- Hardcover: 328 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 29, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691165505
- ISBN-13: 978-0691165509
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence Hardcover – August 29, 2017
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"Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary 'Manhattan poor' as others have put it."--Ginia Bellafante, New York Times
"There’s a lot of abstract talk about the 1 percent, but how do they really live? The sociologist Rachel Sherman’s new book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, draws on her interviews with 50 wealthy New Yorkers to give us a sense. Sherman takes a dispassionate approach to find out how those who are 'benefitting from rising economic inequality' experience 'their own social advantages.' She elicits her subjects’ thoughts about work and productivity, charitable giving, marital discord and more. Worthwhile humanizing ensues, as do plenty of squirm-inducing moments."--John Williams, New York Times Book Review
"There have been many cogent analyses of income inequality. Sociologist Rachel Sherman’s welcome addition probes the psychology and socio-economics of affluence."--Barb Kiser, Nature
"Sherman offers something new and surprising: a look inside the 1 per cent’s minds. . . . She shifts our understanding of today’s dominant class."--Simon Kuper, Financial Times
"Sherman's analysis is informative, insightful, and nuanced."--Glenn Altschuler, Psychology Today
"Although it is easy to judge the rich for [their] 'anxieties', Rachel Sherman suggests that this often distracts us from examining the wider 'systems of distribution that produce inequality'."--Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education
From the Back Cover
"At a time of growing class inequality, how do the wealthy grapple with their privileged economic position? In Uneasy Street, Sherman offers a remarkable look inside the world of affluence and shows how the liberal elite struggles to attain moral worthiness. This book skillfully advances our understanding of social class and makes an important contribution to the sociology of money."--Viviana A. Zelizer, author of Economic Lives
"Sherman transcends the cartoon caricatures of the wealthy to provide a profound and nuanced picture of the lived experience of affluent New Yorkers. Uneasy Street is an original and insightful look at the complex ambivalence that many wealthy people feel in a time of extreme inequality and the narratives they sometimes tell themselves to rationalize, justify, or ignore their wealth and advantage."--Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base
"Uneasy Street looks at how rich people talk about the choices they make about money, and how that talk constructs a moral universe in which they can claim legitimacy for their advantages. This book is full of astute observations and sensitive interpretations, and its argument is new and profoundly important."--Allison J. Pugh, University of Virginia
"This exceptionally interesting book examines how one group of wealthy people understands and experiences its extraordinary privilege. Sherman's analysis of elites is long overdue, especially as the popular discourse on inequality has exploded. Beautifully written, Uneasy Street is an exceptional piece of work."--Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth
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Where the book falls short is with the author's constant commentary and re-casting of her subjects' outlooks on money, consumption, and hard work. At times it feels like she would prefer her wealthy interviewees flog themselves and plead for mercy for the sin of being in the top one percent. Hard work, intelligence, self-sacrifice--in the author's view, anyone who thinks they "got to where they are" because of these traits must have some sort of mental disease. In a way it's incredible to watch how the modern liberal mind associates success in this country with some sort of pathological condition.
One final note: virtually everyone interviewed in the book appears to be from New York or the surrounding suburbs. Could the author not find any rich people from Texas, Florida, Louisiana, or Oklahoma to interview? The reader can only assume the author believes rich people in New York are representative of rich people everywhere else.
I have more concerns about the overarching themes of this book. I believe this book could more appropriately be renamed, “What are the psychological tools (lies, justification, rationalization), used by wealthy people to help themselves feel better about their unfair privilege?”
Some of the major answers:
1. They compare themselves to others who have more wealth in order to situate themselves as “in the middle” and “normal.”
2. They claim that they are entitled to their wealth because they worked hard.
3. They set some (arbitrary) limits on spending so they can feel frugal.
4. They give back to others, through volunteering or charity.
5. They try to expose their children to other social classes so that they have a healthy perspective on what it means to be “normal.”
6. They feel guilt, gratitude, or other emotions. The presence of these emotions means that they aren’t taking their wealth for granted, which makes them more morally entitled to it.
7. They decide to not talk about their wealth, which makes the conflict less salient.
Ultimately, according to the author, it is difficult psychologically to continue to justify excessive wealth. Over time, people either get more comfortable with it, deciding that guilt is unproductive, or they isolate themselves from middle and lower-class people.
For the author, all of the above rationalizations are inadequate. In fact, it is unproductive to even try to distinguish “good” from “bad” behavior among the wealthy. Instead, we should focus on reforming the structure of inequality itself.
It is this latter point that makes the ending of this book particularly unsatisfying. Essentially, it is as if the author spends the entire book describing how various members of royalty try to behave morally, then concludes by saying, “Ha ha! I tricked you! There actually is no way for royalty to behave morally because the royal system itself is unethical!” It feels like the author is setting up her interview subjects for failure, since she asks them how they behave ethically when any answer they provide is inherently inadequate. She then blames them for even discussing how to behave ethically, since they should be talking about how to alleviate structural inequality in general.
It would be more honest if the author started with her assumptions, which appear to be:
• Extreme economic inequality is immoral
• It is immoral for an individual to be “overprivileged,” (to live among the top 1-2%), regardless of how they came into that position
• The overprivileged individual cannot live a moral life, no matter how much they try, while occupying this immoral position
• It is not worthwhile to consider how an overprivileged person can lead a more moral life, since that discussion itself justifies structural inequality
• The only way an overprivileged person can redeem themselves is…???
The author never provides a satisfactory answer to the final question. She hints that surrendering all excessive wealth and/or devoting one’s life to activism might be sufficiently redeeming.
I think it would be more helpful if the author organized her book on a very different premise. The premise I would have liked to see is this:
• Extreme economic inequality is immoral
• Most wealthy people know that they are in a highly privileged position that they did not fully earn, no matter how hard they have worked
• It is uncomfortable for almost all wealthy people to feel like they are receiving benefits they did not earn
• Wealthy people develop a range of strategies to try to resolve this discomfort
o Some of those strategies involve guilt, emotion work, self-delusions, and lies. These strategies are bad.
o Some of those strategies involve a truly commendable and searching effort, often over a period of decades, to make the most ethical choices they can. These strategies do not disable extreme economic inequality, but do show us a way that someone can live ethically even at the top of that system.
• There are additional strategies that wealthy people should consider as a way to ethically resolve this conflict (like surrendering wealth, paying more taxes, advocacy, etc.)
The author seems to believe that her interview subjects tried hard to justify their own wealth. I did not see this. Instead, I saw that many of them did not feel that they deserved their extreme wealth. Nevertheless, they had it, so the question they then faced was how to behave as ethically as possible in that situation. It reminded me a bit of how people cope with survivor's guilt. Ultimately, there is no reason why one person survives a car accident and another dies, so the surviving person has to try to make sense of their good fortune. They might do that using "pure luck" as an explanation, or they might try to draw some higher meaning from it ("God wants me to live," "my mission isn't over"). These explanations might help them feel more comfortable with their good fortune, but they do not ever imply that they believe it was right for them to live and someone else to die. Likewise, my reading of the statements of the wealthy people in this book indicated an attempt to make sense of their good luck, not a defense of the social stratification system itself.
The data the author collected is much too valuable to go to waste. This is an incredibly challenging group of people to study and it took years to collect this data. I would like to see the author publish additional papers out of this dataset. I am particularly interested in questions like:
• A collaboration with a philosopher that delves into some of the ethical and moral quandaries faced by these individuals (their conflicting obligations to their country, children, spouses, neighborhoods, and community)
• A comparison to other types of privilege (white, male, heterosexual); how does this type of privilege differ and how is it the same? For example, no one has ever suggested that the only way for a white man to live ethically is to annually surrender the portion of his paycheck that exceeds the average annual earnings of a racial minority, yet the author implies that a similar strategy is the only way a wealthy person can redeem themselves.
• A historical analysis. How do we get from flaunting consumption to hiding consumption? How and when did wealth become embarrassing? How did “middle class” become the idolized status symbol for both wealthy and poor America?
• A methods paper focusing on ethical dilemmas the author herself faced in recruitment and informed consent. It appears that these research subjects did not know they would be asked such detailed questions about their finances before the agreed to be interviewed. In addition, at several points in the interviews, participants expressed severe discomfort but the author never (apparently) offers to stop the interview or stops to verify consent.
• A methods paper focused on researcher’s obligation to their research subjects. She paints almost all of her research subjects in very unflattering light. I am interested in the ethical implications of this, especially the challenge she creates for other researchers who try to conduct research like this. What do we owe to our research subjects and other researchers in the field?
• A non-academic essay targeted to wealthy people that indicates some avenues they can take to behave more ethically. For example, the author could provide a list of non-profits that are working toward structural equality, make the suggestion to voluntarily abstain from certain tax deductions, and warn people about “luxury creep.”
In the meantime, I highly recommend this book for courses on privilege and social stratification as well as for courses on qualitative research methods. There are some terrific ethical debates posed in this book which could actually make this book useful in a philosophy course as well.
I should add a disclaimer that, while I am a sociologist, I do not specialize in social stratification/privilege.
The subjects of her study find themselves in a paradox. On the one hand, they’re socially progressive, and aware of the ills of wealth inequality. On the other hand, they’re beneficiaries of this inequity, and don’t feel empowered to do anything about it. This leaves them feeling conflicted about having access to financial capital. Instead of the gaudy displays some associate with the rich, this class wants to stay out of the limelight and instead appear as “middle class,” even though they are technically part of the 1%.
Some might find Sherman’s text tedious at times. She goes into great detail to describe a variety of aspects of these people’s lives: their home renovations, their children’s lives, their perspectives on morality. I found it fascinating. I too am distraught by the lack of transparency surrounding class in American culture, and share Sherman’s concerns that “class blindness” contributes to inequity rather than alleviating the problem.
Many of the subjects in her interviews feel as though there are “good” rich people and “bad” rich people. They can be “deserving” by being hardworking and respectful of others, or they can be “undeserving” by being lazy or opulent. What’s interesting about this analysis is that the underlying assumption doesn’t challenge the ethics of inequality. Instead, it qualifies inequality, assuming that some people simple deserve to be at the top of the ladders while most others are at the bottom.
Not only this, but many feel they must prove their worth by working hard. There’s an implicit assumption that the injury and sacrifice sustained through hard work builds up some kind of social debt that justifies their wealth, almost like insurance. And yet this worldview is easily dispelled by looking at working-class individuals who regularly work two or three jobs just to buy enough to eat.
As Charles Eisenstein would say, these kinds of comparisons—both to others and to abstract principles—are generally unhealthy and unproductive. They result in either self-doubt or self-righteousness, neither of which are useful.
A topic not even touched upon in this book is the concept of the negative externalities caused by letting their money continue to be held in yielding vehicles. Someone might be hesitant to buy a Ferrari because they’re concerned about the conspicuous consumption. And yet they might simultaneously hold hundreds of thousands of dollars of fossil fuel stocks, which cause magnitudes more emissions and damage (albeit, out of sight of the investor), than the car would.
I’m reminded of an article in “Current Affairs” that suggests that being rich is unethical. Respondents in the book would counter, “but what can I do about this?” Well, if they were serious about this question, they could give away their wealth to radical causes that further systems change. You might think that no one actually goes this far, but I have friends that give away all of their financial wealth while supporting themselves with a poverty line income. I wouldn’t go too far in idolizing this lifestyle, as poverty-line jobs are the inverse component of an extractive economy. But, as a wealthy person, it’s good to remember that you are not your money, and life and meaning could go on (or vastly improve) even if you lost or gave away your wealth. Many respondents in the book actually said they didn’t fear losing their wealth, or almost wished that it would happen. And yet none of them pro-actively brought such a shift about.
I found myself both feeling more empathetic for people in positions of extreme privilege, and feeling as though I now have a more nuanced view on exactly why financial obscurity and a morality of hard work are damaging.