American Values And The Financial Meltdown

Greed? Duplicity? Delusion? Denial? American values?

American or not, if we’ve learned anything from our financial meltdown, it’s that these were the “values” that guided those really smart folks on Wall Street.

Salt away as much money as humanly possible in the shortest possible time using whatever tools it takes to make you rich but keep you out of the slammer. Make loans but doubletalk your borrowers into misunderstanding their payback terms. Persuade yourself that no day of reckoning will ever come. Be confident you’re just living out the American Dream. And, if things go wrong, ask the government for a bailout.

And how about the rest of us? We, of course, lived scrupulously by what politicians keep telling us are the real American values. Help your neighbor. Contribute your time and energy to making your community better. Don’t define yourself by how much money you make. Don’t spend what you don’t have. Don’t borrow what you can’t repay. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Reward hard work. Run from instant gratification. And – yes, honor those who teach our children, provide nursing and medical care for the sick and the old, minister to those with mental health problems, and keep the arts alive in our communities.

Were those the values that guided us?

The answer is “yes” and “no.”

As in past years, 2008 was a year that again saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They found hundreds of unique ways to help the least of us. They championed causes that made us proud to be Americans. They gave unstintingly of their time, their strength and their money to improve the lives of their neighbors. That’s the “yes” part.

But was it not these very same people who watched Brittany Spears take home $737,000 a month while the teachers of their children were earning less than $45,000 a year?

Was it not these very same people who used their maxed-out credit cards to help finance a deal with the new Yankees first baseman, Mark Teixeira, that will bring him $22.5 million a year for eight years, while registered nurses earned $38,792?  

Was it not these very same people who assented to paying the average senior social worker $39,000 a year, but thought it was OK for Disney’s 15-year-old Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus to rake in $25 million?  

Was it not these very same people who flocked to watch basketball superstar LeBron James take home more than $27 million while elementary and high school teachers pocketed under $45,000?

An online acquaintance of mine, Walter Brasch, a contributor to The Public Record and journalism professor, recently wrote a piece in which he noted that “America pays major league professional athletes far more than even the most efficient long-term factory worker.”

He went on to point out that, “for the National Football League the minimum wage is $225,000 a year; for Major League Baseball, it’s $390,000; for the National Basketball Association, it’s $442,000. Almost every athlete earns far more than the minimum, with most earning seven-figure incomes, plus endorsements worth another 6- or 7-figure income. Leading all athletes is Tiger Woods, whose team of accountants and business managers had to figure out where to put his $128 million earned in 2008.”

Walt also pointed out that “although about 70 percent of the 120,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild make less than $5,000 a year, A-list movie stars command at least $10 million a picture. Their worth is based not upon acting ability but upon their B.O.–box office, that is. Prime-time network TV stars grab at least $2 million a year. Charlie Sheen leads the list, with a salary of about $825,000 for each 30-minute episode, about $19 million for the 2008 season, according to TV Guide.”

And, finally, Brasch had some not-so-kind words for “Super models, whose main talent is to be anorexic and have high cheekbones.” These folks, he wrote, “are pulling in million dollar salaries, with Giselle Bundchen netting a very gross $33 million this year…well above the average annual salary of teachers, firefighters, and police officers.”

Well, that’s the “no” part, the part that should make us all question what  American values really are.

Most of us live overstressed lives and enjoy relaxing with music, sports, even the mindless mischief of Paris Hilton. But is this really what we mean by The American Dream?

Our answer will tell us a lot about our priorities. Given the state of our economy, many of us may soon have to make a tough choice. We can slide further into debt by using our credit cards to get tickets to Springsteen or Teixeira or Hannah Montana. Or we can save so that we can pay our taxes and insist that our politicians appropriate living wages for our teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses and social workers.

Americans have always wanted to do both. We wanted it all. But with our economy likely to get a lot worse before it gets any better, having it all may no longer be an option.

President-elect Barack Obama appears to be aware of this schizophrenia in American values. His admonition, “If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all.”

We need to start asking.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now writes on a wide-range of issues, from human rights to foreign affairs, for numerous newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher and can be reached at     

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