By Sy Schechtman

Peter Whybrow, M. D. is a psychiatrist, who has written a new book which both celebrates our contemporary society and issues loud lamentations at its current seemingly aberrant path. He calls the book "American Mania ---When More Is Not Enough". The bedrock core of this nation to date, he states, is the migrant fundament that makes up the overwhelming mass of the nation. "America is an unusual nation-----it is in many ways a genetic experiment as much as it is social one—in that the temperament of the migrant has played a unique role. Most Americans, or the forebears of most Americans within a generation or two, came to this country because they chose to do so. For three centuries and longer, America has been a lure for those of the migrant disposition, ‘a certain kind of people’, for whom a love of competition, curiosity, and a willingness to take risks are instinctual and enduring. Migrants are by temperament restless and ingenious and the United States represents the largest single collection of such individuals in the world today"…….."in California, where I live amid the restless energy and ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, it is plain to see that America is held together not by race, color, or creed but by the migrant’s burning ambition and ancient skills essential to human survival. Migrants approach life with extraordinary resolve: self selected in their search for betterment and shaped further by the challenge of their journey, the migrant’s principal goal is one of individual achievement".

Aiding and abetting this instinctive drive was the moral and economic philosophy of Adam Smith, one of the preeminent intellects of the eighteenth century. Smith recognized the economically redemptive power of enlightened self interest; harnessing the natural desire of ambitious people—like migrants- for material gain and prestige but balancing this with the innate desire --- or so he hoped---- of communal welfare and the respect of one’s neighbors. Smith recognized that this productive environment was only possible in a free society where property rights and financial assets were secured to the rightful individual entrepreneur and striving worker. Hence democratic freedoms were essential to the success of the economic mix. The "invisible hand" of the free market would balance prices fairly by the dynamism of competitive forces and the legal constraints voted by democratically elected bodies would guard against illegal or unjust and arbitrary seizure of one’s rightful assets.

Of equal importance, our author relates, was Smith’s concern with the local regional prosperity and welfare of all its citizens. And here Smith was an optimist, extending his great confidence in the workings of capitalism to the social and economic betterment of the workers, too. "The man whom we naturally love the most is he who joins to his own original and selfish feeling, the most exquisite sensibility and sympathetic feelings of others." The increased prosperity of the local capitalist entrepreneurs would lead to increased largesse for all, or in modern terms, as ascribed by our late lamented JFK, " a rising tide lifts all boats".

This model was much emphasized in the writings of our Founding Fathers, as is Jefferson’s famous "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" and not the more restrained French proclamation of "Liberte, Fraternite, Eqalite". And it worked well in America where both the small business owner and his workers were literally in the same boat, really dependant on each other to cooperate and reinforce each other’s efforts. While the risk taker capitalist owner would be amply rewarded for his venture the community in general would profit by the increased efficiency and productivity of the workings of the unhampered free market. And of equal importance the welfare of both owner and worker was symbiotically connected as both groups became dependant on each other’s efforts. And in the intimate circle that was the local region—village, town, or county—that was the area involved in this economic mix, the bond of close proximity made both the affluent and the not so rich neighborly in a social sense, at least to a reasonably cohesive extent.

But Adam Smith could not foresee the remarkable communications revolution that changed the confines of most society from provincial intimacy to the large national and then the vast international horizons of today. The previous local enterprise and its limited capital and social concerns have now been completely transcended by mega giant corporations that have leaped over all political and geographic boundaries, becoming the global giants—mostly American—such as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Disney, General Electric, IBM, General Motors, Microsoft,etc., that have no discernible local roots and concerns. The now mega corporation can make decisions affecting many thousands of employees world wide from corporate headquarters totally insulated from repercussions that can effect many of its far flung help. The local caring and sharing benevolent loop that Adam Smith was happy about is long since gone.

"……This Fast New World has catalyzed such a cultural shift in America. The ancient reward-seeking behaviors of our species, particularly represented in the restless temperament of the migrant, have been magnified to reveal a fundamental paradox of human freedom: that the healthy instincts for self-preservation---self-interest, curiosity, and ambition—when consistently and excessively rewarded by affluent circumstance and a plethora of choice will run away to greed……..In consequence, the social balance that is so important to a civil society, and that was championed by Adam Smith as fundamental to his economic philosophy, has been lost to unbridled self interest." "……where Adam Smith’s instinctual engines of economic growth are allowed to run free of social constraint, then the occasional outbreak of greed and covetous desire is the price that must be paid for the choice we have made. In the manic society, as in mania, when the human will is made subservient to instinctual desire, more is never enough."

What makes this book and analysis of our basic socio-economic situation interesting is that the tension between the economic and social aspects of our culture is arrestingly portrayed. So far much positive results are evident; no where ever has such an affluence been created for as many people. But our author avers that the emotional costs and damage to our social fabric is increasing. In subsequent chapters he details the growing problem of obesity and lack of exercise and relates it chiefly to the mass manipulation of our food habits and desires by the McDonald’s and other mega food merchandising giant companies. Also the dire workaholic lack of free time by many employees caught in the competitive frenzy of long hours at the desk in their manic drive to earn more in their relentless pursuit of the earthly Nirvana that more money will supposedly provide. And the indebtedness and lack of saving to reach this fabled "happiness". And the panic and anxiety that one can experience as these goals proof somehow elusive. And the loss, as one pursues this relatively exclusionary self interest way, of the support and friendship of the community and individuals that once were close.

But alas, he offers no true way out of our seeming looming morass. Several self help interviews with successful Fast New World players who have survived the frenetic pace of this regimen offer warmed over advice about slowing down and sort of "stopping the world I want to get off". From time to time our author, who is both a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, throws in tempting tidbits of scientific insights about serotonin and dopamine and their probable influence on our emotions, but nothing tangible that will really affect one’s "manic" conduct and make the individual become once again his brother’s keeper and do only to his fellow human being what is also not hurtful to himself.

What seems somehow disingenuous is to begin the struggle with human greed and societal constraints merely

with the American experience. Humanities’ struggle against avarice and inhumanity based on greed is almost a time worn cliché. The Jewish Bible has many strictures to help the poor, the widow and the orphan, and to render equal justice to the poor as well as the rich; the New Testament forbids lending at interest to a fellow Christian and Christ’s disciples at first tried communal living and sharing equally all income; as did the Pilgrims in the first year of their live in the new world. Both attempts, we know, were soon abandoned as impractical attempts in the struggle against human avarice----but greed, in stead, was left in the Catholic Canon as one of the seven deadly sins. Or as Chaucer in one of the Canterbury Tales proclaimed, "Radix Malorum est Pecunia" (money is the root of all evil). But the alchemists, in the middle ages continued their fruitless but very diligent search for riches by turning dross into gold, an international effort of pseudo science and mysticism. But the mania, if that what it is, for riches and its attendant prestige has been with us, and of course our migrant ancestors, from the dawn of history. Indeed, the search for a better life has caused many population shifts and upheavals and probably the survival of the fittest mainly in those turbulent times. In our own history, the fabled and mostly failed Alaska Gold Rush a century ago provided a modern mini enactment of this theme. Many thousands uprooting their lives in their mostly unsuccessful search for gold, but discovering and developing a new and mostly successful region to live and prosper. (Not only caribou but oil--- We hope!).

Actually we Americans can become not only manic about material things but have transcendent political and moral goals too. We all thought that Hitler and Stalin were evil to the core and reacted overwhelmingly to defeat them. First in the Second World War against Hitler( with Stalin on our side) and then in the 30 year "cold war" against Stalin and communist Soviet Russia—the Evil Empire of Ronald Reagan. Also, including "manic" economic interest but still by far transcending it, was the Manifest Destiny credo of the 19th century, the "go west young man" mantra that made us the unified coast to coast great power of the hemisphere. And looming today we have another global contest of huge proportions to enlist the total support of our people and lift us again to those great levels of creativity—and sacrifice—that we have demonstrated in the past. (And become positively manic about). The fight for world wide energy sufficiency. With a safe non polluting substance that we can all afford. And let us not wait until the price of oil bankrupts us all. This will be another cold war, perhaps of 30 years duration, but very few additional shots, if any, will have to be fired or lives lost. We in the free world, led by the United States in existing expertise and financial strength, have the wherewithal to combine and gradually reduce oil dependence with greatly increased research and experimentation with the many feasible alternate energy sources available—chemical, nuclear, solar, coal, wind driven, and conservation. And we must not turn back even though the price of oil starts to slip and slide, and perhaps even plummet at the news that this great effort is at last under way. Oil can easily return to reasonable levels if we jointly pursue this crucial task under our determined unrelenting guidance. The mere threat of its successful completion will start shaking the oil sheiks’ prices at least 10 to 15 % in our direction.

In a way we are not merely "going west, young man" as in our manifest destiny, nor is it world wide globalization in an economic sense, a la Tom Friedman, that we hold dear. While we certainly have strong resonance from our immigrant restlessness, curiosity and desire for earthly success, ultimately we look beyond that secular horizon and strive for some sort of redemption, salvation, and redemption in a cosmic sense; that we do not come from a oblivion or are condemned to oblivion on physical death. And on this earth the American people—a basically religious people--- will rally round the most redemptive cause we know, Freedom, Democracy, and the Brotherhood of Man. And that’s what George Bush’s second inaugural address was all about ----- much to the scorn or surprise of some people. Maybe not the second Gettysburg address but a bold template for the surprising resurgence that seems to be taking place now in the so called third world. Remember the "spiritual malaise" that Jimmy Carter complained about before Reagan beat him easily with capitalist vigor and action? Bush’s bold approach seems to be just the right stance politically for the free world and especially for the emerging middle east nascent thrust for freedom and democratic rule.

Now to get on with the fight for affordable world wide fuel!. For saving the world , not getting off, is one of the true American national pastimes, not like Whybrow’s admired but fading Fast New World frenetics.