LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Author Barbara Ehrenreich thinks it’s time for Americans to get angry.
After taking on the myth of American upward mobility with books like “Nickel and Dimed,” Ehrenreich is tackling the U.S. cult of positive thinking with her new book “Bright-Sided.”
“We’re talking about something that is almost America’s religion,” she said of the positive thinking movement that has spawned businesses ranging from motivational speaking to outplacement services for the newly unemployed.
Ehrenreich and many others think Americans, known globally for their sunny dispositions, have good reason to be irate.
The income gap between the super rich and most of the rest of us is the largest since the 1920s; nearly one-sixth of the U.S. population is uninsured; and, contrary to popular belief, we are less likely to move to a higher financial status than Germans, Canadians, the French, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes.
“Over the years this positive thinking ideology has really diminished anger about economic inequality because the idea is you can be rich, you will be rich,” Ehrenreich said.
The truth, she said, is that “many people you might have called middle class or working class before have been ground down toward poverty or even destitution ... This is the kind of thing that in the past caused serious social unrest,” said the author, who joked that she was working to start an uprising of her own with the new book.
Ehrenreich was a couple chapters into “Bright-Sided” when the financial crisis shook global markets. Her subsequent reporting unearthed “manic” optimism on Wall Street.
“I thought of the finance sector as kind of a sober, pinstriped place ... by and large the mood was that nothing bad could happen,” she said, adding that some high-profile people who did raise questions about subprime exposure, rising mortgage defaults or other serious dangers were happily shown the door by top executives.
Unbridled optimism ran rampant on Wall Street during the run up to the financial meltdown. It’s still a mainstay on Main Street, which is bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, she said.
The author said she was surprised to find that the U.S. positive thinking movement is similar to Soviet-style Communism in that optimism is mandatory.
In the United States, the “element of coercion” is most visible in the workplace, she said. Big business consumes the lion’s share of motivational products and uses them to comfort laid-off workers with upbeat outplacement services or to rally those employees who remain to “do more with less.”
So-called “prosperity gospel” preachers like Joel Osteen have been delivering the message that God wants you to be rich to millions of followers -- some of whom have seen their finances destroyed by the mortgage meltdown.
The preachers’ message to people, who previously may have been shut out of the credit markets due to income or racism, was “you deserve a bigger house. God wants you to have it,” she said.
So, when someone offered a mortgage with no down payment or no proof of income, well, “that’s just God reaching down to bless you,” Ehrenreich said.
That helps explain why decidedly not wealthy individuals like Joe the Plumber will oppose tax increases on the super-rich or government-run healthcare for all.
“If it’s your idea that you just have to keep visualizing wealth and repeating the affirmations that will draw wealth to you, then you certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to discomfit the wealthy,” Ehrenreich said, who offers readers an alternative to thinking happy all the time.
“The message from ‘Bright-Sided’ is that it’s alright to be angry. You can’t just put on a smiley face and say I‘m going to go along with whatever is thrown my way,” she said.
“At some point people have to figure out what is really happening to them and get together in some way and work for concrete change.”
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Patricia Reaney