citizenship and consumerism are incompatible unless you’re willing to work at it. And I’m not seeing much evidence that anyone wants to work that hard at it. Yelling is apparently more satisfying.
1See what I did there?