Sometimes life delivers moments of irrefutable insight, shattering fragile illusions like so many soap-bubbles. Remember that post-Katrina telethon where Kanye West said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people"?
There was a great commotion, the President's compassionate conservatism was vigorously asserted, West was condemned for incivility. Now, five years later, take a look at New Orleans—at all of its grassroots creativity and determination and all the official indifference and moral constipation that have transpired—and tell me with a straight face that West was wrong.
David Stockman isn't Kanye West, to be sure, but it's worth giving a little attention to what this Reagan-era Director of the Office of Management and Budget, closely identified with "trickle-down economics," wrote in The New York Times:
It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent. This growing wealth gap is not the market’s fault. It’s the decaying fruit of bad economic policy.
The day of national reckoning has arrived.
In recent weeks, a great heap of political detritus has been accumulating: piled atop BP's display of corporate self-regard and ineptitude are new revelations about white-collar predators (such as the Wyly brothers of Dallas, lavish Swift Boat campaign donors, charged with massive security fraud and insider trading); the unconscionably long time Congress took to pass an extension of unemployment benefits (while so many members blithely supported tax cuts for the rich) and the unprecedented numbers who are not helped even by that legislation; the government's absolute failure to pass new job-creation legislation, the President's refusal to even propose it….
The stench is so high, it cannot be ignored. Within the last week, for instance, The New York Times carried these three articles:
- David Stockman's op-ed, in which he said "If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing," and blamed Republican policies for "the serial financial bubbles and Wall Street depredations that have crippled our economy."
- a column by Bob Herbert, more or less Stockman's ideological opposite, describing findings by economics professor Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Sum explains that corporations “threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output. Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.” Herbert's column is well worth reading in its entirety. It explains that corporations' cash position is at an all-time high, and still they are cutting jobs, salaries, and benefits. "Worker productivity has increased dramatically," writes Herbert, "but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong."
- a column by Paul Krugman, citing "growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal," and condemning Congress for "sitting on its hands, with Republicans and conservative Democrats refusing to spend anything to create jobs, and unwilling even to mitigate the suffering of the jobless." "I’d like to imagine," Krugman concludes, "that public outrage will prevent this outcome. But while Americans are indeed angry, their anger is unfocused. And so I worry that our governing elite, which just isn’t all that into the unemployed, will allow the jobs slump to go on and on and on."
When the social fabric becomes tattered from neglect, fragments and threads begin to break off and tumble through the Zeitgeist. The appalled fury that infuses the recent writings of Stockman, Herbert, and Krugman—hardly wild-eyed radicals—is popping up everywhere.
Three times this past week, people I know have made reference to the Buddhist concept of "hungry ghosts." We have an epidemic of people in high places who fit this elegant and succinct description by Mark Epstein, from his book Thoughts Without A Thinker:
The Hungry Ghosts are probably the most vividly drawn metaphors in the Wheel of Life. Phantomlike creatures with withered limbs, grossly bloated bellies, and long thin necks, the Hungry Ghosts in many ways represent a fusion of rage and desire. Tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding of impossible satisfactions, the Hungry Ghosts are searching for gratification for old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed. They are beings who have uncovered a terrible emptiness within themselves, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting something that has already happened.
I think of these men who have more money than needed for a hundred lifetimes—indeed, the scale of whose wealth attests to the fact that their hungers cannot be satisfied by material possessions—and whose desire for more, channeled into business aggression, has obliterated the simple human compassion they would otherwise feel for those who've been made destitute and miserable by their decisions.
But even more than them, I think of the elected officials who do their bidding, promulgating the policies that allow, encourage, and underwrite this drain on the body politic. They are hungry ghosts too, craving the approval of those to whom they have surrendered the power of office.
Many individuals who rise to power in these systems are in possession of formidable drive, talent, and energy. Some switch has been flipped, and the deep desire that accompanies such abilities gets channeled into a type of wanting marinated in surplus aggression: more money, position, the power to dominate others. They may carry tremendous latent capacity to express and experience other types of desire—to be seen and see truly, to be loved for oneself, to experience the satisfactions that only come if one is willing to stand unmasked, risking extreme vulnerability. If they accept that those capacities cannot be expressed in the world they inhabit, everything is channeled into acquisition and dominance until it becomes second nature. And instead of benefiting from the remarkable gifts such individuals could bring to public and private relationship, everyone affected by their actions suffers the consequences of their distortions.
If wealth (or the approval of those who have it) really satisfied these men, they would stop when they had enough to buy whatever they wanted. But without understanding that the source of their appetite is something broken in themselves, some past betrayal or deformity of character fed and bloated by a corporate culture that welcomes and creates hungry ghosts, they will not stop.
With increasing regularity, Facebook friends have been posting links to this starkly profane and obscene (be forewarned) video clip by the late George Carlin called "The American Dream." In the 3-minute clip, Carlin asserts with devastating simplicity that the nation is owned by oligarchs who "want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. That's against their interests."
I know (I was going to write "I believe," but that is too weak to carry the experiential basis of my conviction)—I know that every human being is capable of conscious awareness. I know that it is never too late, never too far, never impossible to choose redemption by turning away from bad acts and investing the same energy in acts that heal the harm you have done. Almost always, I write into that possibility, hoping to contribute in some small way to the awakening that remains possible even for those gripped by terrible distortions of character. But just this minute, I am with Carlin: there really isn't any way around the horror, outrage, and disgust I feel at the spectacle of insatiable wanting now being exposed daily to the American public.
Working on my new book has been engaging me with these questions. From my perch outside the halls of economic and political power, it is clear that something is very wrong, something much more significant than the usual dance of interests and agendas.
But I also think the brokenness is becoming clear to some people within those worlds, who see that the short-term gains redounding to the multinationals and oligarchs cannot go on forever, that ultimately, they will not be immune from the consequences of their own actions. I wrote a few weeks ago about IBM's biennial CEO study, acknowledging in executives' own words that "Most CEOs seriously doubt their ability to cope with rapidly escalating complexity." Meanwhile, righteous anger is bursting through here and there: I recommend a viewing of New York Representative Andrew Weiner's obdurate anger at his fellow officials' prevarication on support for 9/11 responders' healthcare.
Yet the countervailing movement to enlarge liberty and possibility advances. The extension of full civil rights to sexual minorities still has many hurdles to go following yesterday's ruling that California's ban on same-sex marriage violates the Constitution, for example. But the trajectory is clear and—where I depart from Carlin's certainty—I don't think even the people he sees as owners of this nation can stop it.
I will never lose sight of the possibility of redemption, never stop pointing to it with all the energy at my disposal. But right this minute, when things seem to be hardening into a breaking-point as crisp as a dry twig, the most important thing to remember is that there are many, many more people who are not benefiting from this system than those who are, and that it is time to awaken that force for good. There are so many opportunities to take healing action right now. But I want to speak up for baby steps that can really help: for the power of direct human relationship to counter the falsehoods that gush through the media.
What if every day this week, you and I parted the veil of denial and had one entirely real conversation about this with someone new? What if we started by expressing our shock and outrage at the gap between corporate profits and hiring policies? Or Congressional votes on unemployment benefits versus tax cuts?
What if we came out and said that the governing elite's utter indifference to suffering shamed and contaminated all of us? What if we asked our friends or neighbors how that felt to them, what that churned up in their stomachs? What if we asked them to consider what has been broken in the hearts, heads, bodies, and spirits of these men possessed by insatiable hungers, and how they might be stopped from harming others with their brokenness?
What if we dropped the conventional language and inside-baseball that passes for political discourse in the media, and spoke openly of hungry ghosts?
"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people," said Martin Luther King. It feels like we are very close to a breaking-point. Best to repent while there's still time to heal.
I don't think of myself as a patriotic person: I descend from a long line of nomads and immigrants, never quite home. But the truth is, I love the hope of liberty, the promise of democracy, the latent truth that may yet emerge in this country; and when I visit other places, I learn just how American I truly am. Otis Redding's version of this song is inarguably definitive, and you can find it on YouTube. But somehow the exhaustion of Cat Power's version suits the mood: "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)."