The significant response to my last column, The Zero Sum Society, didn’t surprise me, but the number of positive comments did.
Along with the usual wingnut name calling, an astounding number of readers seem to understand the Zero Sum Society, at least as I define it. Most readers suggested various paths to change, including prayer, which I actually do fairly frequently. Others suggested solutions as varied and unlikely as taxing the rich and asking me to run for office (even more unlikely). So, rather than respond to the wingnuts, this month I will tap into whatever creaky optimism I have left, and perhaps suggest some way out of the morass.
Read: The Zero Sum Society
To reverse this zero sum mentality, the first thing that we have to do is stop the self-delusions. The first, most pernicious self-delusion is that we have to save our great grandchildren’s future. We are constantly bombarded by the “fact” that we are overspending on social programs, which jeopardizes the wonderful future that our great grandchildren so richly deserve. Let’s get this straight, no one deserves anything. Every generation must earn its place. Someone much smarter than me once said, “Don’t handicap your kids by making their lives easy.” Since the end of WWII, we have spoiled our children with an easy life. The greed and self-centeredness that we see today is that handicap.
We must look at what is jeopardizing the entire country and the children and grandchildren who are already here. Lest you forget, our children include the children of our neighbors. It is estimated that at least 16 million of them are “food insecure,” which means they “live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.” This is according to a 2011 USDA report, which is pretty reflective of the number of children living in poverty. Also, about five million seniors going hungry as well. All told, one-in-six Americans (about 50 million) go to bed hungry every night. Perhaps we should focus on the children of today, and make them strong, healthy, and well educated. What we do to and for them will have the greatest repercussions upon the future children we seem so worried about.
Currently, almost 25% of adults are either underemployed or unemployed in this country; this works out to more than 20 million people. Why aren’t we worried about these people? Many are parents trying desperately to raise today’s children; many are taking care of their parents. What is it that leaves us unconcerned for these people? Are we simply going to leap into the future without some consequences for ignoring them? Do we hope they’ll migrate to Canada? Leap into non-existent jobs? Work into their 80s at a minimum wage position?
We might as well address this job thing. Our jobs today, and thus the wealth of tomorrow, are entirely dependent on the wonderful infrastructure of this country. You know about the infrastructure, the one that is crumbling beneath our feet? Included in this mess is an educational infrastructure that produces young adults who can’t read books or a tape measure, and don’t know why they aren’t entitled to a paycheck unless they actually show up for work. These are the infrastructure pieces that we cannot support because we have to make sure the children of the future are not saddled with our debt.
That’s the kind of society that today’s zero sum thinking will bring us to, a society that comes from a perfect storm of the rationalist, trickle-down economic philosophy of folks like Milton Friedman; a breakdown of past values, such as sharing, self-sacrifice, and nationhood; and a pernicious fascination with Ayn Rand — the most damaging writer of the past century. Rand’s writing spawned an entire generation that reveled in the rationalization of selfishness and self-centeredness; a generation who then pulled her atheistic pabulum from a waste bin of bad fiction (where it rightfully belongs) to the White House.
When greed, self-centered egoism, and zero sum behavior are rationalized as good for society, how can we possibly fix it? How do we begin the path back to a sensible, decent society where children are placed first, everyone’s children? A society in which the middle class is cultivated, because the best way to raise aspirational children en masse is through middle class values. A society where the elderly are respected and their contributions treasured. A society in which the wealthy pick up their part of the burden because they realize that, while they have created success and wealth through their efforts, it has been with the assistance of taxes for roads, a judicial system, a military, an educational institution, etc. The answer is simple; it is service and true service’s corollary, shared pain.
Service to others, to our neighbors, to our country, and to our planet is the ticket to societal stability. Imagine if we were to require that each young person had to put in two years of service before they made their way to Harvard or their local community college? Two years served fighting fires, battling terrorists, building parks, or nursing the elderly. Service and self-sacrifice couldn’t help but reduce the preoccupation with celebrity and easy fame and fortune. It would teach the “haves” of this world to have empathy for the “have nots.” It would provide a dose of how-tough-the-world-is as well as a barometer on how good we have it in this “failed” state. After all, it was service and sacrifice that made the “greatest generation” great. Because, once they survived the trials of WWII, that generation came back and sacrificed more financial pain to keep the Europeans from starving and battled communism through the Marshall Plan. Through our government’s direction, and through their sacrifice, a nation grew economically, militarily, and spiritually into the greatest nation ever.
We are losing this because most of us, save only those in the military, serve only ourselves.
Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., & Carlson, S. (2012). Household Food Security in the United States in 2011.USDA ERS.
Mike Rainone is the co-founder of PCDworks, a technology development firm specializing in breakthrough product innovation. Contact him at email@example.com and visit www.pcdworks.com.