There seems to be a lot of discussion right now about what defines need and want. Both are categories of desire. Need is most clearly defined by the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, safety. Included above this is some vestige of social connection, a form of intimacy akin to love- that thing without which babies die (see the studies regarding this from mid-twentieth century), old folks slip into afflictions and die, and the rest of us suffer depression and a variety of illnesses. Abraham Maslow (1943) developed a pyramid of levels to represent a complete individual that has been revised from time to time, but the basic ideas have stayed the same. There is a line on the pyramid, below it are needs and above it are what we might call wants. Above the line categories include respect, achievement, creativity, self-determination. Our founding folks might have seen these as the basis of the “pursuit of happiness”. So are they really wants- or another form of needs? I suppose it depends on whom you talk to.
Many wealthy people in this country think cutting back on their monthly liquor orders constitutes privation. They will also tell anyone who listens that everyone else, those making below 50k a year especially, ought to just suck it up and cut back. They shake fingers and cluck, some massaging their conscience with a few dollars thrown at a charity (for which, as Blago of Chicago made clear, they expect a return in money, big parties, and other benefits). No health insurance? Too bad you are not “talented” enough to find a good job with benefits. Need extra tutoring for your kids? Daycare? Too bad. You should not have had children you can’t afford. The list goes on and on. They strut around at cocktail hour, palms open, telling their friends “what do they expect? Of course our companies/banks/businesses need the bailout. We are the ones who keep this country going.” The unquestioned assumption that big salaries, and big compensation packages are also necessary, needful things; this fun-house mirror of self regard and privilege is horrifying. Finding out recently that a high percentage of the businesses getting bailout money operate core off-shore tax havens and that much of that money is being funneled away to these havens is also scary. It all points out that the modus operandi for too long has been nothing more than greed driven to the extreme, and instead of being the foundation for a healthy, complex economy– undermined it entirely. Like over-mined ground in West Virginia, the ground is collapsing and everything that rested on top is caving in and becoming toxic. The fires that burn below in the mines of Pennsylvania will burn for thousands of years (http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/centralia.htm). Let’s hope this metaphor for our financial system is a little less long term.
Maslow had it right I think. In a very pragmatic way, we know if people don’t have basic needs met their lives spin out of control, and even worse, they die. I don’t think the vast majority of people in this country are confused about the difference between needs and wants, and they don’t need daytime talk show hosts to wag fingers and wax poetic about the uplifting opportunities for self improvement by learning to live with less. What most people seem to need is parity between those who want to believe they are the caretakers of our systems, and those who have little control over them. Business journalists held hands over their collective mouths until the holidays had passed, and now are starting to blather forth all the bad news they held in. It’s gonna get a lot worse, and no one is really sure how much worse. Where have you gone Nancy Reagan; ketchup never was a vegetable and a full belly is a basic need. We can’t wish or talk away the realities of what is happening. The time for blame seems to have passed when the government is giving life boats to the very wealthy while yelling into the megaphone to look the other way, these are not life boats, they are some thing else, um, yeah, bailouts that will make everything better. Just keep your noses to those rapidly sinking grindstones, and we’ll give you a couple hundred bucks at tax time (and take it back in the now $17,000 per wage earner that will be needed in taxes to fund the bailout). When the ship is going down, those scions of business and culture will be off to their private islands stocked with alcohol and say it was everyone else’s’ fault. The nut-bags plan to hole up in Idaho, and as one blogger put it, “I’ll have the guns to come take your organic gardens, liberals”. No, we have no time to blame.
What do I need today? I need a laugh. I need to clean my house. But more importantly, I need to know I can feed my kids, get them adequate medical care, and keep a roof over our heads and clothes on their rapidly growing bodies. A solid elementary and secondary education is essential as well. For myself, I’ll skip a meal or two but I can’t live without the laughs. It is way too dark for me, and many others, right now. We have to find a way to laugh without sticking our heads in the sand as many conservatives would have us do. We have to find a way to channel our anger productively, and act. When we suggest a state-wide schools strike involving students, parents and staffers in the local newspaper comments section (in response to the announcement of deep cuts in public schools as the first place to plunder now that the state is broke) it is rapidly removed. There was no foul language; it was a short, thoughtful, polite comment. Do we need or want to speak out? How about both? Perhaps it is doubly necessary, this need to speak, to form consensus, then act– no matter how scary it seems to those in control. The ship is sinking. What do you need as it does? What are you going to do about it?