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.
Tom Foreman | Bio
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.
Find more of the Foreman Letters here.
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