The Last Guy by
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(15 Stories)

Prompted By Inequality

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Are humans unique in their need to always find someone to whom they can feel superior?  It seems like the non-alpha dogs in a pack realize that they are not the alpha dogs, but they don’t seem to then find another dog which they are, in turn, better than.

I don’t need more money and I don’t need more “stuff”.

As I thought about this prompt, I looked for a song that I could relate to it.  I thought first about Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, with the lines “A self-ordained professor’s tongue too serious to fool,
Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school.”  But then it hit me that a better reference was to a not-so-well known song by Arlo Guthrie, in which he talks about “the last guy”, the person who has no one to feel better than:

Thanks to an invitation from the Harvard Club of Sacramento, I have been reading the latest book by Michael Sandel, “The Tyranny of Merit”.  He chronicles the rise of meritocracy as a justification for inequality, and talks about the hubris of those who are on top and the reaction from those who are not on top to that hubris, which has led to the rise of the Tea Party, and to the damage done to our country over the  last four years.  He talks about the feeling on the part of the “haves” that their position is totally explained by their hard work and their intelligence, with little or no recognition that family and sheer luck have contributed greatly to their success.

I am only about two-thirds of the way through the book, so I have not yet discovered Sandel’s proposed solution to the problems of meritocracy.  But as I have read, it occurs to me that there are many ways to describe inequality.  I was always the best student in my classes from grade school through high school, and perhaps a little too cocky about it at the time.  Then I got to Harvard, and discovered that there were a great many people there who were much better prepared, at least, than I was.

There were always people who were better athletes than me.  There are a great many people who are taller than I am, which I believe gives them an advantage in running for elected positions and in corporate politics.

And there are certainly many, many people who have more wealth than I will ever hope to have.  I wonder, however, if we Americans are much too focused on wealth and possessions.  I would venture that many Europeans, despite having less wealth than Americans, are superior to us in a more important respect – happiness.

I am happy now.  I’m comfortable, I don’t need more money and I don’t need more “stuff”.  And if having a little less can help someone else to have a little more, I’m OK with that.

Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Me, too, Jeff. This is great. One thing the pandemic has taught me is that I don’t need any more clothing, don’t have to wear makeup, and don’t even have to go out to eat. I know my not purchasing could be to the detriment of those who need jobs, but what a conundrum. We need a society that doesn’t run solely on consumerism.

  2. Interesting ideas in Sandel’s Tyranny, Jeff. Also, just BTW, I found Dylan’s “My Back Pages” running through my head as I wrote my post.

    “Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect
    Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect
    Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow
    Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.”

    For me, a comment on inequality and power. Relevant to the prompt. Thanks for your post.

  3. Suzy says:

    As you know, I’m reading Sandel’s book now too, but I hadn’t figured out what the lesson was yet. I like his earlier writings about “skyboxification” – how the ballpark used to be the great equalizer because everyone sat together, until they invented skyboxes which separated the ultrarich from the masses.

    Btw, when I clicked on your link for Mr. Claus, I got “this site can’t be reached,” so you may need to redo that.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I agree with so much of it. Yet I’ve observed people who, no matter how much they have, are never content or happy. They just don’t know how to be. I don’t know if it in the culture or their makeup and background that makes them that way. I wish we could all find contentment when we have “enough”. It should be enough.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    So true, Jeff. Downsizing in a move from a house to a condo and the pandemic have reinforced that I still have too much “stuff,” and I certainly don’t need more. The question is, what do we do about those who don’t have much “stuff” at all?

  6. I would say that we Americans are definitely “too much focused on wealth and possessions.” How can we remedy this?

  7. I saw what looked like a very astute critique of Sandel’s book in THE NATION recently, but I agree with the ideas he espouses, as you have summarized them here. I wouldn’t say that “Americans” are too much focused on possessions, when over half the nation’s population feels dispossessed, and literally doesn’t have money in the bank to fix their car if it breaks down, let alone putting aside something for retirement besides Social Security. I would say that the “haves” and more specifically the one-tenth of 1% are way too focused on their assets, and I am eager for the wealth tax, the re-imposition of more robust estate taxes, and other measures to begin to right the ship.

  8. Spot on, Jeff. Never was in the armed forces but I’m told that woe betide he who seemed to have a better deal than the next man. I think that was because there was an essential equality of treatment there: universally lousy. Anyway, about “stuff”. Search for George Carlin’s famous riff about stuff. Well worth it.

  9. Maybe my man Mick is right Jeff.
    You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

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