A Balancing Act

It’s deep in our DNA to hunt for and then to gather what we need and want. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we sometimes hunt with a little too much force and that we sometimes gather far more than we really need. I know it’s more complicated than this, but some of our human quirks can be understood at least in part by looking at how we are hard-wired. In good times, this kind of understanding is just ‘nice-to-know’…there’s no need for any kind of action on this knowledge. In difficult times, however, this kind of understanding can become ‘critical.’ I believe this is one of those times.

So…if we’re hard-wired for hunting and gathering, what does that have to do with us today? In my estimation, humanity…and particularly American humanity…has had quite a long time to learn the finer points of the hunter-gatherer role, so today there’s a significant sophistication in these tasks. We’ve hunted for bargains on the internet and we’ve gathered our stuff into over-sized houses, spacious walk-in closets and self-storage units. We’ve craved low-priced things so much that we’ve let corporations become disastrously bigger, promising ‘economies of scale’ savings to make what we think we want cheaper. We’ve wanted these things so deeply that we’re so much in debt now that it’ll take our children’s life incomes to pay for all our stuff. And…we’ve wanted it all so much that we’ve been willing to pay anything to keep the financial titans in business so our spending habit can continue. Like Oliver Twist in the famous book and movie, we approach those who keep us dependent, asking for “More, please.”

As Americans, we seem to be okay with the accumulation of things, wealth and power, even to obscene extremes. Some American corporate leaders continue to receive millions of dollars in salaries, benefits and bonuses while American workers who do heroic service in our states, counties and cities are laid off. Some American stockholders will start to see ‘recovery’ in their portfolios while more and more of their neighbors lose their houses in foreclosure through no fault of their own. Many politicians will receive generous donations from the corporations they protect from close scrutiny and careful regulation, guaranteeing continued support for reelection and the accumulation of more power.

Now, you’re probably wondering where this is going. We know this trend toward the accumulation of things and wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people is not sustainable, so when will we decide enough is enough? We hope in our hearts that we’re capable of stepping back from the brink of excess…from the brink of economic suicide…to choose a better life for our children and grandchildren. Friends, the numbers on Wall Street are completely irrelevant, if we aren’t willing to make some fundamental changes in our own hunting and gathering tendencies…and to create some dramatic regulations that may control corporate hunters and gatherers.

We’re not ‘bad’ for wanting to hunt and gather. This natural survival trait is good when it’s not seeking more than we can ever conceivably need AND causing damage to others. Let’s face it…some of our natural tendencies need to be controlled by public oversight. We don’t have the self-control we need to do it on our own. It’s in our DNA…and you can’t fight your DNA! I really wish I could come to a different conclusion…I don’t like this either. What troubles me the most is that we thought we’d already learned this hard lesson. So many safeguards were put in place after the Great Depression. Then…we got this arrogant and misguided notion that we were wise enough to side-step those safeguards for a quick profit. Wrong!

Alan Greenspan was shocked that American financial leaders were capable of making seriously, self-destructive decisions. He thought they’d come back from the brink in time to avert a catastrophe. He thought they’d self-regulate. Greenspan obviously didn’t know about DNA. Our task in leading a public conversation is to do the job of philosophers…to look at the diverse extremes in human behavior, and then to ask how we can guide an inquiring public as they find and choose a healthy balance between these complex extremes for the well-being of all citizens.

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