Money Doesn’t Change Everything

David Mamet wrote, “Money buys you things.” As with communication, it is the context of money that gives it meaning. The same words can light up a listener’s life, or bore another to death.

So money can buy food, shelter and clothing; but the same amount can ruin your soul or tear a family apart. It is the instrument of good in one hand or greed in another. Greed has nothing to do with money. Rather it’s the lust for power and use of that power for wasteful narcissistic purposes. Financial reporters should major in psychology—not journalism.

I have a friend who lives in the eastern part of my adopted home state of Pennsylvania amidst the dairy farms, corn and soybean farms, small metal fabrication workshops, lumberyards and woodworkers. Lately, there’s been a burgeoning growth of commuters to NYC, some 50 to 75 miles away, depending on the borough or suburb of their workplace. The region is beautiful: classically bucolic with deep woods, winding creeks and gently high and low rolling hills.

Recently, he told me that the local school system decided to replace the football field in his small town with Astroturf.  The cost is incredible, approaching high six figures. That a relatively small school district would allocate resources toward sports and not toward music and painting, is appalling. Everyone agrees that team sports help to build character. But who talked himself into the decision that a rural school would benefit from Astroturf? And, more important, how?

Greed is a particularly tragic sin, because it destroys everything it touches. In Pennsylvania, football has become not merely a religion, but a very big business. However, no state is immune to the disease of the lust for power. A state needs only look to the federal government for inspiration. When a state college football coach earns more than its president, something’s wrong. The solution is to confess and repent the sin of greed. 

As usual, the devil finds work for idle hands. It begins, of course, with parents. Some do not instill enough non-materially oriented values. This is one of the reasons Freud disliked the US—it was like a pre-adolescent nation back in his day (the 1920s and 30s). He likened it to an unconscious child: a mass of humanity obsessed with things—more and more things. He also noted that “fun” was becoming a sort of normative state of the American mind. Today, over 80 years later, he’d be horrified.

Second, are the school boards.  They argue most of the time, rather than debate the best method to help students achieve an education.  Next come the teachers, principals and superintendents.  For some their main interests are, first, to keep their jobs and, second, to make them easier to perform.  So, what do any of these folks care about the waste of funds used to buy Astroturf?  Not much, if anything at all.  No one “loves” the ideals; no one takes “ownership” of the kids’ education.  Education has become, like football, a business.  Check out the textbook industry.  It is, in crude business terms, “a gusher”, “a gold mine”, etc.  A business, furthermore, in which there are no competitors, save a handful of “charter schools”, religious schools (thank God) and the tiny home-school community.

Think about high school soccer versus high school football.  One requires almost no equipment, the other a virtual warehouse of armor.  One causes frequent injuries that plague a person the rest of his life.  The other involves actually “faking” injuries.  Or take high school wrestling.  No injuries.  Hardly any money required.  Hello?

Parsing the Mamet quote, you find that “money” means as much what it is not, as what it is. One expects Mamet, like any great contemporary writer, to expand on the subject, but he limits himself to one pithy sentence. “Buys” keeps it simple—the most obvious verb. Again, he’s focusing on what he isn’t telling you. Which brings us to “you”—keeping it directly personal. This isn’t about the other guy. Money is never about someone else. But “things” is the key: he is reducing money to the medium of exchange for the mostly prosaic things that money buys. Forget about services, or about “material prosperity”, as in Jefferson’s definition of “happiness”. Those days are gone, replaced by a sort—a mild sort for some, stronger for others—of existential Astroturf. Why not spend the money?

It should be noted, at this point, that Mamet is the only writer who is consistently faithful to Freud. He knows his work well, probably read every word Freud wrote. Thus, he knows that Freud evolved from beginning to end. Did he err at times? Who doesn’t? (I fantasize sometimes about an all-night radio show about Freud. I could host it.)

I know several electrical engineers, all working in the many different forms of electrical energy. Electricity is elegantly simple, similar to water but much more powerful. All these friends went to engineering schools, which are fascinating in their contrast, on the one hand, to liberal arts schools, and in their similarity, on the other, to music schools or conservatories.

Here’s the traditional routine in electrical engineering college:  every year you take one class with the same teacher. It lasts from 8 am to 3 pm, with a morning break and lunch from noon to 1 pm. The teacher lays it on heavy in the morning and then lightens up a bit in the afternoon, reviewing the morning and setting up the next day. Maybe a surprise quiz, maybe not. There’s no homework; you learn in the class. It sounds familiar because it’s exactly the same routine as grade school. Except now you’re in your late teens and early twenties. There are usually two tests per semester, with the “final” being a pass or fail portal to the next year. Of course, you study at home for the four exams; but, if you aren’t “working” during class, you won’t make it past year one. Engineering schools usually last four years. Some colleges and universities have two year programs that run through the entire 12 month year. They tend to cater both to kids whose families don’t have “four-year” money, as well as to low-income foreigners.

Music education is similar, except you have two or three teachers. It’s not as straightforward as electricity.  Also, being an art form based on sensory aptitudes, it is more subjective than electrical engineering. Otherwise it’s the same as engineering:  “old school”, so to speak.  For instance, counterpoint is a specialty usually taught by masters, steeped in the church music of the Baroque period. You study Bach until you think you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, and then study more. No big money involved, and certainly no greed.

Imagine how public education would be if “grade school” and perhaps, later, the junior high format were used throughout high school and, even better, college and university. Why let the engineers have all the fun? High school could be completed by 16 instead of 17, higher education could be an experience to carry with you to your grave, instead of the odd blend of vacation and high school that most college experiences are now.

Relevance to gardening?  All my electrical friends garden, and many of their colleagues at ABB, GE and Bechtel do too. Another thing—many are from rural or semi-rural backgrounds.  Agriculture and horticulture are based, like electricity, on a natural system and your mastery and manipulation of it. Electrical engineering is remarkably creative, as, of course, is gardening.  Problems, solutions, beginnings, conclusions, new problems, ad infinitum.
Certainly, gardening isn’t “Astroturf”. And it doesn’t involve much money. This is the wisdom of the ancients: money is not “the root of all evil” as is often misquoted. It is “at the root of all evil”—a very different meaning, turning on a simple preposition.

So, as we approach the school year, let’s hear it for the grade school format for higher education in the liberal arts, the “master electricians”, the “master gardeners”.  And let’s hear it for playing musical instruments.

As for Astroturf?  Why not just rip it up next year and replace it with grass? Then fire the school board.  Now that would build character.

P.S.  About the blog title: there were few, if any, better, more powerful or dynamic live stage performers than Cyndi Lauper during the late 1980s. Her musical director was Rick Derringer (of ‘Hang on Sloopy’ fame) who also played guitar about 15 feet off to her left side, out of the bright spotlight.  ‘Money Changes Everything’ was her extended finale (or was it the encore?).  She went on with it for over 10 minutes.  What a voice!   Already nuts, the crowd went wild.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 10th, 2010 at 2:10 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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27 Responses to “Money Doesn’t Change Everything”

  1. beth said:

    as usual, eloquently put and wholeheartedly agreed upon.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Beth.

  2. Jennifer said:

    Maybe they are conserving water, saving the cost of an irrrigation system, plus maintenance & repairs, cutting down on noise and air pollution by not mowing and if more people at more athletic events brings more revenue to the school maybe that helps subsidize other programs or teachers etc..
    Do we really ever know both sides of an argument or is there some information about the astroturf decision that was not mentioned?

    • George said:

      Thank you for the excellent response.  Astroturf is a type of engineered plastic that is, surprisingly, quite expensive.  It is touted to provide a more uniform playing surface as its major benefit.  However, sport is supposed to involve an element of chance, rather than being purely a matter of man-made or controlled factors.  That’s part of what makes them “fun” as well as fascinating.  Think of yachting—what a drag if it was on still water.  Or golf played indoors.  Part of the great fun of football is exactly the grass and, later, the mud.  I’ve heard both sides of the “injuries debate”, and, as a former player, I can vouch for grass being generally safer in a sport that is still almost absurdly dangerous.  If I want to suffer a concussion I’d  prefer it be on grass than on Astroturf.

      As for water, mowing, air pollution, etc., I don’t know.  These are jobs, after all.  I also am ignorant of the environmental impact of Astroturf production.  I am certain that it will be “upgraded”, as they say, and surely replaced, if not.  So, there will be another cost down the road.

      Thanks again for your excellent questions.

  3. Marianne Bell said:

    For a deeper exploration of good old American style Greed, read Richard Powers’ mesmerizing GAIN.

    In wild contrast to your measured words on that subject, what a disappointing and unpleasant surprise to see you include teachers with those school administrators who mostly want ‘to keep jobs & make them easier to perform.’

    Do you really KNOW any elementary school teachers?

    Do you have any idea how facile and ludicrous such a slam sounds to any person facing educating, disciplining, consoling, etc., etc., rooms filled with 25-30 students for SIX TO SEVEN HOURS A DAY, FIVE LONG DAYS A WEEK?

    If you think gardening is a challenge, try teaching for a year! or twenty…

    Your judgement ranks right up there with the latest Tea Party rantings.

    Quel bummer.

    • George said:

      Thanks for the rather amazing posts.  Where to begin?  I assume you mean “Albert” Einstein and “Stephen” Hawking.  But I was trying to say that electricity operates—in our lives—on a fairly simple system or in a simple way.  We complicate it, of course.  However, I’m not being too abstract here.  There are a few principles involving pneumatics and vacuums and they are relatively simple.  That’s all I was trying to say.  Hydrology is simple, in essence.  But in both cases, the technologies used to harness water and electricity are extraordinarily complex.  Therefore, the rigor of engineering schools.

      I’ll try the Richard Powers book.  Thanks for the tip.  However, I try to read as little as possible these days.

      As for teachers, I know dozens and know them well.  I worked part-time in a non-profit educational reform foundation for many years.  This is why I said “some” teachers, etc.  And I have seen firsthand some teachers who shouldn’t be teaching because, indeed, they are not capable, competent or emotionally fit to do the job.  I was not “slamming” anyone and I am sorry you or others took it that way.

      As for political parties, I follow Groucho Marx who said something like “I don’t want to join a club that won’t have me”.  Something like that

      Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  4. First, I thoroughly enjoy your essays. They are always thoughtful and thought provoking. I do, however, have a serious complaint. Please change the color of your font. Second, leave some white space between paragraphs for ease of reading, especially when there is a quantity of material to be read. Both will be appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Norman W Wilson, PhD

    • George said:

      Thank you very much for your compliment.  We are going to be overhauling the blog site next month.  Your complaints will be at the top of our list.  Thanks again.

  5. Marianne Bell said:

    re: “Electricity is … simple.”

    Man, even if you had Albert and Stephen in the room with you, isn’t it impossible to define?

  6. Woo said:

    Well George,
    Don’t know which school you are speaking of that has a parent astro turf salesman. The cost of maintaining grass is less that the permanant injuries to children that this astro turf salesman will inflict. Which school official is getting the payoff check?

    • George said:

      Thanks for your post, Woo.  My friend lives about 40 miles away and is not given to details, so to speak.  But I shall pursue it further.  Stay tuned!  Thanks again.

  7. Marlene Hays said:

    Dear George – I totally agree with you, however, do believe that Freud was screwed up in his own way though. I live in upstate New York – farm country – and my husband and I operate a small sustainable farm here. Our local Town board is passing laws that will make farming ever harder in this rural community. We believe that it is in anticipation of development which many are pushing in this region. After all, who wants farmers? In addition, the community that my kids grew up in about 30 miles from here, is rapidly becoming a small city, rather than a nice suburban neighborhood. The Town Board has continually gone against the beliefs of many residents and continued a huge project to build a chip fab plant there (partly, at least, owned by Dubai). My husband and I moved out from there two years ago. Yesterday, my son and I drove back to reminisce and see what was going on in the old neighborhood. We were appalled! It was very sad indeed. Of course, this fits into the “astroturf” discussion in that many people believe that bigger is better. My husband and I don’t like that idea at all. If this is the direction of the future, our old community will be paved for a “parking lot” and the future of our farm might certainly be in jeopardy. Very sad indeed.

    • George said:

      Dear Marlene – Everyone is screwed up.  But I still believe that Freud was very helpful, particularly with dream interpretation, the id-superego-ego scheme and the general notion of transference.  Of course, he was wrong about the Lamarckian nature of the unconscious, and I can’t speak well about his views on women.  Plus, he smoked over 20 cigars a day.  But if you take his writings from start to finish, you have to admit, I think, that he was one of the greatest modern minds.  Not a Darwin, Mendel, Kraepelin or Weismann, but not too far behind.

      As for your farm problem, I can say only that it helps to know your local politicians extremely well when in the farming business.  The “squeaky wheel” effect.  Do not give up political activity, no matter circumstances or stage of life.  They have to listen and often it helps.  Strength in numbers!  Thanks for your very thoughtful post.

  8. Dan Schwartz said:

    Great article! Sadly it is all very true. Have we as North Americans lost sight of our Soul? What has made us great is now our downfall and I fear we will not be able to recover from the fate of the New Roman Empire. Somewhere along the line we lost our foundational roots and we have become so human in nature. Greed has not longer been the problem, now we suffer from a God complex.

    Speaking of God, the next time we gardeners go to plant a seed, ponder for a moment how such a small grain will produce a wonderful flower or bear fruit to consume. Life is rich, wonderful and free if we keep in mind we are only the guardians of this great planet.

    • George said:

      Thanks for the passionate response.  We are still a great nation, in my view.  We have stumbled here and there, but that is the cost of greatness.  The Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire and, as such, laid the foundation for modern Europe.  Not too bad, after all.  But you make an eloquent point.  That was what I was trying to say about “repenting” the sin of greed and turning away from things like Astroturf in small towns.  Or any towns for that matter, but especially tiny struggling ones.  Thanks again for posting.

  9. Winnifred Liem said:

    Hi, I thought the Bible says “the love of money is the root of all evil” emphasizing the love of it, or like you said, being greedy. Just thought I’d share this with you, this morning my husband (who went to a military Baptist school in Texas) said, “I want to donate to the school, but I want it to go directly to the kids”}, heard that the school needed band instruments. He wrote the music director and asked for a list of instruments needed. Today he told me he would meet those needs. I couldn’t be prouder of my guy….. Our three girls studied music in Santa Monica high school in CA. and competed in Austria in a worl-wide competition back in the 90’s and won the competition. They were the only public high school entry and won against all the music academies. Early music education and parent involvement was the key, and now they are trying to dissolve the music program because of lack of money they say. The concerned community is fighting hard to keep the music programs in the school. Same goes for the art program.
    We could do with less money devoted to the sports programs.

    I love you writing style. Winnifred Liem

    • George said:

      Thank you for your lovely post.  I’m not sure, but I always thought many translations of the Bible left out the word “at”.  This has always suggested to me that evil has other sources than the love of money or, as you correctly say, greed.  Now I’m scratching my head and wondering where my college Bible (the Dartmouth translation) is.

      You obviously care very much for music and have passed it to your children.  Brava! And thanks for posting and for the compliment.

  10. elspeth grant bobbs said:

    It is the love of money that is the root of evil

    • George said:

      I thought it was the word “at” that was often misquoted.  But I am no Bible scholar.  “At”, as in “attend” and “attachment” might suggest the “care” that is central to the classical definition of “love”.  I shall have to dig deeper.  Thanks for helping clarify it for me.

  11. Beth said:

    Interesting proposal.
    Two statements I noticed that weren’t entirely accurate:
    1. Wrestling causes no injury. Wrong! Wrestlers are routinely starving themselves to get to a lower weight class. Very dangerous for high school boys.
    2. Gardening doesn’t involve much money???
    You must be kidding!

    • George said:

      Thank you, Beth.  I agree that some wrestlers try for different weight classes routinely.  However, these are normally a matter of a few pounds, since most high school and college weight classes are of 10 pounds.  Occasionally, someone will try to jump two classes,  say from 155-165 to 135-145.  Body types play a factor in these rare attempts to starve themselves and you’re absolutely correct that it is a bad idea, since teenagers, particularly, grow quickly.  Frankly, unless you’re getting married, starving yourself isn’t ever wise.

      But my point was not that most wrestlers, with the proper guidance of most coaches, get into a weight groove and stay there.  It was that there are virtually no injuries involved with the art of wrestling.  Quite the opposite.  A wrestler is acutely aware of every bone, muscle and joint in both his and his opponent’s body.  The “win” takes 3 seconds.  The matches are 7 minutes.  As for building character, few sports are better, since each member of the squad is both alone, and part of a team, during a match.

      Nevertheless, you make an excellent point about extreme weight loss.

      As for gardening not costing “much money”, I’m being sincere.  A garden that will outlast an average contemporary house by 50% in time, will actually add value to the property about 15 to 20%, depending on who you talk to in the real estate business.  Take a luxurious ½ acre garden.  What would it cost—$50,000 in all? It changes the quality of your life, your family’s life, your friends’ and guests’ lives permanently.  People spend that much on a one room addition, like a den, or a makeover of a kitchen or foyer.  These things are nice, but don’t even compare to a ½ acre garden or even a ¼ acre garden.  As for vegetable gardening?  Are you kidding me this time?  Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  12. Steve McNew said:

    Let’s also go to school board meetings and ask hard questions about WHY things like Astroturf, or new landscaping, or office space and the like are needed to improve student’s education. More than a few administrators seem to like new for new’s sake, as though theye building monuments to themselves… an educator since 1971

    • George said:

      Thanks for the passionate post, Steve. It is, sad to say, all about “big is better”. While this may be true in other institutions such as industry or science or finance, it is the opposite in education, especially in smaller communities. So often you hear that the “small town” person is somehow less educated, sophisticated, etc. Nonsense. A small town can take care of itself well and often does. Education is local and should remain local. What is happening is that “local” is being redefined as “regional” or simply increased via the district. As the economy falters, one can hardly blame folks for wanting to hang on to their jobs.

      But children’s educations are different. It is no longer about money, but about morality: right, wrong, good, bad, correct, incorrect. The three Rs. Facts tend not to change. Kids need to learn these facts—information that leads to knowledge, knowledge that leads to wisdom—the hard way. Teachers that are firm and strict, without being a bit crazy or sadistic.

      Another thing: in high school, some guys would go into the athletic programs so intensely that it affected their ability to study, to concentrate during class—in other words, to learn. Tragic.

      Thanks again.

  13. Steve said:

    I read your article and thought you had several good points.

    I must take issue with how you describe engineering school. There are some that have 5 year programs – requiring the student to take a full slate of humanities courses, literature, etc. The number of credits needed for this program is usually 16 to 20 more than traditional four year schools. There are a few that offer work/study programs – 6 months at school and 6 months at a coop job.

    I have not heard of an engineering school that has one professor for the entire day. The usual is to switch classes every hour or so – and with each switch there is a different professor.

    With regard to the Astro-Turf – I could not agree with you more.

    Thank you.

    Steve, Ph.D., PE and a Chemical Engineer, past company president and presently prof. of management.

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Steve.

      Engineering schools used to be structured that way. That is why I described the ones that my friends went to as “traditional”. Texas Tech used to be structured, by and large, that way in almost every engineering discipline. Also, Texas A & M, but this is probably now 20 to 30 years ago, at least. There remains one that I know of, Louisiana Technical University or maybe it is “College”, and they strictly maintain this approach. There are probably a few more, but today they might not rise to the level of the classic university. So, I may be completely off base or out of touch. All my friends went to engineering schools 30-40 years ago.

      As for Astroturf: I am glad you agree with me. Very nasty playing surface unless you are fully sports-clothed, and hard as heck to land on.

      Thanks again.

  14. Suzanne Douglass said:

    As for the Astroturf, anyone involved in that decision out to get the boot. Since when do kids have to play on a perfect surface? What lesson does that teach them about the ups and downs they are going to encounter over their lifetimes?

    Just as bad are the obnoxious fund-raising schemes schools use. My grandkid’s middle school seems to have a new scheme every week. If they need money for worthy causes I’d prefer to chip in directly and not line the pockets of suppliers of horrible candy and bad wrapping paper, etc. They practically resort for kiddy blackmail when they say, “If you sell $100 worth of merchandise, you get to attend a BIG BASH at the school.” (At the same time, “But if your family simply donates $50, you can attend the same BASH.”) How much does the BASH cost? Who knows, but what’s the point of watering down whatever the school nets from suppliers to pay for a BASH?

    As Ebenezer Scrooge said, “Bah, humbug.”

    • George said:

      I like you, Suzanne. You write like you talk. Also, your commas seem irrelevant, which is a great conversational style as well. Just keep talking until you are done. That’s my philosophy as well. Thanks much for posting.

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