Andrew (perspectivism) wrote,

Why America's Wealth Makes Us Virtuous (David Brooks)

Somehow I missed this splendid terrific brilliant article back in June, and I bet you did too!:

The reason America hasn't been corrupted by all its wealth
is that in this country we have transformed the nature of
money. If you have enough of it, and you are sloppy enough
with it, and if you have a system that promiscuously
sloshes it around from the deserving to the undeserving and
back again so that there are great flows of wealth oozing
all over the place and great tales of opportunity in every
ear, then pretty soon money is no longer just a thing you
hoard in the bank. Money has become the environment, and
that changes the way it affects people.

Money in America has been transformed into abundance. In
the realm of money, money is scarce. But in the realm of
abundance, money is promiscuous. And this environment of
abundance comes with its own psychology, morality, sins and
virtues. It does not create the old corrupting patterns
described by the philosophers.

The abundance mentality starts with the unconscious premise
that there exists, at all times, close by, a happy hunting
ground, a valley where acres of diamonds are there for the
picking. In the land of abundance, work is worth it,
because it is often rewarded. In the land of abundance, a
person's lower-class status is always temporary. If the
complete idiot next door has managed to pull himself up to
the realm of Lexus drivers, why shouldn't the same thing
happen to you?

The psychology of abundance explains why Americans are
notoriously bad class warriors. They overestimate where
their income puts them in the economic pecking order. (Most
people think they are above average.) They exaggerate their
future income prospects. And they perpetually, and not
always unrealistically, sense the imminence of great
wealth. In the land of abundance, there are all these
wonderful spots just over the next hill, or with the next
spouse, or with the next job opportunity, after the next
deck renovation or lottery ticket, where all the dreams
come true.

People who have money in the realm of abundance tend not to
be miserly about it. Miserliness, much talked about in the
ancient literature, is not a big American problem. Our
national economic flaw, on the contrary, is personal debt.
When money is a goo that flows and oozes, comes and goes,
people are careless with it. ''The American talks about
money,'' George Santayana wrote, ''because that is the
symbol and measure he has at hand for success, intelligence
and power; but as to money itself he makes, loses, spends
and gives it away with a very light heart.''

But the most obvious feature of the land of abundance is
that people work feverishly hard and cram their lives
insanely full. That's because the candies are all around,
looking up and pleading to you, ''Taste me, taste me, taste
me.'' People in this realm live in a perpetual aspirational
trance. They are bombarded from first waking to nighttime's
last thought by images, messages, novelties, improvements
and tales of wonder.

In this way abundance electrifies and motivates. Life
becomes a vectorial thrust toward perpetual gain and
aspiration fulfillment. An indefinite diversity of
activities awaits. In fact, it takes a force of willpower
beyond the call of most ordinary people to renounce all
this glorious possibility. Among abundance, it's harder to
do without than to do with. So it's actually easier and
more natural to work phenomenally long hours. People at the
top of the income scale now work longer hours than people
on the bottom. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
the proportion of professional and managerial workers who
work more than 50 hours a week has risen by more than a
third since 1985. And it's not just workaholism that marks
contemporary life, it's hobby-aholism, activity-aholism and
fun-aholism and friend-aholism, and pretty soon you've got
18 places to be on Saturday and color-coded schedules on
the family refrigerator.

Many of the satisfactions, the little pieces of
prosperity, the magical wonderlands are real. The great
power of abundance is that it takes dreams that are
aristocratic in nature and it makes them democratic in
possibility. There's so much bounty that the life of ease
and refinement is not just confined to the well born and
well to do. There are plenty of heavens to go around, for
Reader's Digest readers as well as Vanity Fair readers.

The environment of abundance accounts for the energy,
creativity and dynamism that marks national life. The lure
of plenty, pervading the landscape, encourages risk and
adventure. The more opportunity there is lying around, the
more you'll risk to go for it and the less cost there is in
going for it and failing. You just declare bankruptcy and
move to the next valley.

A phenomenal 8 percent of Americans have started their own
businesses at one time or another.

In the land of abundance, as the current phrase goes, it's
all good. God's blessings have been slathered on with such
liberality, the beneficence of the universe seems like an
obvious fact.

This whole worldview encourages an open, trusting, genial
approach to life -- happy smiles to strangers, indulgences
for the kids, a naive embrace of the untried. Americans go
in for online shopping and stock market investing at rates
much higher than people in other lands -- sending their
money off into some unidentifiable ether and somehow
trusting the forces of that invisible place to treat them

As people get more affluent, they are more likely to join
community associations. They are more likely to care about
quality-of-life issues. They are more likely to call
themselves environmentalists, and they have the means to go
off and explore our increasingly overcrowded national
parks. Americans spend their abundance on products that
bring them closer to their families: on educational toys
and family getaways and massive turbo grills for
neighborhood barbecues. Americans are far more religiously
active than, say, Europeans, maybe because God has been so
good to us it makes sense to go off and thank him at least
once a week.

And so we are the beneficiaries of a magical alchemy.
Americans live with the sort of wealth that turned Caligula
into a monster, Marie Antoinette into a symbol of
self-absorption and the British upper classes into
anticommercial snobs. And yet because wealth here is a
loose floozy, available for nearly all the good-time
Charlies, it does not enervate. It does not insulate its
possessors into a permanent charmed circle of inherited

That could change, of course. Efforts to reduce the
inheritance tax could help produce a huge class of
trust-fund millionaires. But so far, Jefferson and Adams
were wrong. The gurus of the simple life are wrong. The
noblest, most creative and fullest life is not to be found
by the backwaters of Walden Pond but in the rushing
mainstream of life, in the office parks and the malls and
the Times Squares twinkling with lights, screens and money.

(free copy of whole article, coincidentally supplied by a man I once seriously suspected might be the Unabomber(!))
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.