In the shadow of self-reliance

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The parking lots at Juneau's Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart were nearly full at 5 o'clock the morning after Thanksgiving. The scene was the same all over the country as shoppers eagerly sought to take advantage of below-basement bargain prices. Is it greed or economic survival that's responding to the nation's economic dive toward depression?

Retail consumption plays a vital role in the free trading wheel of our country's financial health. On Black Friday it was the consumers' turn to get the best for the money invested. Psychologically, extending our materialistic gains when retailers are struggling is a mirror image of the Wall Street barons who capitalized on a debt-inflated bubble to swell their portfolios.

Greed is too often imagined as somebody else's psychological flaw. But it's really part of the human condition. Taming it requires recognizing what makes us vulnerable to its selfish impulses. In buying and selling, it occurs when we lose sight of all thought implied by the Golden Rule.

As a moral issue, it's unlikely that the government can effectively regulate fairness and eliminate greed from Wall Street. Rules will be threaded with new loopholes that, even if unintended, will soon be discovered by some opportunistic investment managers. The marketplace will remain a pool for sharks swimming among well-intentioned investors.

In any case, no one is clamoring to regulate trade on the consumer side. Congress won't intervene to prevent retailers from slashing their profits to attract buyers. And it certainly wouldn't dare interfere with the shoppers' will to attain more than we need even if we're borrowing our way into insurmountable debt. Indeed, consumer greed is encouraged because it drives the manufacturing sector into high gear and provides secondary jobs everywhere along the route between the plant and final retail outlet.

To the consumer, economic freedom is about individual choices, an idea culturally embedded in our constitutional rights to individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But such individual freedom also means we're responsible for the state of our own well being. In a sense, it's a matter of self-survival.

In Alaska, the appeal of consumerism competes with other earthly attractions. We're blessed with a lot of natural splendor worthy of our attention, whether to bring food to the table ourselves or for leisure and spiritual fulfillment. Self-reliance and independence are highly prized attributes here and remind us that it's necessary and healthy to sometimes focus first on ourselves.

But we can readily be led astray by other selfish motivations. Whether out of necessity or enjoying life's pleasures, too much of a good thing can become addictive, and addictions almost always serve only the self.

By proclaiming individual freedom as the idol of the American character, we are apt to deny any shortcomings from an untouchable focus on the individual. In archetypal psychology, every human characteristic has a shadow that manifests in an unlikable form when denied or repressed. Could greed be lurking in the remote corners of our thoughts waiting for opportunities to capitalize on the choices we're free to make?

Can psychology contribute to a discussion about the economy? Not if we insist upon compartmentalizing expertise in our society. We rely on carpenters to build our homes, doctors to treat our ailments, lawyers to legislate and litigate. Psychologists are relegated to the arena of personal problems and self-improvement. It's up to the economists to tell us how well society is doing financially.

Unfortunately, they've enabled an obsession with growth, efficiency, and the bottom line as the precise indicators of our financial well-being. But we're more complex creatures than our labels reveal. As bankers, investors, spectators to the Wall Street numbers and everyday consumers, we can try to ignore psychology, but our psyches respond to much more than the narrow dimensions of economic analysis.

We'd do well to develop a broader dialogue about the economy's role in our way of life, especially as technology fast-forwards us toward the future when we'll be depending on the ethical behavior of our children. Let's hope they'll be compassionate human beings capable of taming their greedy instincts when it's their time to define the behaviors of a healthy society.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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