Why do we have to be First?

March 3, 2009

What is the American obsession with grandeur, a kind of stuffy pedigree that we thought we had outgrown?

In Obama’s Tuesday night address to the nation, Americans clapped and cheered and urged each other to believe that we could again achieve primacy in education, in manufacturing clean energy and automobiles. ” We will be first,” Obama said, “because we are the greatest nation on Earth.” Really? Is this really what we should be striving for? Instead of building healthy communities where everyone can feel a sense of purpose, well-being and opportunity; we are striving to be # 1 in the fields of technology, business, entrepreneurship, etc. I am not against hard work and living up to one’s highest potential. But isn’t this what got us into this mess in the first place? 

I love this imagery, despite the spelling mistake: “The Americans, the British are all raising huge amounts of capital and there is a giant sucking sound you can here (hear) going in that direction.” http://english.aljazeera.net/business/2009/03/20093965640468145.html

Filled with the need to be # 1 in their class, a bunch of hedge funders took risky bets and inflated the housing market. Meanwhile they bought mansions in the Hamptons for themselves and their wives bought $700 shoes. Filled with the need to be # 1 in the world, the US consumed 25% of the world’s resources despite having only 4% of its population. We gobbled up oil and consumer products until we hit peak oil and our deficit ballooned. Filled with the need to be # 1, we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to prove that “terrorists” would pay for daring to attack us. 

I liked this quote, even though it is about US-Mexico trade relations. I think it illustrates some important points. 

Capital’s “creative destruction” has meant, among other things, that dynamic expansion has co-existed with social polarization—between capitalist and working classes; between core and peripheral states. US transnational interests dominate the US and the US dominates Latin America. Policymakers have little, if any, interest in debt relief, labor rights for workers, job retraining, or effective health, safety, and environmental standards. Trade agreements should, and could, contain such provisions. They will not so long as working classes remain subjectively divided—nationalistic, protectionistic, and xenophobic.


Maybe we just need to slow down. Instead of aiming ourselves at a steep and narrowly defined vision of success, we could learn to value other things, a more humane way of living. Instead of this arrogant posturing like a turkey ruffling its feathers, we need to realize our own absurdity and make choices that other nations have been making for decades. If we are not first in everything, the world will not end. Shocking, I know.

Continuing with this theme, this NYTimes article asks whether, in these dour economic times, it is better to spend or to save? I think the issue is not important. The real question is, are we going to let the government continue to bail out the banks, reinvest in science and technology and keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan without engaging with and broadly reconsidering the economic and political philosophies that underpin them? 

The article worries about the waiters at fancy restaurants, the party planners and others who made their living catering to an elite used to elaborate celebration and indulgence. Don’t worry about them. They will adapt and find jobs with more dignity. We should not live “in sackcloth and ashes,” but we should reconsider just what is necessary to live well; friends, family, a sense of purpose, rather than tinsel and “sea trout fennel mousse.” 


One Response to “Why do we have to be First?”

  1. wonker Says:

    Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

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