I could be the last person in America to read Eat, Pray, Love, but there is a segment in the book that keeps running through my mind.
The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, references Luigi Barzini’s book The Italians when explaining why a country that has “produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages” has not become a world power.
Barzini’s conclusion is that after hundreds of years of corruption and exploitation by foreign domination, Italians don’t trust political leaders or big institutions.
Gilbert said the prevailing thought is that “because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated and unfair, one should only trust what one can experience with one’s own senses.”
She added, “In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down.”
I have pondered Gilbert’s insight for weeks. I keep asking myself the essential question.
Is the United States headed the way of Italy?
Survey after survey shows that Americans do not trust their elected officials and don’t trust the people on Wall Street.
My parents grew up in a society where people trusted big companies to provide secure, long term jobs, excellent benefits and solid retirement plans.
They trusted Wall Street to invest in those big companies and fuel America’s economy growth.
They trusted political leaders to pass legislation that made the nation better, like the Civil Rights Act, even when the vote wasn’t politically expedient.
We trusted our leaders to do the right thing.
My children are growing up in a society where none of that is happening. Corporations dump loyal employees, cut benefits and wiggle out of paying for pensions. Wall Street rewards them for it.
Wall Street has been based on a system of paying employees huge bonuses for gambling in silly trading games, rather than helping the economy produce growth.
Washington seems more focused on the latest opinion poll or their lobbyist buddies than what is good for the average citizen.
Long term thinking seems to occur around the “24-hour news cycle.”
If the American people are following the path of the Italians, you can’t really blame them.
On the other hand, I don’t want to see the United States become the next Italy.
I want to trust big institutions, but that trust has to be earned.
I trust many life insurance companies because they are heavily regulated and oriented towards safety. I’ve been in an associated industry for all my adult life, know the people who run the companies and believe in the concepts they sell. The culture is very different from Goldman Sachs.
I want to trust government. I voted for President Obama in 2008 because I thought he would bring change to the economic system. Instead he gave us Geithner, Bernanke, Dr. Lawrence Summers and all the people who got us in this mess to begin with. Having said that, there is a good chance I’ll vote for Obama again as I am not impressed with the competition.
There is a way to turn things around but the window is short. I’d like to see economic incentives for people who save and invest as opposed to bailouts for those who lack self control.
America could completely become the Italian model, where we retreat to our own worlds and focus on immediate pleasure.
Although there are a lot of downfalls, as Gilbert notes, the Italians can make one heck of a pizza.
In the big scheme of life, that’s amore.
Don McNay, who lives in Richmond, Ky., is an award-winning financial columnist for Huffington Post Contributor. You can learn more about him at www.donmcnay.com.