Lesson Of The Debt Debate: We’re All Selfish Bastards

by Bill Brenner on August 3, 2011

Those of us with addictive personalities are selfish. You could say we’re the most self-centered people on the planet. It’s ALL about us. But I’m starting to realize we’re not the only ones who fail to consider the greater good.

Mood music:

I got to thinking about this stuff after reading the latest post in the “For Attribution” blog written by my friends Meredith Warren and Fred Van Magness. The post was about the vote to raise the debt ceiling, but what caught my attention most was this observation:

Wanting to watch the debt ceiling vote live last night without too much commentary from the talking heads, we tuned in to C-SPAN’s streaming online video about 10 minutes before votes were cast.

If you are familiar with C-SPAN’s coverage, you know that they fill time before major votes and press conferences taking calls from average voters from around the country.

These days, there are three different lines available – Democrat, Republican and Independent.

Sadly, based on what we heard, C-SPAN really only needed one line – Entitled.

A majority of callers – from all three lines – stated that their main concern about the debt ceiling debacle was that they wanted to make sure they received their “check,” whether it was Social Security or disability or something else. Very few called to say they were concerned about our country as a whole, or the future generations who would be paying the bill for those checks and all of the other debt that is continuing to grow by the second. 

What bothers us – and what the debt ceiling debate has laid bare to – is the way so many in America feel they are “entitled” to be taken care of by someone else. For some, it’s their government check. For others, it’s a re-election unmarred by a second debt ceiling debate (we’re looking at you, President Obama) and a way to go on summer vacation without having a thorny issue hanging over their heads.

For the most part, I agree with this. But it’s important to look at how this happened. The answers have more to do with human nature than political ideology.

I have a habit of comparing my grandparents’ generation to ours in this case. Living through the Great Depression and WW II had an impact. During the war, EVERYONE was called on to make sacrifices.

Fast-forward to the present. In the last decade we’ve fought two major wars, but our leaders have not asked for sacrifices at home. We’ve been encouraged to be selfish — spending money and enjoying our creature comforts. In this atmosphere, it’s hard to think past our own selfish interests.

Am I oversimplifying things? Probably. People like me would be selfish regardless of the sacrifices society may or may not make as a whole.

That selfishness usually leads us to do stupid things that make us feel shame. In the midst of that shame, we lie. That sort of behavior can overwhelm us, no matter how much we want to be better people.

When we’re at our worst, politics have nothing to to with it.

In my recovery from mental illness and addiction, I’ve grown somewhat more apathetic about government and politics. Maybe apathy is the wrong word, because I still pay close attention to the debates and the platforms, and I always vote. To prove how conflicted my mind can be, I vote for Democrats and Republicans every time. I guess that makes me an Independent.

But I’ve learned that the best change we can have is the change within ourselves. A friend I used to work with had a screensaver that said “Be the change.” I always loved that saying. We have little control over what happens in Washington. We vote for change all the time, then, when the new guys come in, we see all the same bullshit we got sick of when the old guys were in charge.

Look at the last two elections. We voted for change in 2008. Then our selfish sides kicked in and we voted for the other guys in 2010 because that change wasn’t coming fast enough. What we got was this messy debate about the debt and a deal to raise the debt ceiling that will prove fruitless. Why? Because it’s like the rest of the legislation you get in a selfish society: No one is asked to make sacrifices to bring in the revenue needed to pay down the debt. That’s our fault, because we tell our leaders to fix the problems, but to keep the filthy sausage making off our front lawn.

Because we’re selfish bastards. All of us.

And yet I still have hope. I see people changing themselves all the time. Addicts clean up. People with mental illness get help. Not everyone, of course. But the changes I’ve witnessed in people are golden.

When you decide to change yourself, something wonderful happens: You meet other people who have gone from shattered lives to rebirth.

And when you go through that kind of change, you become a lot more helpful to society.

Still selfish? Perhaps. But we try to break the cycle through more acts of selflessness, like community service.

Inch by inch, we become a little less selfish. And when you’re in a room full of people like us, you’ll find Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists and those who would be perfectly fine with no government at all.

But we don’t really talk about that stuff. Because we’ve found that it doesn’t really matter when we’re spending so much time trying to make ourselves a little better than we were.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rob Eads August 3, 2011 at 8:06 am

On a related note, this week’s radio episode of NPR’s “This American Life” is titled “When Patents Attack.” After listening to the podcast, I became EXTREMELY discouraged about what we’ve become as a nation.

We are no longer the best and the brightest when it comes to small businesses creating innovative products. There are WAY too many people only interested in thwarting creativity in the name of various copyright or patent licensing rights for the sole purpose of shaking down small businesses with expensive (and dare I say, frivolous) lawsuits. They know small business owner don’t have the capital to fight an expensive lawsuit, so the goal is to settle financially.

Legal. Probably.
Ethical? Not to me.

Land of the Greed. Home of the depraved. That’s what we’ve become.

My grandparent’s generation was know as The Greatest Generation. It sickens me to think what historians will call today’s generation.

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