My friend BTG, the self-proclaimed “old fart” (who is young enough to know better), recently posted a very nice blog wishing his wife a happy birthday. It made me think about birthdays and the way we have come to celebrate them in this country of late. The attached comic (which I will probably get in trouble for using while at the same time I thank “Go Comics” for allowing me to post it) pretty much says it all. But that never stopped me from ruminating on the subject a bit.

Thanks to "Go Comics"

“For Better Or For Worse”

The notion that a person should receive a present — or multiple presents– for a birthday is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The one who should receive the present is the mother of that person. After all, she was the one who endured the pain and agony of delivering the child into the world and, in all likelihood, pretty much raised him or her all by herself. As a rule, husbands seem to have so much to do that takes them away from the raising of children, causing them later in life to regret spending so much time away from their kids. I know that was true in my case. It all seemed so important at the time, whereas I have come to realize that what was important was being with my kids as they grew up and helping my wife turn them into the remarkable young men they are today. In any event, the kids should give their mothers presents. After the kids grow up the presents should stop — along with counting the years!

And as far as parties go — as the comic suggests — it has gotten out of hand. In fact, my wife and I refuse to participate in the orgy of parties that have become a contest among families; we simply send the grandchildren their presents and leave it at that. We love our grandchildren, but are convinced the whole spectacle of parties has gotten way out of hand, with hired clowns and princesses escalating their way to bigger is better. The giving of presents and the hosting of parties simply expands the whole materialistic ethos that permeates this country and has in large measure brought us to our present impasse where money and “things” have become the idol worshipped in nearly every house in this land.

Many of us have come to realize that the way we celebrate Christmas is all wrong. Perhaps it is time to turn our attention to birthdays. Let us embrace our loved ones and tell them we are happy to have had them with us for another year. Or perhaps post a blog telling them how much we love them and take them out for a nice dinner. But let’s let is go at that. It should be about love and the delight we have in knowing those we love are still with us. It shouldn’t be about giving someone a scarf or a ball point pen and getting caught up in the competition of throwing a bigger party than the Smiths did last year. And don’t get me started about all those “holidays” Hallmark has invented to sell their cards!

The Kid As King

I have taken a break from reading history and turned to a popular book by two behavioral psychologists, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Their book is The Narcissism Epidemic and, allowing for hyperbole, the title says it all. Apparently I understated the problem in my blogs about self-esteem and the movement in the schools that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. According to our authors this movement has moved out of the schools and has blossomed into narcissism which is a cultural phenomenon of epidemic proportions. To quote the authors at some length, we are told that:

The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.

As the authors are at pains to point out, this has all resulted from our preoccupation with ourselves and our mania to promote “self-esteem” not only in our schools, where it may have its roots, but also in our culture at large. And as I have mentioned in previous blogs, the problem is not that people are told that they are great; the problem is that people that are not great are told that they are. In other words, narcissism, as defined by Twenge and Campbell, is built on a lie. Praise when deserved helps build genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Undeserved praise builds a false sense of self-esteem which quickly translates into preoccupation with self, conceit, over-confidence, and the inability to establish emotional connections with others. It also results in a sense of entitlement and grade inflation in our high schools and colleges. It even leads to violence, according to the authors. As they say, “The long-term consequences are destructive to society.”

The narcissistic personality, which is becoming commonplace, lives in a make-believe world where he or she is the only thing that matters: narcissism is a flight from reality that can become violent when the person is forced to see things as they really are. As the authors point out: “In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” Again, the problem is undeserved praise and adulation. It is essentially false, and that’s the core of the problem — for a culture that prides itself on its honesty.

We want our kids to be confident and self-assured. But heaping undeserved praise on them is obviously not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that it is actually counter-productive. As our authors tell us, “Self-esteem boosting [in a number of tests cited] led to failure, not success.”  And if our two authors are correct, the narcissism that stems from unwarranted self-esteem has serious consequences indeed as the kids grow into adulthood. The solution to the problem is better parenting coupled with the elimination of the self-esteem nonsense at home and in the schools. We need to be honest with kids, praise them when they deserve praise and never hesitate to engage in constructive criticism when it is called for. It really isn’t rocket science: it’s just plain common sense. Our grandparents knew all about it long ago.

My take on it is that this movement started in this country in the late 1960s with the “I’m OK, You’re OK” movement and the attendant cultural strictures against being “judgmental.” The notion that we shouldn’t judge one another, that everyone is fine just as they are, rests on the assumption that there is no room for improvement — which is absurd on its face. Studies have shown that self-esteem comes after genuine accomplishments; when it is based on empty lies it is easily deflated, leading to disappointment, frustration, and even (as noted) violence.

There are important differences between negative and positive, constructive criticism. The idea that we should not judge one another rules out the critical observations about our own and others’ behavior that is in need of correction. None of us is perfect and we all have room for improvement. But not for the narcissist: in his or her world things are hunky-dory and everyone is perfect just as they are. Even the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

What’s It Worth?

A man sits next to an attractive women at a bar and offers to buy her a drink. She accepts with a smile and while they’re waiting for the drinks they start chatting. At one point he asks her if she would sleep with him for $5,000.00 and she laughs and says she probably would. After the drinks arrive and they have had a few sips he asks her is she would sleep with him for $1,000.00. After a pause she smiles and says “probably I would, after a drink or two.” He than asks if she would sleep with him for $500.00 and she responds angrily: “Of course not, what do you take me for, a whore?” He quietly responds: “We’ve already established what you are. I am just trying to determine what your price is.”

A joke, to be sure. But it reflects the fact that in this country, as the popular movies tell us, “everything has its price.” In fact Nicholas Kristof has recently written a review of a book in the New York Times that develops this idea  in an interesting way. Everything in our culture, increasingly, does seem to have a price. As Kristof notes, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, . . . argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

Kristof notes the bizarre case of a woman in Utah who agreed to have the logo of an online casino tattooed on her forehead for $10,000 in order to have enough money to send her son to college. The U.S. sells visas for half a million dollars to would-be immigrants. Massachusetts recently considered selling the naming rights to its state parks to corporations. And we don’t need Kristof to tell us that schools and school buses have corporate logos prominently displayed and the school halls are filled with machines dispensing unhealthy foods; TVs broadcast news, complete with commercial messages, to the classrooms.  And we all know ball parks, athletic fields, and civic arenas now bear the names of corporations as well. Athletes sell out to the highest bidder and coaches regularly jump contracts for a better deal — and they are widely applauded: “who wouldn’t?” Kids leave college and “turn pro” for millions of dollars, thereby undermining their future prospects. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of things that have a price tag — including our integrity. And that’s the point. Kristof and Sandel wonder if there are limits, as do I.

We moan about the economic problem in this country, and well we should. The infamous 1% of the obscenely wealthy (who number among themselves virtually all of the members of the Senate and most of the members of the House of Representatives) now control 40% of the wealth in this country — more than the lower 90% put together. In effect, they own the country. The remaining 9% aspire to become part of the 1%. The country, as Joseph Stiglitz has been saying for years, has become radically split between the very wealthy and the growing number of poor and it increasingly resembles a third-world country — while a number of those countries, ironically, struggle for greater economic equality. We worry aloud about the national debt, the number of people unemployed, the homeless, the undernourished, and the rising costs of the things we need; we might do better to ponder the real economic problems in this country.

They are twofold: (1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and (2) our increasing willingness to sacrifice morals for money. As our preoccupation with money grows — perhaps as a consequence of the disparity mentioned in point #1 —  our sense of morality wanes. As Kristof asks, quoting his source, Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? The obscenely rich want to keep it that way — in the name of “free markets,” or more accurately “market fundamentalism.”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality. It has been called “market fundamentalism,” which is . . . the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

Call it “systemic inequality,” or “market fundamentalism,” or “free markets.” By any name it is a crass materialism that puts a price on everything under the sun. Indeed, I would argue that this is not only the major economic problem in our country; it is a serious moral problem as well.