Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Materialistic individualism is undoing us

I recently read Michael Lewis' enlightening and sobering article California and Bust in the November issue of Vanity Fair. He explores the financial crisis facing many communities, triggered as the Federal and state governments "solve" their financial woes by cutting expenditures and leaving the shortfall with the cities and towns. While this isn't fair, the cities and towns are not blameless, having made unsustainable financial commitments to their public sector employees over the decades.

Lewis portrays dire situations in San Jose and Vallejo, California, that are similar to the events in Wisconsin and Ohio and Rhode Island and Alabama and who knows how many other states and cities. The financial calamity began with the implosion of the housing bubble that froze the liquidity of the capital markets and created record and prolonged unemployment. Tax revenues are down while the costs of the social safety net are up, yielding unconstitutional deficits for the states and municipalities.

To eliminate deficits, you either cut expenditures, raise taxes on those who still have revenue to contribute, or blend the two. This dichotomy has become the ideological argument cementing the gridlock in Congress.

Looking beyond the political drama that fills the cable programs, Lewis points to the deeper cultural and moral issue exposed by the recession:
Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.
During my lifetime, I've observed that the rugged individualism that forged America has shifted to a materialistic individualism, exemplified by the sardonic bumper sticker: He who dies with the most toys wins. (Contrast that with Jesus' admonition: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:23-24.)

The purpose of life in our consumer culture seems to be to amass as much wealth as possible and use it to acquire as much as we can. In addition to breeding entitlement and narcissism, materialistic individualism leads to conflict and traumatic pain when the economic system can no longer support the largess.

So airlines go bankrupt, and pilots lose their pensions. Retiree health care costs make the price of a new car noncompetitive  Pensions and benefits for public sector employees command an unsustainable share of tax revenues. Health insurance co-pays and deductibles rise year after year.

Amid the frustration and fear of an impending train wreck, the Tea Party emerged, finding government the root of the problem. Occupy Wall Street blames the wealthiest Americans — the so-called 1%. The rights of collective bargaining and tenure for teachers are challenged.  Economists argue for increasing the retirement age, an idea no politician will endorse.

These events are the collective result of our individual beliefs and actions. We are too focused on our personal desires, not considering the larger society we live in and unwilling to sacrifice our interests for the common good. We keep reaching for more and feeling justified — entitled — to do so. As Michael Lewis aptly diagnoses, the problem isn't just them, it's us.