• In 1964, Joe Namath signed a $400,000 contract.  Today, $100 million plus contracts, for second tier sports stars, are commonplace.
  • In 1960, America’s 5 largest companies had, on average, $498 million in profits.  By 2010, that number had grown to $12.2 billion.
  • In 1982 – its first year – the average net worth of Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $285 million.  By 2008: Almost $4 billion.

Wrapping our brains around the true dimensions of this explosion of private wealth is an extraordinarily difficult task.

Equally hard to understand is a similar explosion in the size and reach of the mainstream culture’s propaganda and reality molding machine; the de-centralized but highly coherent set of values-based messages and cultural cues – compete and win, dominate and control – in which we are immersed.

These are the issues I discuss in this blog.

What These Really Big Numbers Mean

Understanding this vast shift in wealth is, at bottom, an order of magnitude problem.  A billion isn’t just bigger than a million.  It’s a lot bigger.  And a trillion is way, way bigger than a billion.

Suppose you had decided to count your money, dollar by dollar, with each dollar counted consuming one second.  Also assume that your the goal was to finish the job just as we reached the year 2000.

If you had $1 million, your count would have to start the morning of December 21, 1999.  If you had $1 billion, you would start in April 1969.  And if you had $1 trillion, your starting point would have been in 29,710 BCE – more than 20,000 years before we humans developed our written first numbering systems.

Going back to the numbers quoted above: In 1960 America’s 5 largest companies would have started to count their profits, on average, in March 1984.  By 2008, however, their counts would have started in March 1614 (two years before Shakespeare’s death).  And the counting time for the Forbes 400 would have been pushed back from January 1991 (in 1982) to June 1875 (in 2008).

Notice, also, the “plight” of our best professional athletes who make a lot of money but who are, we need to remember, employees and not owners or investors.  While they make enormous sums of money their slice of the pie is, in relative terms, chump change – and increasingly so.  While Joe Namath would have started his count around noon on December 27, 1999, today’s $100 million athlete would only be pushed back to October 1996, a graphic reminder of where true economic power lies.

This analysis provides a hard dose of financial reality as we assess conventional change efforts.  Increasingly the nonprofit sector is being asked to fill the void created by the steady erosion of the government’s social safety net.  Yet in contrast with the exponential growth in private wealth, the increase in charitable giving has been tepid –from $55 billion in 1980 to $217 billion in 2010.

Thus, while – in the early 1980s – the net worth of America’s 400 richest people outstripped the accumulated wealth of the entire nonprofit sector by a factor of 5 to 1, this differential had grown to 20 to 1 by 2010.  An always-present fiscal mismatch has turned into a route.

A Comparable Explosion in Mainstream Media and Its Messages

In these same years there has also been comparable, explosive growth in the culture’s propaganda/reality molding machine, driven by two key factors:

  1. The enormous increase in wealth wielded by those with the greatest stake in reinforcing and intensifying our mainstream ways of operating; and
  2. The vast array of technological advances that so greatly expanded the intensity, persistence, and reach of their messages.

To begin to appreciate this seismic growth, compare the 1950s – when I came of age – with today’s world.

Back then there were just a handful of TV stations – which stop broadcasting at midnight – a couple of local newspapers, and a handful of weekly and monthly magazines.  So each day offered any number of taken-for-granted places of refuge from the messages of the mainstream culture:

  • Late at night when there was, literally, nothing to watch;
  • In the evening hours between your favorite TV shows;
  • On weekend mornings when all that TV offered was Sunrise Semester and cartoons;
  • On your daily drive to and from work;
  • During the natural lulls that occurred at work, because letters took days to arrive.

All that is now gone or strikingly diminished.  Today, mainstream media is fully available – or inconveniently present – all the time, 24/7:  In the car, at the beach, even in the bathroom.

Disquieting Effects

While our new technological toys are delightfully distracting, they extract a heavy price. Why?  Because their subtext relentlessly embodies and reinforces the corrosive values that dominate our culture: Compete and win, dominate and control. We are awash in nonstop messages that push us to want more, to buy more and, in general, to be perfect and invulnerable: Poised and articulate; youthful, thin, and attractive; hard working, successful, and rich; winners in whatever we do.

At times these messages are explicit, offered as ads or commentary.  But far more pervasive and influential are their implicit expressions: The story lines and characters in the shows we watch; and, equally, the ways in which our celebrities – actors, entertainers, TV hosts, reporters, commentators, and politicians – present themselves and conduct their lives.

For me, the depth to which these messages have taken root is exemplified by NPR’s routine editing of interviews to eliminate every “ah,” “umm,” and other verbal stumble.  Even at NPR, apparently, we are not ok – not publicly presentable – until every pimple and unseemly bulge has been made to disappear.

And Therefore?

As much as size matters in understanding the dimensions of the challenge we face as we seek to create better lives and a better world, it matters even more as we craft our responses.  We need to conceive of change strategies that, as they take root, can become comparable in scope and impact to the problems they seek to address. This is the issue that Radical Decency – the underlying theme in all of my writings – seeks to address.

Jeff Garson is a Philadelphia-based attorney, psychotherapist, and activist. A principal at the Decency Group, offering collaborative, values-based consulting to individuals and businesses, he writes extensively about Radical Decency, an inclusive approach to change. You can contact him at wjgarson@comcast.net or www.radicaldecency.com.

 


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