THE BLOG
12/17/2008 01:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Cuitural Ethos Flops Again

As our economic depression deepens, maybe it's time to reconsider the wisdom of basing our national ethos on acquisition and greed. The Madoff fiasco suggests that better banking regulations aren't enough. We need to overhaul our deepest assumptions, our most ingrained ways of looking at the world.

What kind of idiot, for example, would place the welfare of an entire economy in the hands of the nation's greediest members? How can we call our system 'the greatest in the world' when we pay our most valuable members--those who provide our food, clothing, shelter, and education--the least, while our least valuable members--those who make their living by lying, cheating, and swindling--are paid the most? How can we call ourselves a viable human society when we give the greatest rewards to those executives who endanger workers, poison consumers, throw people out of work, deface, disfigure, despoil and degrade our environment? How can we call ourselves a viable human society when, for much of the population--even those with health insurance--getting a serious illness means becoming homeless? How can we call ourselves a viable human society when the 'employee of the year' is likely to be someone who found ways to cheat customers out of their legitimate insurance claims, or someone who conned the most customers into taking out mortgages they couldn't afford--hiding the balloon payments or falsifying income figures? Or perhaps someone who found new ways to addict pre-teens to cigarettes or alcohol? Or someone who fudged a drug study so the side effects would be hidden from the public? Or someone who developed a new weapon that would maximize civilian deaths and the maiming of children? Why are those who work to kill, impoverish, or degrade human beings given bonuses, while farm-workers, clothing workers, and teachers have to struggle to get by?

How can a society long survive when killing is considered more important than nurturing? Lying more valued than truth? Taking more valued than giving? Luxury more valued than necessity?

Yet we can't just blame the greediest few. Most Americans collude in this great orgy of acquisition. Our entire cultural ethos is based on the delusion that owning another hunk of future landfill will make you happy, make people love and admire you. "A car (suit, shoes, house, boat, plane) says who you are," the media shout at us. What a pathetic human being you would have to be to believe this! If your clothes say who you are, you're a manikin.

This hoax has led to great unhappiness. A dweeb buys a Porsche. Still a dweeb. He buys a mansion. Still a dweeb. He buys a jet. Still a dweeb. Where do you go from here, Mr. Dweeb? If you buy your dream car and your dream house and you still aren't happy, what do you do now? Buy a giant screen TV? And when you see poor people having fun it really makes you mad, doesn't it? Send them back to Mexico and build a fence, you say.

In my experience, the only people who seem happy are those doing something useful, and/or doing work that gives pleasure to others. They don't need to boast about their wealth, possessions, or victories because they know they have intrinsic value. If you have to display a price tag to demonstrate your worth, you aren't worth anything.