The Greediest Generation

Don't they have enough photos of themselves?

Don’t they have enough photos of themselves?

Stuart Lyle.  Introduction by William Astore.

Ah, the Smart Phone generation.  I see my students gazing into them, texting with them, flipping through photos, watching videos, taking photos, you name it.  Smart phones promise to link us together, but they paradoxically encourage selfish and anti-social behavior as well.  People are more atomistic and narcissistic as they stare into their phones, obsessing about their own lives while ignoring the lesser humans around them.  At the same time, they use their phones as masturbatory devices, taking selfies and posting about how great they are at “social” sites like Facebook.  And now we have Smart phones with accelerated links to Amazon to facilitate more consumption, more greed.

It’s easier to be greedy when you see yourself as an elite of a few (or a solitary one), connected to your special circle of “winners,” which allows you to ignore the “losers” around you.  Such (dis)connected elitism feeds greed, a word that our very own Stuart Lyle, a recently retired techno-wizard, is asking you to ponder in this provocative article.  W.J. Astore

The Greediest Generation

By Stuart Lyle

Just how far can greed take us?  Can it solve the misery of poverty?  Is it the key to harnessing the creative energy of young people to mould a society in which everyone prospers?  Can we count on greed “to fill the gaps” in social needs?  Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” has become a hackneyed motto – and target – for those in defense of, and in repulsion from, greed.  But isn’t it true that greed – particularly in the form of putting a price on everything, and making the shortest term calculation on the “return” achieved – has become the very basis of our society?


As a kid, I was implored not to litter, to help – with firm advice from Smokey the Bear – prevent forest fires, to take DDT and other threats to animal lives seriously, to consider “freedom of the press” to be almost second nature, to consider it the job of government to create and maintain parks and public spaces, to – in a nutshell – consider the world around me, the “commons” as an important and valuable part of my life, and the life of society.

I grew up in the shadow of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.”  They fought World War II against unspeakable evil and, rather than coldly considering every cost versus a short-term return, they invested everything they had, many investing their lives, in rebuilding the world, one that they believed would be better, fairer, and full of opportunity for everyone.  And it was… at least for a while.  They built most of the world that we now take for granted: the roads and bridges, the universities, the national parks, etc.

The Greatest Generation may have done incredible things, but they also set the prosperous stage where self-satisfied complacency allowed greed to worm its way into our lives.  It didn’t happen accidently or quickly.  Since the New Deal and before, as carefully and colorfully documented by Kim Phillips-Fein, massive amounts of money and brainpower have gone into undermining not just the government programs that came out of the New Deal, but the very ethos that placed a non-economic value on social goods.

We can see the new calculus of economic rationalism in everything: we have been trained to measure the value of everything with a short-term economic calculation, not longer-term social values.  Why else consider privatizing schools, toll roads, even parking meters?  Why else have parks been increasingly neglected – except in more affluent areas where private donors pitch in?  Why else is it outside the politically acceptable to talk about raising taxes?

We’re really too busy even to ask these questions.  We are busy with important things on our smart phones, like posting pictures of ourselves, or an endless stream of “meaningful” communication snippets in 144 characters or less.  We are really too self-absorbed, and often financially pressed, to give much thought to wonder why the things we buy are so incredibly cheap.  People may complain about the cost of their latest iThing, but the objective reality is that it packs an incredible technological wallop for next to nothing.

It’s not hard to explain the costs when you consider that it is assembled by near slave labor and built with little regard to the environmental impact of the highly polluting silicon processes.  But really, we don’t need to bother ourselves with those rather unpleasant details.  Whereas Marx saw religion as the “opiate of the people,” our insatiable consumerism keeps us well and truly distracted, not only from the distant ravages of globalization, but from more immediate, but nonetheless momentous changes, such as the ongoing loss of liberty and the deterioration of our quality of life.

Rather than sacrificing ourselves for future generations, in our greed we are falling over ourselves to sacrifice future generations for our immediate gratification.  We’ll burn fossil fuels until there are only fumes left, we’ll sell off the rights to just about anything owned by society in the name of “efficiency.”  And we will do it all while we trample on our planet, our neighbors, indeed on anyone or anything that questions our greedy path.

We are a monstrously greedy generation.

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