2006/12/17

The Pursuit of Happyness

I originally had another post in mind for this evening, but after seeing The Pursuit of Happyness earlier today, I think I need to blog about it. You see this movie is supposed to leave one feeling hopeful. After all Chris Gardner, the movie's subject and a self-made man who rose from poverty to become a millionaire stock-broker, is an inspiration. But I didn't leave the theater feeling inspired. I left feeling angry, and I've been getting progressively angrier ever since.

So what is it that's got me pissed? The realization that stories like Gardner's are extraordinarily rare and getting more rare every year. The game of getting ahead by one's own efforts is rigged. For every 1000 would-be Gardners, 999 fail to go anywhere. In fact, income inequality and class rigidity have become so profound that the American dream of having one's children do "better" than oneself is just that...a dream.

Jobs that once supported a vibrant middle-class are disappearing in favor of low-wage, low-skill, no benefit service sector positions that cement one's status as a member of the working poor. On the other end, high-skill, high-pay, financial sector positions--that pay out an ever increasing percentage of American wealth--are closed to most people.

So stories like Chris Gardner's are as rare as that of the basketball player from the streets who eventually makes it to the NBA, and I see nothing in that to feel hopeful about.

24 Comments:

Amen, brotha.

Meanwhile, first-year Wall Streeters can expect a year-end bonus somewhere around the $650Ks this year.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.
and the chairman of wal-mart (H.Lee Scott) is paid (I won't say earned) $23million/yr. U.S. inequality is fast approaching that of our latin american neighbors. thanks for giving me one more movie to not see. ~~ D.K.
I screamed myself hoarse over this for the last twenty years, until the very unions that represented the workers sold them out, then I fell silent. One must pick windmills carefully. d.k. raed said: "...U.S. inequality is fast approaching that of our latin american neighbors." That is exactly what both our government, and industry wants! Fewer choices, less income, restricted lifestyles....they benefit both, for that equates to slave labor. When the slaves fear talking back....(:

You can buy, sneak, cheat, lie your way to the top - there is no more of this old fashioned crap of working your way to the top. That's long gone, not ever to return.
Sad but true.
And yet they continue to dangle out the possibility that your kids (or you) can make a couple of million dollars and so people are happy to go w/ income inequality in the hopes that they or their kids will be one of the lucky ones.

So never mind "What's wrong w/ Kansas?" What's wrong with the United States that so many middle and working class Americans are happy to sign onto economic and tax policies that screw themselves and make the rich richer and the super rich motherfucking super rich?
Mags, great another reason for me to question my choice of career! ;-)

D.K., actually you should see the film. I've always felt that Will Smith is underrated as an actor--material probably. But the emotions that cross his face, especially in the last 5 minutes of the movie are worth the price of admission.
TFWY, I find it really depressing that, as the Reality-based Educator points out, so many are willing to sign on to policies that are manifestly not in their economic interest.

On the one hand we have the Democrats who no longer have the balls to defend economic policies that create opportunities and bolster the middle-class. On the other we have the Republicans who actively try to destroy the American dream--to wall it off to only those privileged few.
They forget.

The french revolution.
The bolshevic revolution.
The chinese revolution.
The rumanian revolution.

You can only push the "don't haves" so far... then heads start to roll and it ain't pretty.

I've taken up knitting again.

Yours Truly,
Madam DeFarge
This destruction of the middle class began in force with the Reagan Revolution. He busted a major union when he declared the Professional Air Traffic Controllers could not strike legally and hired non-union people to work as ATCs. He deregulated the airline industry which has caused several carriers to go belly up. The long term goal: the rich get richer, and the middle class erodes.

So then the timing of movies like The Pursuit of Happyness: it's Christmastime which is rife with "feel-good" movies. People want to live vicariously, rather than make responsible choices. So if someone rich, and authoritarian, tells them it's better to go to war and fight in Iraq, so that Dick Cheney's buddies at Halliburton can get rich, they think "Okay. They're rich and successful so they must know better than me" and so they vote against their best interests. And they go to movies like this, to be told to "feel good." Makes me sick.

The internets, the explosion of "reality" television, the 24/7 connections keep us from actually having face-to-face contact, so we can't organize the way we used to. I mean really, here I sit, glued to my computer, when I could be out talking to other travel agents about how we work for very low wages, and horrific hours, and are treated unprofessionally - hell. I could be the Sally Field of the travel industry. And then, when I get my Oscar... Sorry. I digress.
Sewmouse, hope you don't run out of wool.

Diva, I didn't find The Pursuit of Happyness to be a feelgood movie in the least. In fact, I was squirming throughout the film, but maybe that's just me. As to the organizing...I don't think that computer connections are necessarily bad as long as, like any other activity, they're taken in moderation and not substituted for the fact-to-face connections. Look at what blogging, for instance, has done to political debate--almost a revolution on its own.
Kvatch,

Chris Gardner's story is like winning the lotto which is why I don't want to see it. I wanted to be rich but now I would settle for being broke. I have a 90K student loan that there is no way I can ever pay back unless the economy does a major turnaround. I lost everything in my gamble to get ahead, I kept telling people in 2000 that I had to be on the correct side of making a 100K a year or I wouldn't be able to survive the fall I saw coming. I was right.

I just took a job that pays me less than I earned in 1986 and requires none of my skills. I'm really depressed over this and don't really know how it happened. I mean I do know but can't believe that the country is willing to go along with the enslavement of the people.

Waaah.
Now you got me pissed. Just sifted through a thousand things I could write but I'm pretty much just pissed.
It's very much on my mind, too, as you probably know from reading at my place. I guess I do still cling to that dream that my kids will do better than I have. I'm not letting that go easily, Kvatch. The rest... what can one do?
I think the idea that money equates happiness pretty much sums up the problem. Money equals power - the power to feed your family, power to provide medical care, power to shelter and have some dignity. It's just that the uber rich don't care about others. In fact the "others" are not even viable human beings to them other than worker bees and gun fodder. You'll have to excuse me. I'm getting in touch with my inner-bitch today.
Deb...you're story is heartbreaking, and I wish I had some helpful words to offer, but I think I'm too much of a realist.

I used to beleive that education was the ticket to a better life, but even that is no longer a guarantee. In my field a whole generation of software engineers feel betrayed by institutions and economists that advised them to pack on the education as the ticket to high-paying jobs.

But during the Internet boom/bust those engineers were replaced by onshore low-skilled "programmers" and offshore developers who would for half their wages. Things are only now starting to recover as companies learn the perils of depending on poorly trained or untrained engineers.

Hope things improve for you soon.
Fred...you and me both!

Julien, increasingly I think that it's up to the children to strive with the same, or even more, energy than their parents. Nothing is ever going to get easier ...again. (How's that for depressing? Sorry.)

Peacechick, very good points. Dignity is a big part of the equation isn't it. One of the messages of the film is how removing a man's/woman's dignity is so terribly detrimental to their situation. Chris Gardner was able to rise above that and succeed, but many people--most people--in the same situation won't, can't, or are prevented from rising above the loss of dignity.
You know, as they were filming this pic last year, I saw Hollywood rip up trees in our parks and erect artificial BART stations all at the expese of our general well being. Sunday, was running my usual route through the park and was barred from going into the botanical garden because they were filming a Microsoft commercial - again, my personal liberties were trampled becuase of Hollywood and their main aim: to squeeze a few more bucks out of our wallets.

I know that my comments are a bit of an asside for thie post, but really, all this movie symbolizes for me is exploitation of one man's story, at great expense to the people where the film was made, and to the benefit of no one. Bah humbug....and why do they not spelly happiness correctly? BTW?
I remember when I moved to San Francisco in 1958.

Housing was affordable, jobs were plentiful, they had industry as well as the financial district and the unions were strong.

My late husband worked for U. S. Steel - long gone. The port is almost non-existent.

Horatio Alger was still a realistic dream. No more.
I heard someone say that you have a better chance at the American dream in Europe than in America today. I don't know if that is true, but I do know the current climate tries to keep people down so that more goes to those that need it least
WS, oddly enough I was outbound on bart and saw in one of the Oakland stations a sign for Camel Cigarettes. I did a double-take thinking WTF?! Cigarettes? Only later did I learn that it was for the movie. And about "Happyness"...it comes from a scene in the movie where the Gardner sees the word, misspelled, on a wall next his kid's day-care.

Granny, things have really changed here, haven't they?

Me4Prez, perhaps, and if that were the case it would be very, very sad statement.
Isn't is difficult to be such a realist at times? I often wonder how best to explain much of this to my children without sounding so cynical which has proven to be a real challenge.

Excellent post, Kvatch.
Thanks Gracie. Well...I've got no children to explain it to, but it saddens me nonetheless that things are becoming so difficult.
..."Why are those people so damned happy." Will Smith from Happyness when he sees stock brokers passing by the New York Stock Exchange.

He may have wanted to provide for his kid but he could've worked at a fast food restaraunt and studied for the brokerage exam on the side saved up money, found a place for his kid, shared a house with a friend, then taken the internship; he put that kid through a lot of shit just to get a nice job much faster and it wouldn't have been so uplifting had he not been hired at the end. Was he striving for distinction, wealth, a higher standard of living, satisfaction at work? Were all those people really happy and all smiling.

Here's two excerpts one from a book the other from a magazine, both on happiness and how not only an improvement in the quality of life but an improvement over your fellow man is felt necessary to be happy.


From Nietszche's "on the genealogy of morality"

"The striving for distinction keeps a constant eye on the next man and wants to know what his feelings are: but the empathy which this drive requires for its gratification is far from being harmless or sympathetic or kind. We want, rather, to perceive or divine how the next man outwardly or inwardly suffers from us, how he loses control over himself and surrenders to the impressions our hand or merely the sight of us makes upon him; and even when he who strives after distinction makes and wants to make a joyful elevating or cheerful experience, he nonetheless enjoys this success not inasmuch as he has given joy to the next man or elevated or cheered him, but inasmuch as he has impressed himself on the soul of the other, changed its shape and ruled over it at his own sweet will. The striving for distinction is the striving for domination over the next man, though it be a very indirect domination and only felt or even dreamed. There is a long scale of degrees of this secretly desired domination, and a complete catalogue of them would be almost the same thing as a history of culture, from the earliest, still grotesque barbarism up to the grotesqueries of over-refinement and morbid idealism. (D 113; cf. D 548)" Nietszche "on the genealogy of morality"

From latest issue of the Economist:

Lord Layard and Mr Frank both blame habit and rivalry for this stagnation of morale. People grow accustomed to what they have—however much of it there is. Moreover, having a lot of things is not enough if other people have more. A rising tide lifts all boats, but not all spirits.

For economists, this is radical stuff. They traditionally argue that people best serve themselves and the public by minding their own business. Indeed, this laissez-faire attitude is one reason Carlyle attacked them. Economics, he wrote, "reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone". He was afraid this radical idea would "dissever and destroy most existing institutions of society".

But Lord Layard argues that we cannot help minding other people's business, as well as our own. Doing well is not enough: we also want to do better than our peers. This status anxiety runs deep in our nature, he says. Vervet monkeys at the top of their social tree enjoy more mates and bananas as a result, but they also exult in their position for its own sake. As with monkeys, so with mandarins. Top British civil servants tend to live longer than their underlings, regardless of other differences in lifestyle, according to the "Whitehall II" studies which have been monitoring thousands of Humphreys and Bernards since the 1980s.

Doing well is not enough: we also want to do better than our peers. This status anxiety runs deep
To clamber up the pecking order, some people slave away nights and weekends at the office. They gain in rank at the expense of their free time. But in making that sacrifice they also hurt anyone else who shares their aspirations: they too must give up their weekends to keep up. Mr Frank reckons that many people would like to work less, if only others slackened off also. But such bargains cannot be struck unilaterally. On the contrary, people compete in costly "arms races", knowing that if they do not work harder, they will lose their standing to someone who does.

These races are motivated by more than just prestige. As Fred Hirsch argued in his 1977 book, "The Social Limits to Growth", many good things in life are "positional". You can enjoy them only if others don't. Sometimes, a quick car, fine suit or attractive house is not enough. One must have the fastest car, finest suit or priciest house.

Think of the scramble for schools, Mr Frank says. Only 10% of kids can go to the top 10% of schools. In many countries, wherever the schools are good, the houses will be expensive. Thus parents who want the best education for their child must overwork to afford a house in a good school district. In doing so, however, they raise the bar for everyone else.

Is mutual disarmament possible? Not without government help, Mr Frank and Lord Layard argue. The exchequer should tax earned income heavily enough to deter one-upmanship, they say.

Despite appearances, this is not a naked example of punitive redistribution—the fiscal politics of envy. Mr Frank and Lord Layard do not want to level the social order. Their aim is much more conservative than that. Their taxes would leave the pecking order intact and envy undiminished. But people would be deterred from acting on the green-eyed monster. The problem these economists want to tackle is not inequality per se. It is that people don't know their place and scramble vainly to improve it. Carlyle, who thought man should content himself with being the worthy follower of worthy superiors, would no doubt have approved.

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