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About this time three years ago, I stood on a Brooklyn street corner and looked around me. The hour was mid-morning, on a Tuesday. President Obama had taken the oath of office for a second time three months before. We were four and a half years into the Great Recession. Dust bowl days it was certainly not.
Most people around me were employed, fed, housed, and clothed. No one was drunk, passed out, or in need of medical attention. No one was brandishing a weapon. No one was screaming at anyone else. The streets were even clean.
One lone woman was clearly under some duress. She was pushing a shopping cart loaded down with bags of cans and bottles to be recycled for cash. A full night’s work, perhaps, rummaging through trash bins. She looked like she could use a nap.
A snap shot, yes. One single urban neighborhood, yes. But, emaciated, downtrodden, desperate, and without hope or options, these people were not. Thank you President Obama and steady hands at the Federal Reserve. And thank you to those few public officials and many stressed entrepreneurs who put the public good above personal gain. Thank you, thank you.
We are now three years on, seven and a half years into and nearly beyond the Great Recession. People are driving new cars. Parking lots at malls and restaurants are jammed. The savings rate is up. Consumer debt is down. And more people have health insurance than ever before. Is everybody happy? No, definitely not.
We are of two minds, we Americans. We are both out for ourselves at everyone else’s expense. And, in times of crisis, we are heroically and self-sacrificingly for the common good. Let no puppy whine, no baby cry, and no elderly person go without a helping hand. And yet, grab that parking space before anyone else does. It’s a total contradiction. So odd. So very odd.
Some would say competition is what makes us great, striving all out to beat and drive out of business the other guy. Others, myself included, would say no, its cooperation, teamwork, willingness to put the goal of bettering the common good above personal gain that makes us not only great, but respected and admired. The difference is in how narrow or wide one considers the end goal, profit for one’s self and a few investors and teammates, or profit for everyone.
No one will buy into the profit for everyone vision if individuals do not feel gain from effort invested. Feeling one’s self work harder and risk more, yet fall farther and farther behind those around you does not create happiness or contentment. It breeds resentment, resentment toward anyone and everyone we can blame, including our neighbors, our spouse, our kids, and the dog at our feet.
It’s time to renegotiate. It’s time to say, “Look, this is not working. It’s unfair. It’s unhealthy. It’s debilitating. It’s not in my best interest. It’s not even in your best interest. I need a better deal. Either I get it from you, or I go elsewhere.”
And it may be that individual agency is not going to work for you either, or for most of us. It may be that it’s time to renew membership in a union again, or participate in local government, someplace where your voice gets amplified to significance in quest for a common good that actually feels good, or at least feels better than this.
Think about it. Having your individual voice and efforts matter as part of teamwork is what made us great. Teamwork can make us feel great again. Speak up. Go team.
And no, I do not mean join a gang or cabal intent on profit at other people’s expense. Nor do I suggest falling in behind some loud mouth supposed leader who promises the world for you if you only do his or her bidding. An admirable team or government is one that builds value and utility for everyone, everyone on the team and everyone off the team, not for just a few so called “elite” or “chosen few”.
Have fun. Make fun for everyone. Speak up. And, go team.
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013