Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!
- President John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address, 20 January, 1961
Are you better off than you were four years ago?
That's the question, isn't it?
That’s the question both sides are asking.
Are you better off today than you were when President Obama took office four years ago.
Are you better off?
Depending on your political affiliation, it’s pretty obvious what the correct answer is.
If you’re a Democrat and you want President Obama to have another four years, the answer is, yes, of course I’m better off. Look, here’s a list of all the things Obama has done in the last four years. See? Totally better off.
And if you’re a Republican and you really, really hate the idea of Obama stinking up the White House for another four years, the answer is, hell no, I’m not better off. Here’s a list of all the things that suck giant donkey balls about my life right now. See? Worse off. Also, Nazis.
People don’t use that question to determine who to vote for. They already know who they’re going to vote for - and that determines how they answer the question, that determines whether or not they think they’re better off.
If they’re liberals, they’re better off. If they’re conservatives, they’re worse off. Quod Erat Demonstrandum
But, you know, it’s the question itself that bugs me.
I think the question says more about the questioner than the answer does about Obama.
Are you better off?
To which you’re supposed to ask yourself reflectively, “Well? Am I better off? Am I?”
Not, are we better off?
Not, is the country better off?
Not, is the world better off?
Not even, is business better off? Or Is the economy better off? Both of which would be more useful questions in an election year.
No the question is, are you better off? Am I better off?
Am I better off?
What better question than “Am I better off?” to summarize an intellectual and morally bankrupt worldview?
It amuses me that people who claim to embrace a religion of selflessness, who loudly and persistently claim that the United States itself is a county based on that same religion of supposed love and shared sacrifice, who profess to follow in the footsteps of a prophet who supposedly preached selflessness above all else, would use “Am I better off” as their political compass.
“Am I better off?” so perfectly describes the self-centered, win at all costs and damn the consequences tactics of political parties and their PACS and their legions of bitterly blind followers.
“Am I better off?” is the secret fear of the TV Preachers, the pundits and their flacks, the politicians and most especially their hidden (and not so hidden) masters.
“Am I better off?” is the justification used by the manipulators and the schemers, the immature and the insecure, and by every bigot and supremacist and hater.
“Am I better off? is the operating philosophy of Wall Street, of the rich and the powerful and the greedy who, no matter how much better off they are than everybody else, are somehow never better off enough. What if people think I’m not better off than everybody else? That’s the fear that gnaws at their guts every single day.
“Am I better off?” is the root cause of everything that’s wrong in Congress and our dysfunctional government as a whole. Am I better off? Am I better off in votes? Am I better off in fund raising? Am I better off than other guy, the other district, the other state, the other party?
“Am I better off?” is a pissing contest, a measure of who has the biggest willie.
“Am I better off?” is so very, very Ayn Rand.
“Am I better off?” is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. A bunch of folks got themselves loans and mortgages they couldn’t afford because our society told them they could be better off without having to pay for it. The banks offered up those loans because their CEOs and investors and managing directors were more interested in making themselves better off than they were in the inevitable consequences.
Meanwhile, we have a fifteen trillion dollar national debt because we thought we’d be better off with a couple of wars bought on credit. Remind me again, are we better off?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Without some degree of “Am I better off?” we’d all just sit on the couch eating Pop Tarts and watching Life’s a Tripp until our legs fell off from lack of circulation. “Am I better off?” drives us to do better, to learn, to dream, to create, to build, to strive and design and desire. But the mindset behind “Am I better off?” when taken to the extreme, when it is allowed to become all consuming, when it becomes your only guide-star, is the root cause behind damned near all of our woes as a country, as a people, as individuals.
When you Super-Size “Am I better off” sooner or later there’s going to be consequences.
Are you, personally, better off than you were four years ago?
Is John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, better off? He destroyed an entire company. He put tens of thousands of people out on the street. His actions contributed directly to the global financial crisis and Great Recession. He sold the wreckage of his company to Bank of America, pissed all over his shareholders and employees, and walked away with his hundred million dollar salary intact. Is John Thane better off today than he was four years ago? He sure isn’t any worse off. Does he resent the thought of ending the Bush Era tax cuts? Does he resent his tax dollars going to help out the people he and his pals left destitute and ruined? Beats me. He doesn’t answer my email.
Is Grover Norquist better off today than he was four years ago? Are the Koch brothers? Is Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson? Of course they are, along with the rest of their Wall Street cronies. The stock market is higher now than at any time in history. If you’re rich, it’s been a damned good four years. Is Mitt Romney better off today than he was four years ago? Yes, he most certainly is – that’s one of the reasons he’d prefer you not see his tax returns. Is Paul Ryan better off? Do these millionaires and billionaires resent paying taxes and helping out the less fortunate? You don’t have to ask them, their opinions are a matter of public record.
Is Chuck Norris better off today than he was four years ago? He’s in one of the biggest movies of the summer, one of the biggest movies he’s ever starred in, for one of the biggest paychecks. I’d say he’s doing OK. How about Clint Eastwood? Is Clint better off now than he was four years ago? He’s got a brand new movie too. Is John Cusack better off despite his vitriolic hatred of Barack Obama? Is Jon Voight better off? Is Ted Nugent? Hank Williams Jr? Yes, they all are. Though to be truthful, none of these celebrities were doing particularly badly four years ago either. They’ve also made their opinions well known. They love to make movies about the working man, they love to sing the songs about the poor and unfortunate and the downtrodden, and they don’t mind taking your money - but they’re not real happy about giving any of it back to help the people they portray (with maybe the exception of Cusack, he’s mostly pissed that Obama isn’t liberal enough).
How about Rush Limbaugh? Is Rush Limbaugh better off today than he was four years ago? Barack Obama is the best damned thing that ever happened to Rush Limbaugh. Obama made Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck millionaires many times over. If the two of them had any sense, they’d invest in their future by sending the Obama Reelection Campaign a cool million each. Is Anne Coulter better off now than she was four years ago? Hell that cadaverous bitch can’t sell her bilious books fast enough. Is Michael Savage better off? Do me a favor, point to one, one, conservative pundit screaming about doom and gloom and socialism (also, Nazis) that isn’t better off today than they were four years ago.
How about the Professional Christians? Are they better off? Billy Graham? Pat Robertson? Rick Warren? James Dobson? Business is booming at Evangelical Inc. Couldn’t be better. Frankly I’m trying to figure what all the complaining is about.
Is Sarah Palin better off than she was four years ago? She was a nobody, a hick chick from the sticks of nowhere Wasilla (trust me on this, I live here). The unknown big haired governor of a remote bumfuck state (trust me on this, I live here). Four years ago, nobody, including about three quarters of Alaskans, had ever even heard of Sarah Palin. In the last four years she quit her job – she had the actual luxury of quitting her job – at the apex of the financial crisis, she went from being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to being an unemployed multi-millionaire. She’s got hundreds of thousands of enraptured fans hanging glassy-eyed on her every word. When she’s not touring the country in her Juggernaut Of Patriotic American Freedom, she flies from show to show on a chartered jet and has a nanny to wipe the drool off little Trig’s chin. She lives a charmed life, everything she touches turns to gold, she could sell jars of her own feces on eBay for piles of cash. Hell even her Wasilla Valley Trash hairdresser got a TV show out of it. Her kid came home from Afghanistan with nary a scratch or bad dreams and married the prom queen. She’s a celebrity wherever she goes. She never has to work again, ever, if she doesn’t want to. Seriously, what in the pluperfect hell does this woman have to complain about? But complain she does, endlessly, snidely, bitterly. She never stops harping about how goddamned bad she’s got it and how it’s all Obama’s fault.
Ironic isn’t it?
The folks who cry the loudest, the ones that complain most bitterly, are the very people who – if they were honest – would have to answer the question “are you better off than you were four years ago?” with a resounding “Yes! Hell, yes!”
The problem is, for them, they’re just not better off enough.
How about you? Are you better off?
Am I better off? Me personally? Two years ago my wife lost her high paying job. She was laid off due in some small regard to the crappy economy, but mostly because shady business decisions by her global employer led to a legal and financial catastrophe. The folks who made those decisions, a small cadre of directors far up in the company hierarchy, did so because they kept asking themselves “Am I better off” instead of “Is the company better off?” or “Are my employees better off?” or “Are the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on us better off?” Sound familiar? My wife, despite being highly recommended and highly skilled and holding a Masters Degree in her field, was unemployed for a bit more than a year. Fortunately we own more of our house than the bank does, all of our vehicles are paid off, we don’t carry much debt, and we plan for disaster – those things saved us. But we have a teenager and many pets and a big house and let me tell you something, my electronic friends, Alaska is an expensive place to live. Despite significantly cutting back in every area, we burned through our savings and college money and various other resources and things began to look fairly grim. My wife worked at finding work every single day, every single day, fourteen to eighteen hours a day, for more than a year. She approached finding a job as a job. And eventually she found a new employer, one that pays significantly more than she made before, one that’s significantly closer to home, and one provides an actual path to promotion and advancement and growth – unlike the old job. I, on the other hand, while still getting used to being a civilian, went from being a government civilian employee to being a contract consultant and I took a significant pay cut doing it. It wasn’t by choice, but I was grateful to have the work. And damned grateful to have my military retirement and especially my medical benefits – because if not for that, my family would have been without healthcare or dental. Got kids? That’s a goddamned scary fucking thing, the prospect of going without healthcare coverage.
So, am I better off now?
I know I am, and I think I’ll get better.
It’s going to be a while before we can fully recover the assets we burned through in the last year. But my wife and I are doing well enough that we don’t resent paying our taxes and helping others who are less fortunate. We don’t resent it because we’re Americans, because we’re citizens of the world, and we think it’s the right thing to do. We don’t resent it because we got help from the government when we needed it. So did our families, once upon a time. So did a hell of a lot of people, who seem to have conveniently forgotten it.
That’s what civilization is for.
Are we better off? As a people, as a nation, as the world? In a word, yes. Not great, not where we’d all like to be, but better.
There’s still war, and violence, and terrorism. Are we better off in that regard? I think that question is best answered with the question asked by Senator John Kerry at the recent Democratic National Convention, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off than he was four years ago.” Are we there yet? No, not if the recent events in Libya and Egypt and Yemen are any indicator. Will we ever be there? Probably not. Are we better off than we were four years ago? Yes we are. Ask all the troops that aren’t dying in Iraq right now.
There’s still poverty and hunger. There’s still too few jobs and the economy is still not strong enough. But it’s getting better. It’s getting better every day. Is it better for everybody? No. Certainly not. And it would be foolish and crass to say otherwise. It’s still damned hard for a lot of folks. And there is still a long, hard way to go.
But it isn’t going to get better if everybody keeps focusing only on themselves.
And it for damned sure won’t ever get better for you, personally, if your answer to the question depends on your political party.
Now, more than ever, we need to remember the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
We need to stop asking if you’re better off, am I better off, and start asking what we can do to make things better.
For all of us.