This abridged excerpt is from Robert Wuthnow's book, Poor Richard's Principle: Recovering the American Dream through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money . It is reprinted with the permission of Princeton University Press.
The tendency to make money so private that we never talk about it in public has far-reaching consequences for our society and for our personal lives. We assume great responsibility for our money, but we receive little support from other people of the kind that might help us make better decisions or feel more confident about the decisions we do make.
Consequently, we worry in private and feel guilty about spending too little or too much. We may live frugally, but we no longer know exactly why we do. Without the capacity to compare our thoughts and feelings with those of our peers, both our fantasies and our fears often run wild. [But] fantasies and fears. Represent only the least significant of the ways in which money can take possession of our personal lives.
Because we have relatively few anchors in the external world for our thoughts about money we sense that it makes incessant demands on our personal time and energy. Despite relatively high incomes, many people feel they need even more money to solve their problems. A lack of money symbolizes a constraint; the way to gain freedom is thus to have more. Prosperity appears as a psychological fix, even though the desire for it magnifies our sense that things are not sufficient as they are.
Not talking about money is, in the final analysis, both a source and a consequence of the dubious pleasures we derive from it. Part of our cultural heritage tells us money can never be a source of true happiness. Handling money is just a grubby business, more detail to worry about in our personal lives. It makes no more sense to talk about it than it would to hold forth about brushing our teeth. But not verbalizing what we think about money also makes it possible to entertain private beliefs of a very different sort.
We may have learned somewhere that money cannot buy happiness, but at a deeper level we believe it can. There is thus an internal contradiction in the way we think about money, one that leads us to want more and more, and yet to deny that this is what we really want at all. The result is a heightened sense of pressure in our personal lives, as if we are trying to break free of something we cannot fully identify. This pressure is also increased by a persuasive cultural view about the relationship between money and material goods.
© 1996 Princeton University Press
American Mythos: Shaking off a slumber
This passage is from Robert Wuthnow's new book, American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short, to be published in April. It is reprinted with the permission of Princeton University Press.
Materialism is at its worst when it crowds out our thinking about the larger realities in which we live. It is not so much that shopping takes up more of our time, although it does, as that the getting-and-spending cycle envelops us in an all-encompassing logic of material gratification. Immersed in short-term calculations, we find it harder to think critically about ourselves. Possessed by the quest for possessions, we are less able to reckon our global relationships that make these possessions possible. Our new empire [as the poet] Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes, has become "vaster than any in ancient days" but is likely to be remembered only for "carrying its corporate monoculture around the world." Materialism lulls our conscience into collective slumber. "Awaken now at last," Ferlinghetti writes.
© 2006 Princeton University Press
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