Wednesday, April 15, 2009



Last week, Frank Rich published an editorial in the New York Times titled “Awake and Sing!” See N.Y. Times, April 12, 2009. In essence, he puts blame for the financial crisis on a money-obsessed culture that works for solely for money, not higher principle. He intimates that while Americans have always to some extent worked for money, something happened over the past 30 years: Americans allowed money to completely dominate their outlook. Now, according to Rich, the cycle is ending in disaster. Our relentless fixation on money has led to ruin. Now, according to Rich, we must look for “good work,” not just work that offers the highest salary or most toys. Rich says we need a “counternarrative” to the life program that has—according to Rich—reigned for the past 30 years: “Money is King.”

I sympathize with Rich’s assertions. Although I question the metaphysical judgments implicit in such terms as “good work,” I agree that Americans focus far too heavily on money as an end, rather than as a means. I also agree that there has been an “intensification” in Americans’ quest for money in recent decades, denigrating more lasting values. But I differ with Rich on a key issue: No one will change Americans’ minds about money. They like money. They like things. They also have more debts to pay now than ever before. Money was always King, and it will always be King. In fact, in our pervasively commercial world, it must be King. Without it, we could not eat, pay rent, stave off collectors or drive to work. People would have no ambition to get out and compete with each other. Without monetary enticements, they would not invent iPods, super computer chips or fuel-efficient cars. When we depend on money for everything in our lives, how can we condemn people for dedicating their lives to acquiring as much money as possible? For better or worse, our society expects us to have money and we cannot survive without it—lots of it. In these circumstances, how can we ask people to construct a new “life narrative?” If they did, they could not afford their rent, their credit would evaporate and they would go homeless. This is how we live now.

Rich points out that larger and larger percentages of college graduates opt for “high-dollar” careers over “more meaningful” but “less lucrative” pursuits. He attributes this to a recent cultural phenomenon that spurs people to greater and greater earnings as a goal in itself. He remarks that this trend has spiked within the last 20 years. I agree with this analysis because I see its effects. In New York City over the past 20 years, average apartment rental prices have skyrocketed. In 1989, it was possible to rent a 1-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for well under $1,000 per month. Now, the same apartment would cost $4,000 or $5,000 per month. Why the dramatic increase, far beyond the rate of inflation? I argue that the recent expansion of the “money culture” resulted in a “money flood,” in which relatively large numbers of people began making very large amounts over a relatively short period. This “expanded prosperity” increased the number of people with sufficient money, which in turn forced up prices. With more and more college graduates opting for high-dollar careers earlier in life, every industry catering to them could freely raise their prices. This is what happened in New York. This is the practical result when there is a massive popular quest for more money, more quickly: Prices go up; and they stay up. After all, there is always another high-paying customer to take your place if you yelp: “Too much!”

And the damage is done. New York rents will not come down, nor will the cost of living decrease in any area that benefited from the “big money culture” that has flourished over the past 30 years. Now, anyone who does not opt for a “big money” career has no chance to survive in a world tailored for those who opt for “big money” careers. Now, people do not choose “big money careers” because they want to make a lot of money; they choose high-paying careers because that is the only way to pay the bills these days. Put simply, making a lot of money has gone from an ambition to a necessity. Consider lawyers. When a lawyer finishes law school with $120,000 in debt (plus interest) and at least $2,500 per month in rent, do you really think he can contemplate taking a job as a “poverty advocate” for $39,000 a year? Or even as a prosecutor for $49,900? It is simply not financially possible for him to take these “good” jobs. He needs to work as an associate at a “big” firm for at least $135,000 a year; that is the only way to pay the bills and save a little bit for tomorrow. But even that is easier said than done, because competition for those “big” jobs is ruthless. Not everyone gets them; far from it. Lawyers have no choice here. They must either find a high-paying job or default on their loans, ruining their credit for life. There is no other way. In this sense, we see how the seismic “increase in prices” caused by the new “money culture” transformed “big money careers” into necessities, not unique achievements.

Against this background, how can Frank Rich ask students today to find “good,” but low-paying work? I wish it were that easy. I wish it were possible to depose money from his throne. But the King’s rule has become so pervasive that new graduates have little choice but to submit. They must either make a ton or none at all. Expenses and living costs have risen so drastically that low-paying “good” jobs simply do not cut it anymore. This is not the students’ fault; Americans’ intensifying obsession with higher and higher salaries over an entire generation caused this mess. Now the new generation must deal with the consequences, and it is not pretty. In times past, Americans seemed to make do with less, go to work and raise families with some degree of life balance. Now, Americans need more, make more and have far less time to do anything but work. Balance is gone. Money dictates everything; there is always an unpaid bill hanging around. In short, “Money is King” because he must be King. If a person revolts against the King, he goes into bankruptcy or loses his home.

In the past, people seemed to live for something beyond their jobs and their debts. Now, people work on weekends, at night and then wear clothing with the company logo on it when they are off. Do they really want to do this? Probably not. But this is the only way to meet extremely high living costs and crippling debts. In the past, debt was not nearly so much an issue as it is today. Now, young Americans find themselves in a vicious, semi-indentured cycle: To make enough money to pay high living expenses, you must have a good, high-paying job; to get a good, high-paying job, you must have a good education; to get a good education, you must take out student loans; to get student loans, you must go into debt for 10 years or more; if you fail to make payments, your credit is destroyed and your financial future is ruined. When Americans emerge from their educational experience and begin working, they have a debt boulder tied to their backs. They are literally forced to make money; if they do not make enough to pay the bills, the boulder crushes them. In a word, the King’s rule is well established; and it is self-enforcing.

I say again: Who can refute the life narrative “Money is King?” There will always be fanatically ambitious entrepreneurs in our society who will sacrifice their lives in a quest to make millions. But everyone else just wants live comfortably. They just want “enough to pay the bills.” To do that, it is very difficult to succeed without putting faith in the King. To live comfortably in today’s commercial world, new graduates must live for money. If they do not, they must live 5 to a room and share money for heat. And if a student wishes to take “good” work and “make a difference in the world,” he must prepare himself for poverty. No job today that “advances social causes” or even “stimulates the spirit” will pay the sums necessary to overcome overwhelming living costs. In short, “paying the bills” has become a tall task in our society. Frank Rich is rightly concerned about this. I am too. After all, our society suffers when the only reason people live is to pay bills. Nonetheless, Rich is unrealistic to suppose that people will suddenly turn away from money in order to see “the better things” in life. If they did that, they would go bankrupt and lose their homes. Not everyone in our society can be—or wants to be—a martyr for principle.

What, then, is the alternative? Can anything break the “Money is King” narrative? In any capitalistic society, this is an extremely difficult task. Money surrounds us and offers us all the things we want and need. It provides an avenue to power and a symbol for success. Against that backdrop, it is hard to argue against a life program that opens a path to get all those things. In American society, at least, we will never fully replace “Money is King.” The best we can do is to temper it. But even that is difficult, since in good times, people just want to have their money, ignore everyone else and be left alone with their toys. In bad times, however, there is an opportunity for change. When not enough people have money, they get frustrated and angry. That provides an incentive to embrace new ideas. In my view—and I think Frank Rich would agree with me—the financial crisis provides such an incentive for self-reflection and change. If enough people lose their money, they will start questioning their lives. They will ask why they so fanatically pursued money. And perhaps they will ask whether that quest led to their problems in the first place. If the “Money is King” narrative causes misery and poverty for millions, then perhaps it is time to make something else King. If enough people feel this way, values will slowly change. People will actually want to live for something beyond money. They will always need enough money to survive, but if they see that narrow-minded money hunting leads to popular ruin, they will temper their allegiance to the narrative. Perhaps they will even place value on larger ideals than mere material gain.

Still, this is all hypothesis. It is hard to imagine that enough Americans would make these insights, especially when they have so much debt and worry that they rarely think about anything except going to their jobs and opening the mail. This is American life in 2009. Money is King, and it likes to be King. Relentlessly living for money may be superficial and spiritually bankrupt. But it pays loan debt bills. Principle and “good work” don’t. Until “good work” and principle offer as many opportunities to pay bills as money does, do not count on a sea change in American values any time soon.

I’m sorry, Frank, but no one is going to “Awake and Sing” in the near future. Not with $100,000 in debt, they aren’t. No, they are going to go make money to pay those bills, whether the work is “good” or not.

All Hail the King!

1 comment:

SteveW said...

This will be an ongoing narrative I'm sure. I want to point out a few things, though.

First, money transactions have the wonderful feature of being voluntary, which separates it from almost any other type of tyranny (one of the few things in the Bible that is spot on is that you WILL have a God, money is one option). You couldn't find a $2,500 rent in Indiana if you tried, not everyone has to live in New York (by which you mean NYC, as the rest of NY does not have such rents either)

2) Money is fungible and it works. Thus, if we can align our values with the flow of money, our values are quickly and efficiently supported. When it makes money to protect the environment, the environment is protected. Other tools for supporting a philosophy are much more messy, and require good leaders in place rather than good laws. Good leaders are more difficult to come by than good laws, and further when good leaders are given power, successors tend to retain that given power.

This one, too, will be fun going forward. :-)