Bernie Sanders has gained quite a bit of momentum in the US presidential election as he candidly points to the sources of many social ills and offers solutions that make sense. A few years ago, in response to a group of 80 CEOs cynically publishing a letter lecturing Americans about deficit reduction and urging them to “act on the deficit and reform Medicare,” Sanders replied in his usual intelligent and direct way: “There really is no shame. The Wall Street leaders whose recklessness and illegal behavior caused this terrible recession are now lecturing the American people on the need for courage to deal with the nation’s finances and deficit crisis.”
Sanders continued, “[o]ur Wall Street friends might also want to show some courage of their own by suggesting that the wealthiest people in this country, like them, start paying their fair share of taxes. They might work to end the outrageous corporate loopholes, tax havens and outsourcing provisions that their lobbyists have littered throughout the tax code – contributing greatly to our deficit.”
Nothing has really changed since 2012 when it comes to leaders of corporate America. Greed is the order of the day. Sanders’ comments on the enormous damage Wall Street, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very small percentage of the population, has done to the middle class in this country remains salient in 2015. But the problem is deeper than Sanders suggested in that letter.
CEOs walking off with millions, or billions, in their pockets while employees struggle to pay the rent or companies paying little or no taxes are not only causes but symptoms of a greater ill in our society. What are they symptoms of? A culture of greed and consumption that permeates American life.
We live in a society that constantly celebrates having more, but rarely celebrates having enough. Americans want more money, more food, more clothing — bigger servings at restaurants (think buffet), bigger boxes, bigger cups of coffee. Imagine an advertising campaign in the U.S. that encouraged Americans to be satisfied with enough, rather than to want more — right, it’s very hard to imagine that.
We have reached a situation in America where having more usually seems to outweigh being satisfied with enough, finding sustainability, and achieving a reasonable distribution of wealth in which a large percentage of the population have enough to live on comfortably.
The CEOs Sanders admonished are just one fairly absurd caricature of that culture of greed. But symptoms of that culture are evident not only in ridiculous compensation packages of corporate CEOs or college football coaches, but also in the closets of regular people with 50 pairs of shoes or the wallets of those maintaining high amounts of credit card debt as a result of buying too many, and too expensive, Christmas presents. They can be found in things like car leases that reduce the price of driving a luxury vehicle around so that one can look rich in a car they cannot actually afford to buy. And they also lurk in the desire to purchase expensive jewelry for loved ones, because somehow the monetary value ascribed to a rock is evidence of the value of love. More cost means more love.
The most serious problem is not the CEOs themselves, but what they represent: A culture that sanctifies beliefs that more is better, acquisition is the goal of life, and having a lot makes one happy. The heads of corporate America can sell their own staggering ideology of greed to the public because a large part of the American public already buys into the belief that greed is good and having a lot of things makes one happy.
How do we solve this problem? One solution is to get Americans to embrace values of sustainability and moderation rather than greed and consumption. We need to learn to be satisfied with enough rather than desiring of more and more. And as Sanders stated back in 2012, the leaders of corporate America, rather than lecturing Americans on the need to tighten already very tight belts should take the high road and set an example by reducing their own culture of excess and greed. But I am doubtful that they will do so–there is little motivation to truly work to improve society when you have control over so much of its wealth.
The other way to go is to vote for change — change not simply in Washington, but in American culture. Americans need to stop voting for conservatives who represent extremely wealthy individuals and corporations that have no interest in the lives of the middle class. The best sales pitch the leaders of corporate/conservative America have ever given is the one that got the working class to vote against their own interests and support the right wing. Every vote for a candidate from the right in the current political climate is a vote for more of the same–extreme wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a very small segment of the population.
If people really want change — and the change that will really make a difference is moving away from the vast culture of greed that Americans have built — the best way to go is to vote for candidates who support strong social programs, who support public education including higher at a reasonable price, and who want a government that works on behalf of its citizens as a whole, rather than only for the wealthy few.
The change we need is toward a culture that encourages people to tolerate neither extreme poverty nor extreme wealth. Instead, we need a culture that recognizes a large, well-educated middle class is the most important pillar to a stable, happy, and sustainable society for all (or at least most) — including the rich.