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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2000 /19 Elul 5760

Cal Thomas

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Consumer Reports

Lessons from an NFL game --
I SAW $100 million last Monday night. It was packaged in the uniforms of an overpaid Washington Redskins football team, but it performed worse than the weakest Wall Street stock.

Clearly, money can neither buy happiness nor a winning team. The Redskins lost to their arch-rival, the Dallas Cowboys. One fan said, "I didn't pay $250 for this.'' That was the price of his seat. Hot dogs are $6 and soft drinks $3, unless you want the more expensive plastic cup.

Owner Daniel Snyder paid a record $800 million for this collection of under-performing individuals, who cannot function as a team, possibly because they feel closer to their agents than to their fellow players or the fans. In our interchangeable world, some of these players will be on another team next year. They are as loyal to Washington and to each other as a stray dog is to the human who tosses him a bone.

As I watched the wealthy on the field and the wealthy in the stands (the middle class and poor have long since been banished to the TV sidelines), I considered the price we have paid for our prosperity. Too few of the necessities of life is not good. Too many of the frills of life may be worse.

Prophets and philosophers have warned us of the dangers of prosperity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, "Remorse sleeps during a prosperous period but wakes up in adversity.'' Moses warned the ancient Israelites, after they had emerged from slavery in Egypt and had begun to experience prosperity, not to forget "the L-rd your G-d.'' Our golden calf is more sophisticated than theirs -- but no less corrupting. In Dow we trust.

Politicians feel the need to stoke our greed rather than warn us of our descent into sloth (a wonderful word that means, among other things, "spiritual apathy''). Preachers may win converts with such talk in sermons, but politicians find it hard to win votes by admonishing the slothful. Rather than call upon us to return to the character development that allowed our parents and grandparents to prevail over a Great Depression and a world war, candidates engage in a bidding war for our vote over how much our country can do for us rather than asking what we can do for ourselves. In this prosperous environment, John F. Kennedy's pledge to "pay any price'' takes on an entirely different meaning.

The coming election may be decided by people who wear their emotions on their designer sleeves, who pay more attention to the claims of car dealers and home sellers than they do to candidates for high office. Who has time to investigate promises and character when there is money to be made? Talk shows and late-night TV form superficial images of George W. Bush and Al Gore, not the substance of their character, beliefs and policies.

In an uncaring environment, we perform like disconnected football players. We do not play as a team, or nation, but focus on our individual interests and existential "happiness.''

Recently I heard former Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) deliver a speech in which he said, "America operates better under a doctrine, a guiding principle. America has no purpose in the world today.'' Or at home, either. And that is why, cliche that it is, we really do get the leadership we deserve. A people too busy worshiping prosperity will not be attuned to a decline in national culture or personal morals. Money, we think, covers a multitude of sins.

Thomas Carlyle observed, "Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.''

Adversity once built integrity, but prosperity can destroy it in less than a generation. Our prosperity has bred greed, class warfare and envy, one of the deadliest of evils. When Vice President Gore invents stories about the cost of prescription drugs for his mother-in-law and his dog, few seem to care. That's because prosperity has anesthetized our national conscience, and our goal has become the acquisition of more stuff, even though it will all come to nothing in an estate sale. Or in the moral corruption of a nation. Or in an expensive, but worthless, football club.

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