Uneasy Street: A book review by Bob Morris

Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence
Rachel Sherman
Princeton University Press (August 2017)

Unique perspectives worthy of consideration

According to Rachel Sherman, she interviewed fifty affluent and wealthy New York parents for this book and shares what she learned from them. “In talking with these people, I initially wanted to know how privileged New Yorkers made choices about consumption and lifestyle – that is, how people who had economic freedom decided what was worthy spending money on. How did

Sherman was surprised to learn the nature and extent of discomfort when interviewees were reluctantly discussing “conflicts about how to be [begin italics] both wealthy and morally worthy [end italics], especially at a historical moment of extreme and increasingly salient economic inequality. This is book is about how these affluent New York parents grapple with this question.”

After reading her Introduction, these are among the questions and issues I hoped she would address…and she did:

o What specifically are the “anxieties of affluence” to which the book’s subtitle refers?

o How do these affluent people feel about being affluent?

o To what extent do the values of those who have earned their wealth differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from those who inherited theirs or married into it?

o How do they define “privileged”? To what extent should privileged persons (however defined) feel any special obligations?

o What are their thoughts about waste, not only of funds but of opportunities to help others much less fortunate?

o For them, what are the defining characteristics of a worthy person?

o What are their thoughts about distributional justice?

Granted, the focus group is small but presumably representative, at least if “they make decisions about buying and renovating a homer, placing children in school, hiring domestic workers, and using their leisure time. What counted as ‘real’ needs versus ‘luxuries’?’ Also, their thoughts and feelings are of much greater importance to me than are their identities.” Her resources are impressive: Notes (Pages 259-278) and References (279-295). My own experience with the affluent parents of the students I taught for thirteen years in two boarding Schools in New England is very consistent with what Rachel Sherman encountered. That said, then and now, I am very uncomfortable with generalizations.

Long ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

A somewhat envious Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yes, they are different. They have more money.”

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