NOTE: A second consecutive flagrant violation of my own 199-word limit, this essay was written long before I started the Itty Bitty Witty blog. Like the previous post on Social Security, this one is as apropos today as it was 2 years ago when I wrote it. For regular readers, you have noticed my lack of writing over the past month. I WILL BE BACK, but I am on a hiatus as I focus on other things in my life for a while. I appreciate your emails inquiring about the blog.
If we Americans have learned anything over the past few years of economic turmoil, it is that lots of people made lots of mistakes that nobody would have thought was possible just a few years ago. Whether these people were bankers, politicians, CEO’s, or just plain folk who bought homes that were beyond their means, there is enough blame to spread around. However, a sad reality that has become quite evident is that everybody wants to pin the blame on somebody else. It is human nature to look for fault in others, and pinning the blame on somebody seems to relieve the rest of us from having to share in the blame. However, I propose that we consider a more grim reality. Americans have become ignorant, complacent, and incompetent at virtually everything we do.
Before you throw out my theory as pessimistic rants, consider more deeply your workplace, the places you shop, and the things you see and hear everyday as you go through life. Evidence of our ignorance, complacency, and incompetence is all around us. We are so ignorant and complacent, in fact, that most of us do not even realize that we are wallowing in dysfunction.
Sure, the failings of borrowers and lenders are at the heart of the financial collapse that just took place, but a more insidious disease has enveloped society as a whole. Most of us are too dumb to know what is going on around us, we are too lazy to do much of anything that does not bring instant gratification, and we stink at what we do for a living. Fortunately, since these qualities are shared by our bosses, peers, friends, and family, we can all get along well enough and avoid feeling like a bunch of bumbling idiots.
This “grim reality,” as I call it, has become evident to me in the 16+ years since I graduated from college. In that time, I have worked for one of the world’s largest public accounting firms, two of the world’s largest food companies, and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of office products. In every case, I worked alongside people with college degrees–many from high-priced, reputable universities. Still, I say without reservation that ignorance, complacency, and incompetence were pervasive in all of these companies. In addition, I have begun to look for signs of dysfunction outside of the companies where I have worked, and it takes no time at all to find it. Again, I implore you to open your eyes and look around you. Ask yourself whether things make sense, and ask yourself whether things will get better or worse over the course of time, based on the trends you see.
Do I consider myself ignorant, complacent, and incompetent? Surely I do, in certain respects, but I also have a sense of self-awareness about it, which gives me peace of mind and hope that I can overcome my own failings and help others to see theirs, as well. Humans are imperfect by nature, but ignorance, complacency, and incompetence are not immutable traits. We all must be accountable for ourselves, and we each must take responsibility for overcoming this scourge so that we and all Americans can once again be proud of ourselves and our ability to make meaningful contributions to the world. For the time being, we have become basket cases waiting for the government to tell us what they will do next to save us from falling into the abyss.
How did we get here? We got here by our own successes. Democracy and free market capitalism gave us a leg up in a world where governments elsewhere were generally more controlling of business and personal freedoms. These competitive strengths in the U.S. economy delivered a long stretch of growing prosperity that only now seems to have crumbled before us. Like the only child who gets everything he wants, so did we seem to get whatever we wanted–new homes, new cars, flat screen TV’s, and iPhones. None of these material possessions brought us happiness, but they did bring us a tremendous amount of debt and a new feeling of being shackled to our jobs for eternity. We got overconfident in ourselves, we lost our motivation to work as hard as we once did (we were already living like fat cats), and we started to figure out that we could get by without having to truly understand the world around us. We could just wing it like everybody else.
How do we get out of this mess, and what happens if we don’t get ourselves out of it? These are simpler questions to answer than one might first think. First, individuals need to demand more of themselves, voters need to take responsibility for what is happening in government, and businesses need to get back to the business of firing those workers who are not pulling their weight. In short, each and every one of us needs to feel a greater sense of accountability for ourselves, our government, and our businesses. We are a society that has gotten used to riding on the coat tails of others, counting on the government to solve our problems, and believing that our success in business would never come under threat from abroad. Harsh as it may sound, we all need to take our knocks in order to have a wake-up call. More individuals need to run out of unemployment benefits and go bankrupt. Local, state, and federal governments need to make more stupid decisions that incite outrage and action by voters, and more businesses need to be allowed to fail. Failure can be a great motivator for those individuals, politicians, and businesses that suffer the consequences of their own actions. Unfortunately, we have become a pass-the-buck society that blames its problems on others and casts those who lose out as victims.
If we do not change our ways, then the downward spiral in America will continue. It is no wonder that foreign competition is ravaging American industries. People in developing countries around the world are working harder than Americans, both in school and at work, and they do not feel the sense of entitlement that we feel. We can hide from this truth for only so long. Government can pump money into the economy to goose the economic indicators and make it look like things are back on track, but such shenanigans miss the point. Americans need to learn some lessons the hard way. We don’t need a bankrupt government to reach out to us with more money it borrowed from delusional investors.