I got mugged on Christmas Eve.
I was in front of my Brooklyn apartment house taking out the trash when a man pulled a gun and told me to empty my pockets. I gave him my money, wallet, and cell phone. But then—remembering something I’d seen in a movie about a hostage negotiator—I begged him to let me keep my medical-insurance card. If I could humanize myself in his perception, I figured, he’d be less likely to kill me.
He accepted my argument about how hard it would be for me to get “care” without it, and handed me back the card. Now it was us two against the establishment, and we made something of a deal: in exchange for his mercy, I wasn’t to report him—even though I had plainly seen his face. I agreed, and he ran off down the street. I foolishly but steadfastly stood by my side of the bargain, however coerced it may have been, for a few hours. As if I could have actually entered into a binding contract at gunpoint.
In the meantime, I posted a note about my strange and frightening experience to the Park Slope Parents list—a rather crunchy Internet community of moms, food co-op members, and other leftie types dedicated to the health and well-being of their families and their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood. It seemed the responsible thing to do, and I suppose I also expected some expression of sympathy and support.
Amazingly, the very first two e-mails I received were from people angry that I had posted the name of the street on which the crime had occurred. Didn’t I realize that this publicity could adversely affect all of our property values? The “sellers’ market” was already difficult enough! With a famous actor reportedly leaving the area for Manhattan, does Brooklyn’s real-estate market need more bad press? And this was before the real-estate crash.
I was stunned. Had it really come to this? Did people care more about the market value of their neighborhood than what was actually taking place within it? Besides, it didn’t even make good business sense to bury the issue. In the long run, an open and honest conversation about crime and how to prevent it should make the neighborhood safer. Property values would go up in the end, not down. So these homeowners were more concerned about the immediate liquidity of their town houses than their long-term asset value—not to mention the actual experience of living in them. And these were among the wealthiest people in New York, who shouldn’t have to be worrying about such things. What had happened to make them behave this way?
Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just a microcosm of the slippery slope upon which so many of us are finding ourselves these days. We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self-interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short-term advantages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another. In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people.
The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people. But by adopting the ethos of this speculative, abstract economic model as our own, we have disabled the mechanisms through which we might address and correct the collapse of the real economy operating alongside it.
Even now, as we attempt to dig ourselves out of a financial mess caused in large part by this very mentality and behavior, we turn to the corporate sphere, its central banks, and shortsighted metrics to gauge our progress back to health. It’s as if we believe we’ll find the answer in the stream of trades and futures on one of the cable-TV finance channels instead of out in the physical world. Our real investment in the fabric of our neighborhoods and our quality of life takes a backseat to asking prices for houses like our own in the newspaper’s misnamed “real estate” section. We look to the Dow Jones average as if it were the one true vital sign of our society’s health, and the exchange rate of our currency as a measure of our wealth as a nation or worth as a people.
This, in turn, only distracts us further from the real-world ideas and activities through which we might actually re-create some value ourselves. Instead of fixing the problem, and reclaiming our ability to generate wealth directly with one another, we seek to prop up institutions whose very purpose remains to usurp this ability from us. We try to repair our economy by bolstering the same institutions that sapped it. In the very best years, corporatism worked by extracting value from the periphery and redirecting it to the center—away from people and toward corporate monopolies. Now, even though that wellspring of prosperity has run dry, wecontinue to dig deeper into the ground for resources to keep the errant system running.
So as our corporations crumble, taking our jobs with them, we bail them out to preserve our prospects for employment—knowing full well that their business models are unsustainable. As banks’ credit schemes fail, we authorize our treasuries to print more money on their behalf, at our own expense and that of our children. We then get to borrow this money back from them, at interest. We know of no other way. Having for too long outsourced our own savings and investing to Wall Street, we are clueless about how to invest in the real world of people and things. We identify with the plight of abstract corporations more than that offlesh-and-blood human beings. We engage with corporations as role models and saviors, while we engage with our fellow humans as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited.
People I respect—my own mentors and teachers—tell me that this is just the way things are. This is the real world of adults—not so very far removed, we must remember, from the days when a neighboring tribe might just wipe you out—killing your men with clubs and taking your women. Be thankful for the civility we’ve got, keep your head down, and try not to think too much about it. These cycles are built into the economy; eventually, the markets will recover and things will get back to normal—and normal isn’t so bad, really, if you look around the world at the wayother people are living. And you shouldn’t even feel so guilty about that—afterall, Google is doing some good things and Bill Gates is giving a lot of money to kids in Africa.
Somehow, though, for many of us, that’s not enough. We are fast approaching a societal norm where we—as nations, organizations, and individuals—engage in behaviors that are destructive to ourown and everyone else’s welfare. The only corporate violations worth punishing anymore are those against the shareholders. The “criminal mind” is now defined as anyone who breaks laws for a reason other than money. The status quo is selfishness, and the toxically wealthy are our new heroes because only they seem capable of fully insulating themselves from the effects of their own actions.
Every day, we negotiate the slope to the best of our ability. Still, we fail to measure up to the people we’d like to be, and succumb to the tilt of the landscape.
Jennifer has lived in the same town in central Minnesota her whole life. This year, diagnosed with a form of lupus, she began purchasing medication through Wal-Mart instead of through Marcus, her local druggist—who also happens to be her neighbor. Prescription drugs aren’t on her health plan, and this is just an economic necessity.
Why can’t the druggist cut his neighbor a break? He’s trying, but he’s selling at a mere hair above cost as it is. He just took out a loan against the business to make expenses and his increased rent. The downtown area he’s located in has been slated for redevelopment, and only corporate chain stores appear to have deep enough pockets to pay for storefront leases. It sounded like a good idea when Marcus supported it at the public hearing—but the description in the pamphlet prepared by the real-estate developer (complete with a section on how to compete more effectively with “big box” stores like Wal-Mart) hasn’t conformed to reality.
Marcus’s landlord doesn’t really have any choice in the matter. He underwent costly renovations to conform to the new downtown building code, and needs to pass those on to the businesses renting from him. He took out a mortgage, too, which is slated to reset in just a couple of months. If he doesn’t collect higher rents, he won’t make payments.
Jennifer stopped going to PTA meetings because she’s embarrassed to look Marcus in the face. As their friendship declines, so does her guilt about helping put him out of business.
Across the country in New Jersey, Carla, a telephone associate for one of the top three HMO plans in the United States, talks to people like Jennifer every day. Carla is paid a salary as well as a monthly bonus based on the number of claims she can “retire” without payment. Without resorting to fraud, Carla is supposed to discourage false claims by making all claims harder to register, in general. That’s how Carla’s supervisor explained it to her when she asked, point blank, if she was supposed to mislead customers. She feels bad about it, but Carla is now the principal bread winner in her family, her husband having lost a lot of his contracting work to the stalled market for new homes. And, in the end, she is preventing fraud. How does Carla sleep at night, knowing that she has spent her day persuading people to pay for services for which they are actually covered? After seeing a commercial on TV, she switched from Ambien to Lunesta.
One of the guys working on that veryad campaign, an old co-worker of mine, ended up specializing in health-care advertising because nobody was hiring in the environmental area back in the ’90s. Besides, he told me, only half kidding, “at least medical advertising puts the consumer in charge of her own health care.” He’s conflicted about pushing drugs on TV because he knows full well that these ads encourage patients to pressure doctors to write prescriptions that go against their better judgment. Still, Tom makes up for any compromise of his values at work with a staunch advocacy of good values at home. He recycles paper, glass, and metal, brought his kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, and even uses acompost heap in the backyard for household waste. Last year, though, he finally broke down and bought an SUV. Why? “Everybody else on the highway is driving them,” he explained. “It’s an automotive arms race.” If he stayed in his Civic, he’d be putting them all at risk. “You see the way those people drive? I’m scared for my family.” As penance, at least until gas prices went up, he began purchasing a few “carbon offsets”—a way of donating money to environmental companies in compensation for one’s own excess carbon emissions.
In a similar balancing act, a self-described “holistic” parent in Manhattan spares her son the risks she associates with vaccinations for childhood diseases. “We still don’t know what’s in them,” shesays, “and if everyone else is vaccinated he won’t catch these things, anyway.”
She understands that the vaccines required for incoming school pupils are really meant to quell epidemics; they are more for the health of the “herd” than for any individual child. She also believes that mandatory vaccinations are more a result of pharmaceutical industry lobbying than any comprehensive medical studies. In order to meet the “philosophical exemption” requirements demanded by the state, she managed to extract a letter from her rabbi. Meanwhile, in an unacknowledged quid pro quo, she installed a phone line in the rabbi’s name in the basement of her town house; he uses the bill to falsify residence records and send his sons to the well-rated public elementary school in her high-rent district instead of the 90 percent minority school in his own. At least he can say he’s kept them in “the public system.”
Incapable of securing a legal or illegal zoning variance of this sort, a college friend of mine, now a state school administrator in Brighton, England, just made what he calls “the hardest decision of my life,” to send his own kids to a private Catholic day school. He doesn’t even particularly want his kids to be indoctrinated into Catholicism, but it’s the only alternative to the eroding government school he can afford. He knows his withdrawal from public education only removes three more “good kids” and one potentially active parent from the system, but doesn’t want his children to be “sacrificed on the altar” of his good intentions.
So it’s not just a case of hip, hypergentrified Brooklynites succumbing to market psychology, but people of all social classes making choices that go against their better judgment because they believe it’s really the only sensible way to act under the circumstances. It’s as if the world itself were tilted, pushing us toward self-interested, short-term decisions, made more in the manner of corporate shareholders than members of a society. The more decisions we make in this way, the more we contribute to the very conditions leading to this awfully sloped landscape. In a dehumanizing and self-denying cycle, we make too many choices that—all things being equal—we’d prefer not to make.
As corporations gain ever more control over our economy, government, and culture, it is only natural for us to blame them for the helplessness we now feel over the direction of our personal and collective destinies. But it is both too easy and utterly futile to point the finger of blame at corporations or the robber barons at their helms—not even those handcuffed CEOs gracing the cover of the business section. Not even mortgage brokers, credit-card executives, or the Fed. This state of affairs isn’t being entirely orchestrated from the top of a glass building by an elite group of bankers and businessmen, however much everyone would like to think so—themselves included. And while the growth of corporations and a preponderance of corporate activity have allowed them to permeate most every aspect of our awareness and activity, these entities are not solely responsible for the predicament in which we have found ourselves.
Rather, it is corporatism itself: a logic we have internalized into our very being, a lens through which we view the world around us, and an ethos with which we justify our behaviors. Making matters worse, we accept its dominance over us as preexisting—as a given circumstance of the human condition. It just is.
But it isn’t.
Excerpted from Life Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2009 by Douglas Rushkoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.