PROVINCETOWN — The American Dream rides high out on the gray waters of Provincetown Harbor this morning in the form of an immense yacht.
Actually, I can see five yachts from the beach, but this one makes the others look like tenders, or even little rowboats. It is, I am told, at 456 feet, the sixth largest yacht in the world, and is owned by David Geffen, the multi-billionaire media mogul; it has a crew of 45. Its name is Rising Sun and it is valued at almost $600 million.
Meanwhile, here on shore, some people are working at least two jobs just to keep their heads above water — “service workers,” they are called. Many people are going under, financially speaking, being evicted, or losing health coverage. I myself have a tenuous hold on the lower middle class; I am wondering how much the new stove will cost and where exactly the money will come from.
But this is not a screed about income inequality — not exactly. David Geffen earned his money, as far as I can tell, legally. Research his bio and you will find that he started in a menial position in a mailroom and with ingenuity and persistence rose to the top, first in music and later in film production. Perhaps every person reading this has in some small way contributed to his fortune: we all rely on media, the circus with our bread, to enrich our lives.
The subject of income inequality is a slippery slope, especially here on the Outer Cape, where the majority of homes are second, that is, not primary, residences. This means, for each, there is another home somewhere. And this means another heating system, and other appliances, and furniture, and perhaps a car or two left in another driveway. Who is to say what is an appropriate level of ownership? There are countries where such a dictum was attempted, and no one would want to live in them. And the Outer Cape in August is a virtual playland, even in the midst of a pandemic, with thousands of vacationers spending on fine dining, shopping, sport fishing, whale watching, sailing, and other experiences. Who is to say what activities are appropriate for your hard-earned money?
But we live so far inside a broken system that we cannot recognize it for what it is. Our national priorities are wildly askew. The fundamental values of food security, universal access to health care, a good education for all, affordable housing, dignified senior living, and a sustainable environment are being overlooked in this country, while elsewhere in the world real progress is being made. I am not an economist, but I hope that a system could exist in which a David Geffen or Bill Gates could succeed while the goals listed above could be achieved, or at least addressed.
I believe, too, that a spiritual awakening may be in order. I use the term with great hesitancy. I have no formal religious affiliation, and do not believe one is necessary. But I think a reckoning with the current tragic state of affairs, and our individual roles in it, is in order. Even a minor realignment of our values would result in a changed world. Pride of ownership could be tempered with a sense of shared destiny. Consumerism can be directed to address social and environmental goals.
After all, the greatest power we have is the way we spend our money — for better or worse. A change of focus from one’s self to the community at large could reap benefits. What if, instead of the GDP, we used a wellness or even a happiness index to measure the success of our nation, our region, our towns?
Our Outer Cape communities are splendid laboratories for such experiments. At our town meetings we can directly aim our tax dollars to match our priorities. But it must start with the individual: you must be the change you want to see.
So, I wave to David Geffen out on his splendid yacht and head for my humble house. How can I begin to change the world this morning?