Most all Quakers in the U.S.are established in the category of the global wealthy and embrace the justifications for that wealth as described in this book for their financial means. For Quakers, this book, Rachel Sherman, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (2017) is an important book for Quaker discernment.
We, global wealthy people (us), see ourselves as morally good people in our attitudes and daily practices. In order to justify being good people and to justify our past and current economic inequality, we argue that we meet the standards of our culture to justify our relative wealth. This is the universal formula for justifying excess wealth:
We work hard, live prudently, live within our means, focus attention on our families, understand basic needs, prioritize needs over wants, appreciate the advantages of wealth, avoid aggressively pursuing wealth, treat self-indulgent purchases as exceptions, give back to the community through our work, philanthropy, and volunteer time, raise our children to avoid acting or feeling entitled, and we practice daily generosity and respect to others, without bragging or showing off.
That is the complete and wholly embraced justification offered in interviews with other wealthy people in this book and is offered here as the parallel justification by Quakers and the wealthy in all other cultures.
The book’s content is unsettling in the flow of the interviews with which we can identify. While the book addresses only the wealthy residents of New York City, the conclusions apply to all people with excess means and certainly apply to all Americans in the global 1%, including U.S. Quakers. The arguments and rationales for unequal wealth are the same in all cultures, all countries, and all communities and reflect a universal view. Sharman does us all a favor in providing a clear documentation of our justifications.
The introduction and conclusion provide clear summaries of the author’s thesis.
This book has an earnest narrator. The author’s narrator voice is spare, urgent, and compelling. That voice builds the reader’s confidence in the integrity of the interviews on which the analysis is based.
The analysis is very clear. Further enhancing the credibility of the analysis, the author provides a list and an assessment of major potential methodological objections and weaknesses in the interview process. These objections, and the author’s assessment of these objections, are addressed in a thorough Methodological Appendix. The footnotes are relevant, careful, and thorough.
This is documentation of the challenge of managing privilege in a society that asserts primary values of egalitarianism and meritocracy. All interviewees, and all Quakers, signal discomfort with the privileges of wealth. All reflect ambivalence.
What is your score in justifying wealth beyond equality? Take the test below. How many of these elements reflect your view?
We can justify our relative wealth beyond equality because:
- We work hard.
- We live prudently.
- We live within our means.
- We focus attention on our families.
- We understand basic needs.
- We prioritize needs over wants.
- We appreciate the advantages of wealth.
- We treat self-indulgent purchases as exceptions.
- We give back to the community through our work.
- We give back to the community through our philanthropy.
- We give back to the community through our volunteer time.
- We raise our children to avoid acting or feeling entitled.
- We practice daily generosity and respect to others.
- We do not brag or show off.
- We do not aggressively pursue wealth.
Does your score (?/15) provide a satisfactory basis for justifying your current wealth?
Do Quakers share the cultural U.S. ambivalence about privilege? This book provides a useful place for reflection.
We often treat structural issues as individual issues for explaining significantly unequal distribution of wealth. Take this test below. How many of these elements reflect your view? Implicitly, we view people with less wealth as follows:
- They do not work hard.
- They do not live prudently.
- They do not live within their means.
- They do not focus attention on their families.
- They do not understand basic needs.
- They do not prioritize needs over wants.
- They do not appreciate the advantages of wealth.
- They do not treat self-indulgent purchases as exceptions.
- They do not give back to the community through their work.
- They do not give back to the community through their philanthropy.
- They do not give back to the community through their volunteer time.
- They do not raise their children to avoid acting or feeling entitled.
- They do not practice daily generosity and respect to others.
- They brag or show off.
- They aggressively pursue wealth.
Does your score (?/15) on this test provide a satisfactory basis for your current wealth?
Should we stop distinguishing between individual good and bad rich people and engage the question about a more egalitarian distribution of material and experiential assets? This would mean that we would be critical of individual wealth as both pernicious to world society and in itself as immoral.
A billionaire is not tolerable, regardless of how they gained their wealth or how they spend it or how they donate it. Great wealth is unrelated to moral badness or goodness of a person in the individual acquisition or expenditure of wealth. Great wealth is bad in itself. Should we separate criticism of the fact of inequality from criticism of individual behavior? Reflection on this book is a good start.
Rachel Sherman, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (2017)