Cheap And Mean

I have remarked in previous posts about a pet peeve of mine, to wit, the tendency of wealthy athletes to keep a tight grip on their money and rarely give any of it away to worthy causes.  I  noted exceptions to the rule. But I also made mention of Phil Mickelson’s outrage when confronted by the fact that the state in which he lives — California — had the audacity to pass a law requiring the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. He even threatened to move. Heaven forbid that the money should go to things like education, health care, and police and fire protection! That would be a dangerous precedent indeed.

There are exceptions, as I have noted, though they do tend to target causes that are close to the athlete’s heart — such as Ernie Els’ devotion to the cause of autistic children because he has one of his own. There are also those who seem to be able to see beyond their own noses, such as young Rickie Fowler, the golfer who looks like a cartoon character with flat-brimmed golf caps color-coordinated with his entire outfit, which is almost always in a garish colors, such as bright orange. The young man does seem to want to call attention to himself. But he also wants to do good with his money as he did recently at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Ft. Worth, Texas when he pledged $100,000 of his own money for tornado relief in Oklahoma. At the time the announcement was made we were also told that a group of five golfers (who will remain nameless out of a sense of decency) pledged $100.00 for every birdie and $200.00 for every eagle they collectively scored at the tournament.

Two things bother me about this latter “pledge.” To begin with, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Birdies are extremely rare and eagles are as well. This pledge is not unlike a person promising $1,000.00 to a charity predicated on his winning the lottery. These five golfers are playing the odds. The chances are very good this “pledge” will cost them nothing. But even if it did, the dollars they have pledged amount to petty cash. For men in their income bracket this is small change, something they could easily reach into their pockets and peel off without blinking an eye. Why would anyone make such a hollow pledge in the face of genuine human suffering? When there are people in real need so many of those who could help seem to turn the other way and check their bank accounts to make sure it hasn’t been diminished in any way by some foolish gesture they might have made after a couple of martinis. It does give one pause, since one might argue that those who are in a position to help others in need have a responsibility to do so. Indeed, I would argue this, which is why this sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine — as you may have guessed.

Alongside the generous, caring athletes like Fowler there are those who seem to have no conscience whatever and who even seem to be mocking those who genuinely care — in a world where and at a time when we need those who care for others more than ever.

Our Obsession

I knew it was bad; I didn’t know how bad. I am speaking about our obsession with “stuff,” our rampant materialism. We have all heard that 1% of the people in this country control most of the wealth. But a closer look gets even uglier. 80% of the people in this country control only 7% of the wealth. The remaining 73% of the wealth is controlled by the very wealthy and the almost-as-wealthy. The top 1% own 43% of the wealth (Think about that: 1% of the people in this country own nearly half of the wealth. Staggering!). The next 4% own 29% of the wealth. Another 15% own 21%, which leaves 7% for the rest of us. So when we complain about being part of the 99% the vast majority of us are really complaining about being part of the 80% of the people in this country who control a lousy 7% of the wealth.

And the really sobering thought is that the have-nots want more than anything to be just like the haves. Consumer debt in this country has risen an average of 7.5% every year since 1997, almost twice the rate of change in the previous 10 years. Average credit card debt now exceeds $11,000, triple what it was in 1990, and most people carry several credit cards. This adds to a total debt load for Americans of $2.5 trillion. Of this almost $1 trillion is revolving debt, such as credit cards, which is usually considered “bad debt” — i.e., debt that may never be collected and for which there was no collateral “up front.”  The average person under 35 years of age spends 16% more money than he or she earns. And this is doubly disturbing.

Most of us elderly folks had high hopes that the younger generation, the “Gen-Ys” or the millenialists whom we believed are more centered, who care more about others and their planet, were going to clean up the mess we are leaving behind. But this is not the case. Not in the least. Research shows that the millenialists are even more self-absorbed and materialistic than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, “affluenza” as it has been called, is a disease that spreads like a cancer and it is deep in the bones of the young who are not only spending their money faster than they earn it, they dream only of becoming wealthy and famous. As it happens the vast majority of them care very little about other people or about the planet.

And the cost to the planet of our materialism is very high as a moment’s glance will show. It drives us to want larger homes than we need, which waste energy; larger cars and trucks than we need, which leave huge carbon footprints; and to eat more than we should, which takes energy to produce at a time when climate change is threatening weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy and a continuation of the drought that is seriously affecting 65% of this country. We appear to be on a collision course with disaster.

One of my favorite jokes involves an ant colony that foolishly made its home in a sand trap on a golf course. A golfer hits his ball into the trap and after killing all but two of the ants with repeated, wild swings at the ball, one ant turns to the other and says, “we had better get on the ball of we will never make it out of here alive.”

Surely, we can agree that the global situation deserves our immediate and focused attention. We need to get on the ball and start thinking about others and about the planet upon which we depend totally. It might start with cutting up the credit cards; driving more economical vehicles (or using public transportation, car-pooling, or even walking and biking); turning off the TVs and spending time with our families talking and sharing experiences; saving more of our money and spending less; and learning to say “no” not only to our kids but also to our own fancies. Admittedly, this would require a radically altered mind-set and it may be much more difficult than it sounds, but it is a matter of extreme urgency given the fact that the golfer is about to take another swing.