Do you feel afraid?
I feel afraid. I cannot escape it.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m meek. Maybe I’m not “a man.”
That’s how I feel sometimes.
Because I don’t believe my sole purpose on Earth is to make money. I’m not willing to do whatever it takes to make money.
The caveman part of my brain equates that with not being a provider — aka “a man.”
Perhaps I have the luxury of not focusing on money. I have an apartment. I have food. My needs are met.
And yet, I feel the pressure. Mostly, it’s because I want to retire some day. But it’s also because of the expectation (from myself and, often, society) that I’m supposed to be a provider. If I make enough money, I can provide for someone, something — if I don’t make money, what am I?
We are defined by our economy. It is how we are providers or not providers. It is how we are winners and losers.
I won’t be surprised if you think I’m whining.
“Stop complaining about the rules and play the game. These are the cards you were dealt. Play them.”
To a large extent, I’ve done that. I haven’t retreated from society. I’ve entered the fray.
Because I was lucky enough to be born in the middle class of the Great Plains, I was able to go to college. I got a job that allows me to hold on to solvency when combined with a second job and, admittedly, support from my family. (Let’s be honest, a great family can take you a long way.)
But by certain, widespread definitions of success, I am not successful. I am someone who is not living up to his earning potential.
And what do I have to do to be successful by the rules of our game?
Let’s take a look.
According to a study by the Institute of Policy Studies on CEO pay:
• Four CEOs of financial firms that received some of the largest bailouts in 2008 have reappeared on the top 25 highest-paid lists since the crash.
• Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell got the boot in 2006 after the drug maker’s stock plunged 40 percent. He still jumped out of the escape hatch with a golden parachute worth nearly $200 million.
• Dialysis giant DaVita HealthCare has had to fork over more than $350 million during the past year to settle various fraud cases. Nevertheless, CEO Kent Thiry made the top 25 highest-paid list in 2012 with more than $26 million in total compensation.
Those are individuals who know how to play the game.
But maybe all that is too abstract. Let me try to make it clearer.
Michael Eisner earned $9.54 a second as CEO of Disney. His successor, Robert Iger, also makes regular appearances on the list of the 25 highest-paid CEOs.
Meanwhile, Disney is on the board of the National Restaurant Association, which is leading the opposition to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour.
So, if these rules are valid, we are to believe one man’s work is worth $9.54 per second, while another man’s work isn’t even worth that an hour.
We must enforce those rules, and Disney is apparently doing its part.
Is my dissatisfaction with this game a sign of common envy, or perhaps some form of mental illness, given this competition’s widespread acceptance? I would counter-argue that anyone who does believe the aforementioned equation is just and fair suffers from some sort of grand delusion.
But not even that gets at the core of the rot in our system.
The real grand delusion is that we can continue on this path of consumption. We are to believe that consumption equals progress: It’s growth, which equals money.
But the continuing effort to make more stuff that people will buy depletes our limited natural resources. These items are often not even made to last, because that would hurt demand.
This way of life also wastes a tremendous amount of the precious little time we have on this planet.
That is reality as I see it.
We are humans. We try to justify our actions. We need hope. So we keep believing we are special. We do what we do because we’re smart and won’t mess things up.
But it’s worth noting what well-known biologist Lynn Margulis once told science writer Charles C. Mann: The fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.
Mann wrote in Orion Magazine in 2012:
Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself à la Gause would require a still greater transformation —behavioral plasticity of the highest order — because we would be pushing against biological nature itself. The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, “belly 80 percent full.” Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system. Unfortunately, the mechanism is so slow that eaters frequently perceive satiety only after they have consumed too much — hence the all-too-common condition of feeling bloated or sick from overeating. Japan — actually, the Japanese island of Okinawa — is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.
We have created a game where the goal is to consume too much.
I’m afraid we’re going to end up consuming ourselves.
But I’m not a man amongst men (or a woman amongst women, for that matter). I’m not winning the game. I’m a loser complaining about the rules.