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April 13th, 2009
10:45 AM ET

Dear President Obama #84: Ten things – Money for Nothing

Reporter's Note: President Obama would like Americans to give advice to the White House on how to help the country progress. As part of my continuing series of letters and mindful that it’s hard to know where you are going if you don’t know where you are I am currently writing on Ten Things You Ought to Know About America, But You Might Not Know From Watching the News.

This is Part Seven.

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Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

I went to a steel plant north of Pittsburgh once, in a small town by a river, to watch those beautiful streams of molten orange pour out of the great dark cauldrons and hear a story of hope and despair. The plant was profitable and had been for years, the keystone of a local family’s fortune and the town’s economy. But the family had grown old and had sold the plant to an international corporation, which decided to break it up and sell the parts for quick cash.

The workers banded together to try to buy the plant back. I don’t know how it turned out in the long run. I suspect not well. But in the course of covering their struggle I had a conversation with a Methodist minister, which convinced me of a truth about America that is having an earth shaking impact, and yet is oddly unnoticed in the media.

We are trying to measure everything in terms of money, and that is undermining our success.

The minister put it this way. “For the local man who owned the plant, it was more than just a business. When he rode to work he saw the school his children attended, the creek where he fished. The steeple of his church was above the shops downtown, where he watched the Fourth of July parade. So when the steel business was not so good, he would think of these things, and hold on. He kept the plant open because while it was his livelihood, it was also the centerpiece of his life.”

The new corporation? “Most of these guys,” the minister said, “have never even been here. This plant is a number on a sheet of paper and that is the only way they can judge it. They don’t see the lives, the families, the community, that have been built on that plant and so they don’t value those things.”

Measuring America by nothing but dollars is like measuring the success of a life purely by how many meals you eat. They are essential, but life is so much more.

Money is important of course. The Beatles were wrong. Love is not all you need. The rent, a good baseball cap, and a high-speed Internet connection are also pretty handy. Most of us like having houses, cars, coffee makers, and kitchen tables. We don’t want to cut our own hair or ink our own tattoos. And if we try, our friends would probably rather we did not.

But money is also not “all you need,” and by allowing the pursuit of material wealth to become so disproportionately powerful, we are neglecting critical investments in other areas. No boss, for example, is ever going to say, “We need to make more money this week, so I need you to stop reading to your children.” What he or she will say, however, is “We’ve got a big project and I need you to stay late.” And the kids go to bed without a story anyway. The family dinner is missed. The dog does not get walked. The friends are not met in the park. The sun sets with no one watching. The man in the moon looks down and sees not dreamers looking back, but only the glowing windows of offices where drones labor on.

So we feel guilty about neglecting our private lives, so we spend too much on things and vacations and entertainment, so we need more money, and the cyclone keeps spinning.

There was a time not so many decades ago, when even the biggest boss hesitated to call a worker after hours except for an emergency, because that employee’s time with his or her family and friends was considered sacrosanct.

Today, every large company has an official policy of encouraging people to enjoy their time off, get involved in community activities, and know that they’ll be supported if they need some days to take care of sick children or aging parents. But in practice, too often those are just words. The Blackberry buzzes, the cell phone rings, and another little piece of the part of life that can’t be measured in dollars is sold for precisely that.

Too many of us are living to work, and not working to live. Maybe that’s good for business, but when our founders wrote of our inalienable rights, as much as they wanted to support growth and trade, the words they chose were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We’re certainly pursuing something at a fever pitch, but I’m not sure it is happiness.

Regards,

Tom

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. M

    Corporate America has managed to create loopholes to circumvent labor laws. They've declared non-managers as managers to get around the 40 hour work week. They've exploited child labor by opening plants in other countries without child labor laws or labor laws in general. They put Americans in a position of having to accept the situation or watch their job go overseas. In the end, we're heading in the direction of Japan where 60 hour work weeks are normal. Sadly, politicians bow to the mighty green back and have done nothing to prevent the rape of the middle class. President Bush sought to expand off-shoring of jobs and use of guest workers while trying to tell Americans it was a good thing. He claimed it would free up Americans to pursue bigger and better things. It worked. Over 8% of Americans are out looking for new jobs. Those of us who have them wonder how long they'll last before their job is shipped to another country. Until then we watch our benefits disappear, effectively taking a pay cut each year while the rich get richer. The middle class and below is the majority and it's time the majority let's the rich minority know their hay day is over and take back America.

    April 14, 2009 at 8:57 am |
  2. Sarah-Seattle, WA

    Indeed a viscious cycle. Consumerism seems to be the major culprit. Greediness is our worst problem in my opinion. Somehow mankind got it in their heads that money and things show the success of a man. Really the most successful man/woman is one who lives honestly, and within their means family or no family.

    April 14, 2009 at 3:02 am |
  3. Stacy

    But in the course of covering their struggle I had a conversation with a Methodist minister, which convinced me of a truth about America that is having an earth shaking impact, and yet is oddly unnoticed in the media.

    I completely agree with your overall thesis, but the above line makes my head explode. Tom, you are a part of the media. It drives me crazy when you guys separate yourselves from your profession, thus separating yourselves from any responsibility. So...where is your coverage of this truth?

    April 13, 2009 at 2:54 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Great points Tom. When I worked I was on call 24 hours 7 days a week with no offtime – I answered calls on Xmas, Thanksgiving, even on my first daughter's wedding day. I got paid well but it didn't even out – while I worked my children grew up without me; while I worked my husband and I forgot how to talk to each other; while I worked I could not do some of the activities that give me pleasure in life. So while it may sound stupid or even silly, when my heredity kicked in with a disabling condition, at first I thought my life was over. But it really was one of the best things to happen to me – I can't work but I'm with my children and can share the last few years of them living at home; my husband and I have re-established communications; and I'm writing and doing needlework again. And guess what – I'm happier. Happier than I've been in a very long time.

    Companies pay a lot of lip service to balancing your work with your personal life but that is all it is – lip service.

    April 13, 2009 at 2:48 pm |
  5. Sandra

    "Too many of us are living to work, and not working to live. Maybe that’s good for business, but when our founders wrote of our inalienable rights, as much as they wanted to support growth and trade, the words they chose were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Very well said. We have lost a part of America that future generations will only read about in history books.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:37 am |
  6. Walker - Michigan

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Felt like i was working solely for the profits of a select few others for many years now.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  7. S.Medina

    GREAT article. I agree with this all the way. THanks Mr. Copper.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  8. James Ratchford

    This writer needs to run for office... I see consistent sensible thought here the likes of which congress could really learn from.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  9. Tori Calvert

    Loved the article. It is true that we are no longer what seems to be a free society because everything ha moved away from us or has been stripped from us. For those who feel that even their dignity has been lost the end result is tragic. We as a nation are beginning to clean up the years of abuse and neglect that the "powers to be" have reaped. They had no thought to what was in the futre or even cared as long as the end result was money and power for themselves. Even the former president is looking for ways to capitalize on his ignorance.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:18 am |
  10. Bella

    As a senior citizen working 50+ hours a week, I commend your piece. However, most of us are working like this to provide only the essentials for ourselves like rent and utilities. In practice in the year 2009, money has to be our number one priority or we will have nothing else.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:15 am |
  11. CathiB

    Great article. SO true, very well written and exactly right.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:15 am |
  12. Joanne Pacicca, Solvay, NY

    We gave the rights and technology to Japan in the manufacturing of steel ...as history illustrates...and now, that as a mistake. Because, the technology of the old is so far outdated that an entire revamping of the system, and taking back the rights, would amount to NAFTA in reverse...sad but true.

    April 13, 2009 at 10:14 am |
  13. RLWellman

    Here's the problem. If you work for a larger company, not a small family run business, you are just a number. The owner(s) just wants the money. He (they) is not concerned how the single worker feels, just the profits that can be made. This is corporate America.
    If you want the boss to care about you, work for a smaller mom and pop company, become part of the family. This will not happen in the large companies.
    What are your priorities? Do you want money or a warm fuzzy feeling?

    April 13, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  14. Michael "C" Lorton Virginia

    You are so right--but then this shouldn't be anything knew. The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have
    bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things. We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul--and it is all measured in "MONEY."

    April 13, 2009 at 9:57 am |
  15. JJ

    The Bible might have some good solutions...or start praying to the West..

    April 13, 2009 at 9:53 am |