Reporter's Note: President Obama would like Americans to give him advice about the country. As part of my quest to answer that call, I am writing a letter a day to the White House. And today I am launching a series within that series called Ten Things You Should Know About America, But You Wouldn’t Know From Watching The News.
This is Part One.
Tom Foreman | Bio
Dear Mr. President,
Yesterday I promised that today I would launch into a ten part subset of these letters dealing with issues that we in the media would like to report on, but have trouble getting our hands around. They don’t constitute advice as such, and I beg your forgiveness. I know you asked for ideas on how to drive the national race car, and I’ll be sort of describing the engine instead, but I still hope you’ll find it useful.
And I’m going to start with a wild idea about the biggest issue you are wrestling with right now. The economy. Here it goes. I think our problems with mortgages, banking, savings, earnings, Wall Street and Main Street are not economic. They are cultural.
Now, before you crumple this letter and toss it into the Presidential wastebasket, please hear me out. You and a great many leaders have long talked about the American Dream; the idea that if Johnny American works hard, plays fair, plans for the future, tends to his family, community and profession, he can get ahead. He can have a house, a wife, two-and-a-half children, a dog, some goldfish that wind up being flushed down the toilet, daffodils in the yard, and a barbeque grill out back. (Sorry to make it all so gender specific, what with all the single mothers out there, but I just couldn’t navigate all the twists of making that sentence gender neutral.)
All of those things certainly involve the economy. You can’t buy a Labradoodle, a pool table, or put up bail with Monopoly money. But I think you are mainly talking about a social contract of trust, earned rewards, and shared goals. That is culture.
Think about all the problems in the financial sector. Folks there had their own American Dream. They wanted extraordinary incomes that allowed them to own two or three houses, a stable of fast cars, and a rec room full of spoiled children being raised by an au pair from Switzerland. They wanted to eat at restaurants that charge too much, wear ridiculous golfing pants, and ski on snow that is somehow colder and whiter because you can only reach it by helicopter. Sure, they could afford all that for five or ten million dollars a year, but they wanted 15 or 20 million. Because the bigger numbers made them bigger winners. And again, that’s culture.
Why did we start buying implantable breasts and televisions as big as drive-in movie screens? I will assure you that not one company came to us and said, “Hey, don’t you really want to spend yourself into debt today?” No, what they said through flashy images, driving music, and slinky models caressing products, is “the American culture is now all about being rich, owning much more than you can take care of, having things you don’t need, and if you are not buying in, you’re being left out.”
I’m not blaming marketers, although they certainly bear some butt-kicking. This was our fault, because we believed their sales pitch. Suddenly we all started thinking that we should live like rock stars or multi-million dollar athletes or…forgive me…the President.
And in our quest to live the great life, we started denigrating the good life. Like the last scene in Goodfellas, we started viewing the person who holds a good job, raises good children, attends a good church, and is a good citizen as a nobody…a schmuck.
The thing is, the “nobodies” made this country what it is. The titans of business played a role, but they overvalue themselves. They could not build the railroads, string the power lines, pave the roads, or educate the children without millions of “nobodies” bending their backs and brains to the job. If we want to fix our economy, we must begin by repairing that rip in our culture. We have to raise up all the “nobodies” out there, and recognize once again that the measure of greatness is not just who collects the most power, the most money, or the most possessions.
Great economies are built on great cultures, not the other way around; and if the culture is sound, even in bad times, great nations prosper.
At least, that’s what I think. Time to put away my soapbox. Hope all is well with you and yours. More tomorrow.
Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.
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