Not long ago, I gave a talk at Frostburg State University. It’s a small campus of the University of Maryland, in the western part of the state, which brings together segments of America’s vast underserved population that typically see each other as alien, even the enemy. Frostburg’s student body is made up of children of the western Maryland farmland – the rolling hills of the Potomac highland, where the time-softened Appalachian range rises and swoops with genuine drama – tough inner-city kids from Baltimore’s difficult streets, and a smattering of foreigners, in search of the manna of a U.S. higher education (one of the few domains where, compared with other first-world countries, we still excel).
I was the guest of the philosophy department (!), and was speaking about corruption: how it’s not just some nastiness indulged in by the occasional twisted, venal politician, but rather the operating system of sophisticated networks.
But I started my talk – as I have centered this website – on the question of money, and its outsized role in our society. For effect, I had pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of my pocket and blown it off my hand, so that it flitted, back and forth like a fallen autumn leaf, onto the floor. And there it had stayed for the duration of the talk.
When the question and answer period came, a student seated in the front row stuck up her hand straight away: “Do you need that hundred dollars?” she demanded.
What a great question.
The fact is, I do. I’ve just left my place of employ – a widely-respected Washington “think tank,” where I enjoyed prestige and a generous salary -- to work on a book that diverges from that institution’s usual fare. So, a few months after taking on more debt than ever before in my half century plus on this planet, I find myself…unemployed.
I need that hundred dollars.
That said, it is likely that I don’t need it as badly as the young woman who was sitting before me. That’s what I told her. I did not pull her aside afterwards to ask, so I don’t want to stereotype or presume. But based on the typical Frostburg student profile, it is quite possible she has siblings she’s helping put through school, buying their books or their shoes. Maybe a parent or grandparent is sickly and needs meds, which she buys, out of the pay from the full-time restaurant job she holds down while she’s also in college. And guaranteed she’s piling up student loans.
I didn’t have any student loans. That constitutes an almost unheard of blessing. And without trying (no family to support) I built up some savings, which are cushioning my leap off a cliff. Objectively, I probably don’t need the hundred dollars as much as that student does.
But there’s something else I bet she craves as much as money. And that is respect. Humans often chase respect in what my sister recently called “survival-disrupting” ways. How many inner city shoot-outs have been over someone getting “dissed?” How many Palestinian street battles have been sparked by an Israeli soldier’s demeaning behavior at a checkpoint? Heck, the whole Arab Spring was ignited when a young man was not only prevented from selling his wares, but slapped in the face by a corrupt police officer.
Our visceral craving for respect may help explain why many Americans vote in ways that left-leaning urban elites describe as “against their economic interests.” Maybe some things actually matter more than material benefits, and basic respect – the right not to be referred to with unconscious contempt -- is one of them. (On respect and the middle class, see Richard Reeves, here.)
Yet, we are also at a moment in U.S. history when respect is conferred disproportionately because of, and through, the acquisition of money. That’s not to say that poorer Americans don’t desperately need money for basic necessities. Nor that many of us don’t splurge on something we can’t afford because we just want something…nice, for once. A meal out, at a restaurant. A silk bathrobe for Mom. A dope pair of sneakers. A night of gambling with friends at the American Legion.
But sometimes we go after nice things we can’t afford, visible things, not because we want them so badly, but because money, and what it buys, has come to equal respect. I was struck, listening to a brilliant episode of the radio show On the Media on “Africatown,” a historic neighborhood of greater Mobile, Alabama, to hear one of its residents define the totality of her aspirations for her community with the word “wealth.” The show had been about how this neighborhood kept getting shafted with all the aspects of industrial development that wealthy white Mobile wanted out of sight: filthy, earsplitting overpasses hacking the community into separate chunks, blight and pollution so bad cancer is endemic. But this woman did not talk about justice, or input into city planning decisions, or how Africatown needed political leaders who would fight its corner. She didn’t talk about respect.
She talked about wealth.
And yet, I actually think “wealth,” for her, may be synonymous with those other things. In America today, being wealthy is the just about the only way to get respect.
This craving for respect-through-money may also explain why so many upper income professionals work themselves nearly to death at jobs they don’t like for material benefits they don’t have the time or energy to enjoy.
And then, at the very top of our undemocratic hierarchy, it’s about winning. Period. And winning, these days, is expressed almost exclusively in terms of zeroes…in bank accounts.
I'm not saying I don’t like stuff, or that I don’t have a surfeit. But -- maybe it’s upbringing; maybe it’s timing (of my birth), or temperament – but by some kind of luck, material acquisitions did not come to be where I seek respect and my sense of self-worth. Even more fortunate for me, having chosen a life not dominated by the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, I have nevertheless nearly always earned a more than dignified living.
But that is something our society increasingly withholds from those who don’t – or can’t – focus their energies on the pursuit of wealth. Teachers have to work extra jobs for the privilege of educating our children. Prison guards are so poorly paid it’s no wonder they get involved in rackets with their prisoners. I’m sure you can come up with eight other examples.
This system is destroying us. It is enslaving all of us in a quest for money that inevitably means the conversion of values we really care about – the quality of our water, the beauty of our mountains, our independence and initiative, even years off our lives, the care we’ve lavished on the homes our parents lovingly tended – into cash for capture. Those resources are irreplaceable. We cannot found our country on the virtue of holding them in contempt.
So. How do we go about modifying our attitude to money? How do we pay respect in a meaningful way to those whose character and conduct merit it, and withhold it from those whose behavior does not? What do we need to do, as a society, as individuals? What action should each of us – you, me, my sister -- take tomorrow?
Please send me your ideas on the contact page.