Gordon Gekko Lied
Since becoming what we in the clergy refer to as “bivocational” (a euphemism that simply means we need a paying job to support our ministerial habit), I have been running into an all too common problem: too much to do, and not enough time to do it. And I’m not the only person in my house who is under that water, schedule-wise; my wife, Laura, is currently taking on even more work and more responsibilities than I am. There is simply not enough time in the day to finish all the to-dos, much less do self-care, run a household, care for kids and pets, nourish a relationship. And as we look around, we realize we are not the exceptions; this is life in America today.
Since the 1970s, while American productivity has continued its steady uphill climb, American wages and benefits have remained stagnant or regressed. Solvent pension plans are a thing of the past; almost mythical beings like unicorns and faeries. Health care benefits are shifting more and more costs onto the patient and their families. Vacation time is rare and often unusable, if one expects to have a job waiting when they come home. Sick leave is offered but highly discouraged. Family leave, too, and it is most often unpaid. We are working ourselves to death, literally, and we are not, as a general rule, reaping the benefits of our labors. And the truly sad thing is, we did it to ourselves.
You see, back in the day, the 70s was referred to as “the Me Decade”. The radical collectivism of the 60s fell away, and mostly morphed into a kind of defiant individualism that focused on the needs of the one, not the many. “To hell with communes; I want a condo.” The America that had built a thriving middle class on collective bargaining, collective social effort, and collective governance from FDR to LBJ unraveled. By the end of the decade, we elected Ronald Reagan president, and the sea change was underway. Reagan talked about “trickle down” economics. The truth was far more sinister: wealth has been a raging torrent flowing upward from what was once a prosperous and healthy middle class into the pockets of the hyper-rich. The justification was that by regulating less and taxing less, the government was creating more opportunity for all of us. In reality, the game was always rigged for those who were born into wealth and privilege, and women and people of color were swimming in cast iron suits.
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the damage had been done. But the problem is that it was not only the tax code and banking regulations that had been changed; our values as a nation had been twisted. In the 1987 film, “Wall Street”, Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko delivers the pronouncement, “Greed is good.” And America believed him. And it changed how we think, who we are, and how we live.
“Greed is good” justifies all sorts of behaviors that in “collectivist America” would have been seen as, well, un-American. But the genius behind it is that it springs a trap on us all. What “greed is good” does is moralizes the addiction to wealth, and the placing of monetary gain as the number one priority over family, faith, community, country. It trivializes and mocks philanthropy. It replaces the heart of morality with a ledger. And because it promotes an obsession for gain for each individual, it sets up and reinforces a zero-sum mindset that stifles any collective action that threatens the individual’s right to profit. How did a bloated, lying, trust-fund baby from New York convince blue-collar workers in the decaying Rustbelt to make him President? By flaunting his “wealth” and “success” (see, it COULD happen to you, too), and blaming their problems on “the Other” (those people coming from across the border to take your jobs; those people overseas dumping cheap goods in your markets; those liberals trying to take away your old [better] way of life.)
So, what has this done? In the workplace, we have all but destroyed unions, thus ensuring we are each at the mercy (HAHAHA) of our employers. “Right to work” is a euphemism for “right to fire”. Is it possible for you, the individual, to cut a better deal for yourself than a union could cut for you and everyone else? Well, you are special. Barney said so. But had you banded together with your co-workers, not only might you have gotten higher wages, but you would most assuredly have more security, and your employer wouldn’t be able to play quite so many tricks that fall short of actionable, but destroy your quality of life (“I hope I can count on you to get this done…. I know you’ve got vacation scheduled, but this just came up….) And on, and on.
So, what’s it going to take? Before we throw the (current) bums out of office; before we re-write out tax codes and banking regulations; before we make any other logistical, financial, or governmental changes, we have to have a change of heart. We have had half a century of “Me Decades”; now, for the love of God, can we please decide it’s time for a few “Us Decades”? Can we decide that even though there is an outside chance one of us might get lucky and strike it rich that it’s OK to tax extreme wealth? Can we decide that even though one or two of us might need an assault rifle at some point that the greater good is served by getting rid of them? Can we decide that even though a tiny fraction of us might have bad reactions to vaccines that we all need to be vaccinated? Can we decide that even though we might lose some freedom of choice, that providing healthcare for all of us under one umbrella is by far and away the better, safer, saner, healthier choice? Can we all get together and simply refuse to work schedules that leave us no time for vacations, sick days, mental health days, family leave, and simply living a life that is well-rounded and wholehearted? Can we, finally and for all time, declare that greed is NOT good, that, in fact, greed is the very definition of evil? Is it any wonder that our brother and Wayshower, Jesus, is reported to have said, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”?
Friends, it is time for all of us to band together, join hearts and arms, and kick for the surface. Or we will all drown alone, and we will only have ourselves to blame.