“Throughout American history, there have always been writers who looked at the vulgarities of business life and urged their readers to renounce commerce, material striving, and that bitch goddess success. But most Americans rejected that advice, concluding that commerce, for all its obvious flaws, is the instigator that electrifies and propels. A business culture is a dynamic culture. Enterprise calls forth a vitality that is the antidote to stagnation, enervation, and mediocrity. It demands certain skills and disciplines, it forces people to pay attention to others’ needs, to face reality, and to avoid retreating into the realm of self-indulgence.”
—David Brooks, On Paradise Drive
Welcome to 2015.
Another year of people making resolutions, politicians making promises, and governments making money. Another year of people breaking resolutions, politicians breaking promises, and governments breaking money.
This year thousands of journalists will be paid to chant doom and gloom, to churn out headlines blaming a political enemy for ruining the world, or at least our country. This should not be news to us.
All this is but the latest contribution to a long, proud tradition. As the wise Stephen Covey once said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” There will always be a few Americans who will look at a free economy and choose to see only strife, vulgarity, and demeaning slave labor. But their choice not to see the dynamic culture of collaboration, or the progress from self-indulgence to serving others, is more a reflection of their closed eyelids than of twenty-first-century America.
In 1888, James Russell Lowell observed, “Our ancestors sought a new country. What they found was a new condition of mind.” Whether it was the adventure of economic opportunity on three million square miles of land, or the promise of religious liberty three thousand miles away from Europe, this entrepreneurial mind-set was slowly formed and strengthened over centuries of new discovery. It continues to manifest itself in:
- annual declarations like “2015: The Year of More” on popular blogs called “I Will Teach You to Be Rich”;
- bursts of factory production to meet consumer demand, as in the last decade of the nineteenth century, when American piano manufacturing increased tenfold; and
- sometimes, the simple words of an entrepreneur like Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who says the most patriotic thing you can do is:
“Bust your ass and get rich. Make a boatload of money. Pay your taxes. Lots of taxes. Hire people. Train people. Pay people. Spend money on rent, equipment, services. Pay more taxes. I don’t care what anyone says. Being rich is a good thing.”
My guess is you haven’t heard such a bald-faced expression of this emotion in a while. It’s not the politically correct thing to say or promote. We think it’s more polite for the “1%” to sit down and shut up, while the rest of us protest and debate and legislate. But by not admitting our unconscious and/or God-given desires to succeed, excel, and be compensated well, we’ve managed to swing dangerously far in the other direction.
In a society where every other citizen is $16,000 in debt, it seems ironic or disturbing that you can now get a Poverty Studies minor at more universities than you can get a BBA.
I mean, sure, there are issues of distributive justice wrapped up in the fact that hard-working (but starving) sub-Saharan Africans have to fight for access to micro-finance loans of $475, while a lazy and plump American can rock a FICO credit score of 580 to the grave . . . with a subprime mortgage, subsidized housing, and sympathy credit line at J.C. Penney to boot (oh, and don’t forget Medicaid). But a generation that exclusively studies these ethical quandaries without also learning concrete job skills is set to become trapped in the same cycle of poverty they’re studying.
Like it or not, we live in America. We’re literally the best nation on earth. Proof: we win the World Series every year. We’re the land of the free and the home of the brave–where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.
We have enough freedom to go to McDonald’s for breakfast, the country club for lunch, and the organic, fair-trade, make-it-yourself outdoor café for dinner. We have enough opportunity for a political refugee to become a senator, a poor black teen to become a world-famous neurosurgeon, and a multicultural orphan to become a white president. We have enough prosperity to construct poorly designed social safety nets . . . every other decade. We have the most vibrant civil society in the world—have you never sat down and just listened to people chatter at a Barnes & Noble in Washington, D.C.?
In conclusion, I have high hopes for a unique version of the American Dream. I agree with Mark Cuban that you should be patriotic and go out there and get rich. But I also hope, again in the words of David Brooks, that “prosperity will be joined with virtue, materialism with idealism, achievement with equality, success with love.”
Happy New Year.