Less Greed, More Patience: The Wisdom of Roald Dahl

This is the last post in my series inspired by President Obama’s inaugural call to “set aside childish things” and start pulling together for the good of the nation. And in this post, I hope to speak less of specific acts of greed and more of a general attitude that has pervaded our society over the past couple of decades. This attitude – one of “I want it all, NOW” – was perhaps not among the childish things of which the president was thinking, but its consumptive nature and its impatience certainly strikes me as childish. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the first movie, of course, not the remake), whose constant claim of “Daddy, I want it now!” led to her falling down the garbage chute after being judged a “bad egg.”

I wrote last week about how this attitude played out in spending, with people buying houses and cars and TVs that they couldn’t afford. But it also had a dramatic impact on economic and policy decisions, or often decisions put off. Examples include:

  • Asking for lower taxes while demanding more government services
  • Expecting cutting edge medical treatments while complaining about ever-higher health care costs
  • Unwillingness to invest in infrastructure
  • Refusal to address the impending catastrophes of Social Security and Medicare
  • Managing companies for quarterly earnings instead of for the long term

I could go on and on. But don’t listen to me; the NY Times magazine put it much better a few weeks ago:

“The norms of the last two decades or so – consume before invest; worry about the short term, not the long term – have been more than just a reflection of the economy. They have also affected the economy. Chief executives have fought for paychecks that their predecessors would have considered obscenely large. Technocrats inside Washington’s regulatory agencies, after listening to their bosses talk endlessly about the dangers of overregulation, made quite sure that they weren’t regulating too much. Financial engineering became a more appealing career track than actual engineering or science.”

Frank Rich added his own take, typically overwrought, but still relevant, here. But whether the phenomenon is described by the Times or by me, the process is still the same. When we, the public, all think like Veruca Salt, then our business leaders will think the same way, and we will elect politicians who will implement Veruca Salt policies. So unless we want the whole country to go down the garbage chute, let’s be less Veruca Salt and more Charlie. Instead of wanting it all now, we can aim for getting most of it soon. Remember, Veruca was sent down to the furnace, but Charlie ended up owning the whole factory.

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