America's Culture of Greed
By Lowell Klessig
American culture has many commendable attributes. Extreme individualism is not one of them.
Individualism was the core of the frontier psyche. The pioneers were, in many ways, self reliant and self-sufficient. At the same time, early Americans were also very conscious of the common good. That consciousness was reinforced by the Civil War, the Great Depression, and WWII. However, in the expansiveness of the late 20th Century, and especially in the last few years, individual rights have trumped responsibility to the group. While every society struggles with balancing individual freedom with the common good, America has lost its balance. Our survival now depends on re-establishing it.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel to 48 countries and to teach in eight of them. A graduate student and I conducted cross cultural research on 28 of those countries. We compared the societies on eleven generic social priorities including "Individual Freedom". Social priorities vary widely among countries and our various analyses did not always yield the same result. However, there is a world wide perception that "Individual Freedom" is excessively high in the United States.
While people of other cultures view our individualism as dangerous, we are proud of it. We are proud of it until it severely damages the common good-like the financial system upon which we all depend. Then we get angry that government, as the defender of the common good, didn't prevent such destructive individual greed.
The Wall Street mess is a logical extension of the unlimited American individualism that we hold so dear. CEOs just pushed the pendulum further off center when they demanded obscene salaries and took wild risks with other people's money while only considering their individual wealth, power and ego. Because of their position, their extreme greed has had a dramatic negative impact on the common good.
CEOs in other cultures act differently. For example in 2005, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the CEO of British Petroleum (BP is the second largest oil company in the world) made a handsome $5.6 million. The CEO of Royal Dutch Shell (the third largest oil company) made a handsome $4.1 million. The CEO of U.S. based Exxon Mobil (largest oil company) collected $69.7 million and the average salary of American oil companies was $33 million. That discrepancy represents a huge cultural difference between the US and Europe.
The comparison with Japan is even more astonishing. American CEOs have been earning about 400 times the average earnings of their employees in recent years. In other words the CEO earns more every day than the employee earns in a year. Japanese CEOs earn only 11 times what their employees earn.
No one who has traveled extensively would argue that European and Japanese CEOs are less competent than American CEOs. The difference lies not in intelligence or training or experience; it lies in the ethics of their respective cultures-the balance between individual rights and the common good.
The candidates in this election differ regarding the appropriate balance between individualism and the common good. One candidate (McCain) recognizes the need to put "Country First" but then typically begins his sentences with "I" to focus on his personal story as a war hero and maverick politician. The other candidate (Obama) talks very little about himself while focusing on "we", our moment in history, and our common future. Then McCain chooses to partner up with Palin from Alaska--America's last frontier of rugged individualism and self reliance. Palin has the strongest orientation toward individualism of any national candidate in my lifetime-stronger even than Barry Goldwater whom I supported in 1964. She can even gut a moose by herself.
None of these candidates condones the excesses that have become commonplace on Wall Street. However, McCain and Palin can not shed their Republican affiliation and its bias toward excessive individualism, e.g. deregulation of the banking system. They are saddled to the same cultural curse that is causing our financial system to crumble-too much "I" and too little "WE".
Note for publisher: The research referenced in the article was published in the Journal of Human Values 5:1 (1999)
Lowell Klessig is Emeritus Professor of Integrated Resource Management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. In addition to articles in professional journals, he has authored numerous Extrension publications in non-technical terms for adult audiences. He served as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program. He has travelled to 48 countries and taught in eight foreign countries. He writes a monthly column for a midwestern weekly newspaper and does occasional magazine features. (A one page bio summary is available electronically upon request.)
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