People are selfish. At the same time, people are generous. When an actor wins an Oscar, as Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock did last Sunday, you can see that they are thrilled about their win. Bridges in particular didn’t make the slightest effort to hide his excitement and why should he? He is a great actor and, from what I can tell, a good guy who Academy voters genuinely like.
But, while I see nothing wrong in being overtly thrilled at winning an Oscar, I don’t think there’s any way to deny that being thrilled is selfish. Having won means you are well regarded (narcissistic high!), you will be more famous than ever for a little while (ditto!), your name will be inscribed in Hollywood history (ditto again), and you can charge more for your future roles (cf. the Bible on “the root of all evil”).
But while selfishness is a design feature of human nature, so is generosity. Or maybe a better way to put this is to say mutual dependence is so basic to us that it is like the air we breathe. We could not survive were we all simply selfish. Without this mutual dependence we would be facing the “war of all against all” imagined by Thomas Hobbes, and our lives truly would be, as he predicted, “nasty, brutish and short.” There are people who can themselves be described as “nasty, brutish and short,” but since I myself am not at all tall, I will have little more to say about this. Anyway, Hobbes was referring to our lives, not our former vice president or any other specific individuals, when he conjured up that famous phrase.
What I’m getting at is that our lives are so completely bound up with each other that a Hobbesian war of “all against all” is simply an impossibility. Yes, we do often and in some ways compete against each other, but we cooperate with each other much more routinely.
Even the Oscars are a ritual of cooperation. The organization of the Academy Awards ceremony depends on thousands of cooperating participants. Even when the “all against all” aspect is emphasized – as when the competing candidates are listed just before the winner is announced – group-oriented rituals are followed. I suppose it would add to the drama if, just before the envelope was opened, a fiercely competitive candidate were to bolt for the stage, grab the envelope and declare himself winner. But nobody has ever done this, not even Harvey Weinstein.
I’m just saying that our lives are completely enveloped in cooperativeness, and yet we talk as though America is an arena of endless competition.
Part of the reason for all this “competition” talk is political. Conservatives often preach that competition (sometimes described as “the magic of the marketplace”) can solve all our problems. So competition is talked up in the corporate-controlled press. And in America virtually all of our news is corporate-controlled, so it is talked up a lot.
The right wing has its reasons for making us think life is all about competition. One reason is that those who control wealth can claim that since, in competitive arenas, the strong and smart get rich, it would be wrong to ask people with wealth to pay a relatively large proportion of their income to support society – hence Steve Forbes’ touting of “the flat tax” and George W. Bush claiming (dishonestly) that rich people are rich because “they earned” their wealth.
Any introductory sociology course worth its tuition will reveal that most of the wealth held by the super-rich in the U.S. is not earned but inherited. Bush’s certainly was. Steve Forbes was also born to wealth. Neither of them got rich by “earning” wealth, and neither did the great majority of those who are rich.
What conservatives like Bush and Forbes seem to imagine is that had they been born the children of, say, impoverished Mexican-American migrant workers, they would nevertheless, because of their outstanding personal qualities, have undoubtedly grown up to be multimillionaires. They are, in other words, full of caca.
Actually they may not be that stupid. They may simply be monstrously greedy. But I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt here by judging them to be idiots.
The Tea Partiers are (consciously or unconsciously) in league with these guys. The big message that the TPers keep promoting (other than that Obama is a socialist) is that our government is accumulating too much debt and we citizens shouldn’t have to pay the taxes we pay.
OK, just as an aside, I would have a lot more confidence in the TPers had they taken to the streets in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began piling up unprecedented and shockingly humongous debts. Also, they might have taken to the streets to cheer Bill Clinton for undoing the deficit damage Reagan had done and balancing the budget in the 1990s. And, again, they might have raised a ruckus when George W. Bush, with his reckless, pro-rich-people tax cuts ran up the debt again in the past decade. But they didn’t. Only now, when Barack Obama, for absolutely necessary reasons, increases the debt, do the TPers decide to protest the red ink. It obviously isn’t the debt that concerns them, so I have to wonder what they are really up to.
Anyway, the “lower our taxes” part of their protest is exactly what Forbes, Bush and other born millionaires like to see. If the government has its hands tied this will help the super-rich (who are mainly corporate fat cats) get richer. This is because there are really only two major sources of power in America today: One is the political power that depends on the voting process (aka democracy or “government”) and the other is corporate power that serves the interests of people like Bush and Forbes. If the government’s power is reduced (i.e., if democracy is somewhat weakened), then corporations can have their way with us more freely than ever.
There is no third way. We can depend on the power of elected officials (hoping that those officials have not been totally bought off by corporate money), or we can put our fates in the hands of Wall Street bankers and companies like A.I.G., Halliburton, ExxonMobil, etc.
The conservatives and their Tea Party supporters are fighting to increase corporate power. And part of the justification for this goal is the idea (the dream, really) that says open competition will bring everything into balance, ensuring that only deserving souls will be rewarded. So deregulate everything, cut everyone’s taxes and just let all that competitive energy loose. But what would happen if we did this? In fact we actually did this once before – in the 1920s when conservative Republican president Calvin Coolidge said “the business of America is business.” To find out what happens when government regulations are whittled away and competition goes wild, just take a look at the 1930s that followed directly from Coolidge’s policies. Or, don’t go that far back; just take a look at what happened on Wall Street in 2008 as a consequence of banking deregulation.
I agree that competition has its place, but only after a basic system of social cooperation has been tended to. Right now this means sticking it to those Wall Street bankers who keep rewarding themselves with billions because they are sure (like Bush and Forbes are) that their superior natures entitle them to all that loot. Let’s hope that our representatives in Congress have not been so completely bought off by Wall Street money that they are capable of doing the necessary sticking. If they aren’t, it’s time to rewrite our campaign financing laws so that at least some of our elected officials can find a way to do right by us voters instead of always catering to that noxious swarm of greedy, self-deluded financial backers.
The Wallace Collection
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