A New Spate of Books Show How the Love of the Green Infects Our Lives
All down that line you could see the systematic discrimination, from the city officials’ lack of an evacuation plan for those without cars to Washington’s diversion of funding for levee upgrades to the more cosmopolitan concerns of Iraq.
We sure are a prickly nation when it comes to income. On the one hand, we look down at the poor, put them second in line for the abundances our land provides, yet we erect plenty of barriers to keep the destitute impoverished. We also take a similarly ambivalent view of success. We devour the biographies of the wealthy and powerful and study fanciful volumes on getting rich, but we also look askance at avarice. We murmur how the successful have sold out, missed the finest things in life, given in to mindless materialistic greed. We revel in their downfalls.
Recently, a whole mess of new books have been published that look at how money infects our thinking. They range from academic tomes to the chick-lit fluff of a stand-up comic. They have little in common, other than they all show that, to paraphrase Karl Marx, relationships within a capitalistic society become ever more commodified.
Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but he had a point there—we evaluate our successes and failures, our loves and self-esteem, in the language of cold, hard cash. Then again, Marx’s mother also had a point. In a remarkably Monty Python-esque quip, she once snorted that her son should have spent more time making capital than merely writing about it.
One thing is for sure: We keep poverty at a distance. Oh sure, the privileged among us might devote some postgraduate years to hardscrabble philanthropic care or to an artistic pretension of one sort or another. But sooner or later, those able to do so retreat to the traditional avenues of support, where they can once again enjoy advanced medical care and a speedy set of wheels to haul ass when the levee breaks. True poverty doesn’t come with an escape hatch.
America’s treatment of those who have reached for the golden ring and failed to grasp it is the theme of Scott Sandage’s remarkable Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press). Poverty is not the same as failure, but both share a common trait of anonymity. Sandage sought stories of those who fell to bankruptcy or lived under crushing debt and, more importantly, looked at what other people thought of those individuals. He studied the diaries and correspondence of individuals such as J. Henry Hill, a 19th-century Massachusetts bankruptcy lawyer who saw many a businessman “whose past lay in ruins and whose future remained in doubt.”
Sandage is an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, and Born Losers is written in nubbly, unamplified academic writing. But what a subject! At least since the early 1800s, the U.S. economy has gone through a series of boom-bust cycles, arbitrarily elevating people to richness and then wiping out their bank accounts almost as quickly. Yet when individuals looked for reasons why their compatriots failed at some business, or failed to pay back debts, they did not consider the overall economic conditions as much as the “mistakes that originate in personal character.” We like to believe that an overreaching disposition, a grasping spirit, laziness, or some other moral failing leads to bankruptcy, not a crappy economy.
Hill, for instance, describes being approached by an old college associate who once was well-off but had fallen on hard times. He describes the man as a ghost of his former self, with lank cheeks and bulging eyes. Hill concluded that the man’s downfall was due to a weakness to luxury, a story line borrowed from the cheap novels of the day.
“In private communications, people borrowed from popular culture and rewrote formulaic plots to narrate failure in real life,“ Sandage writes. “These ‘master plots’ lent a generic shape or outline to organize bewildering experience into an intelligible story.”
So compelling were these narratives that an entire industry popped up around them. Sandage reveals the mercantile agencies, the 19th-century precursor of today’s credit-rating reporting companies. These companies kept handwritten summaries of millions of people, submitted by freelance field operatives. “More than a bank balance or a character reference, a credit report folded morals, talents, finances, past performance, and future potential into one summary judgment,” Sandage writes. For a small fee, you could check if the person you were about to extend a loan to was a “loafer” or “miserable vagabond.” People were summed up like books, their lives but scripts with the conclusions plainly divulged.
The underlying assumption of these early surveillance agencies is that any person in America could make something of him or herself, if only he or she worked hard enough. The idea that we can make loads of money if we just apply ourselves more diligently than we do is what Robert Sullivan mocks in How Not to Get Rich (or Why Being Bad Off Isn’t So Bad) (Bloomsbury). Sullivan enjoyed a surprise best seller last year with Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitant. With this appropriately budget-priced volume, he parodies the many get-rich-quick books now on bookstore shelves.
In turning the get-rich concept upside down, some interesting ideas fall out. Sullivan extols the many things we do that do not increase our wealth, such as reading or hanging with friends. This is not reverse psychology—he’s not trying to trick us into getting rich by revealing our bad habits to ourselves. But he shows that of the wide range of human preoccupations only a few, if any, are directed at improving one’s financial lot. And with good reason, such pursuits seem silly and reductive.
Using the goofy metaphors of the self-help world, Sullivan posits that everyone has a money-time continuum, a time line that runs along the course of your life where, at select points, wealth “portals” appear— opportunities for you to increase your wealth, such as a ground-floor investment opportunity.
“The very rich can sense the presence of a portal, or so the not very rich believe. The not very rich, on the other hand, might not know a portal if it came to their door dressed as Ed McMahon and carrying a giant million-dollar check with the not-rich person’s name on it,” Sullivan writes.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s new Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Henry Holt) takes hardship more seriously, though the results of her study are uneven at best. Her last effort was 2001’s highly acclaimed Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. For that book, she erased the college degree from her résumé and took on, and lived off of, a variety of low-paying jobs, moving about the country to find work. It was great immersion journalism: She waitressed, cleaned houses for a maid service, worked in a Wal-Mart, and learned firsthand how difficult it is to get by on $7 an hour.
For Bait and Switch, she takes on the white-collar world. Her original goal was to secure a middle-class job, a public-relations position that paid about $50,000 yearly, with juicy benefits. The plan was to work in an office for a few months and then report back on all the horrors experienced within: the crushing conformity, the managerial passive aggressiveness, and so on.
Unfortunately, she failed to find a job, obtaining not one real interview from the more than 200 fudged résumés she sent out. Bait and Switch is a ballsy title for a book that doesn’t follow through on its premise. Still, Ehrenreich offers a considerable return for your investment. With no gig in hand, she turned her considerable descriptive powers at white-collar unemployment, an uncomfortable purgatory for those discarded by corporate America. She describes the dimming hopes of fellow job seekers she met, some of whom have been out of work for the better part of a year. She also recorded her interactions with a cadre of career counselors, a truly vampiric bunch of hucksters preying on the unemployed. For considerable sums, they offered dubious advice, crank theories, and magical salves.
It makes for a sad portrait. Ehrenreich traveled in the post-dot-com landscape where individuals who have learned the language of success are trying to use it to make their way in a diminished economy, one in which companies have little loyalty to their employees. It’s freaky how easily their aspirations and rationalizations could have come from one of Sandage’s cast of 19th-century characters. “It’s a long-standing American idea . . . that circumstances count for nothing compared to the power of the individual will,” Ehrenreich writes.
All this talk of failure getting you down? Why not try a little escapist reading. The premise behind Amy Borkowsky’s Statements is remarkably simple. Borkowsky rifled through her old American Express monthly statements. Each chapter tells the story behind one charge or a set of charges.
Statements is fun in a breezy chick-lit kind of way. These are charges from when Borkowsky lived in New York as a single twentysomething, looking for Mr. Right and making at least a fairly good wage as an advertising copy writer.
What Borkowsky shows, or at least touts, is that working for the corporation doesn’t necessarily render you a mindless robotron who thinks in terms of company propaganda. If you’re lucky enough to do so, working for the man can give you some disposable income—or a high credit limit anyway—to do the kind of adventuring we so admire in Sex and the City episodes and Jackie Collins novels.
In one chapter, Borkowsky describes how she charged a $5,000 Concorde airfare ticket to Paris, only to get it refunded later that day. The story behind that one? A friend suggested hanging out in the exclusive waiting room for the Concorde in order to meet single, cute globetrotting guys. The two did indeed meet two such men, who turned out to be gay. “Great. We actually met two decent guys willing to make a commitment, and it was to each other,” she writes.
Borkowsky is a stand-up comic, so she works each charge only for a few laughs and some good tales. Still, the underlying conceit is devastatingly perceptive—not surprising given that both stand-up comics and ad writers make their scratch by understanding the fears and hopes of their audiences. That someone can squeeze an entertaining book out of credit card bills speaks volumes about how much our experiences—and fascinations—are tied into money. Marx would be impressed. And his mother, too.
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