Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Wealth, Taboos, Sociology and other Snore-able Topics

Money is a funny thing. Enough of it is always necessary in life, but over time its value shifts. In high school, when my friends and I would make the rounds sharing and complaining about our mediocre after-school jobs, a question was often raised: "How much do they pay there?" Anything over minimum wage and you were lucky. Make over eight dollars an hour and you were an icon. Similar conversations could be had with the right crowd and the correct context in college. But the minute you shook the Dean's sweaty palm and grasped your own around that paper saying your degree would be arriving in the mail shortly, all of that conversation goes out the window.

You see, when it comes to money, it seems there is only one unspoken rule to follow: don't talk about it. Especially not what you make in a single year.

The paradox, you might have noticed, is that money, and the demonstration thereof, exists everywhere (much like our traditional Puritan ideals and sex: avoid the topic altogether while it is salaciously demonstrated at every bend in the free market). In the United States, and other countries to be sure, the demonstration of one's income is a national tradition. We don't use the cliche "keeping up with the Joneses" without provocation. Even more disturbing: we place so much emphasis on the demonstration of that income.

One of my favorite AP prompts I have my students study with includes a quote from Lewis Lapham's Money and Class in America. It reads:

I think it is fair to say that the current ardor of the American faith in money so easily surpasses the degrees of intensity achieved by other societies in other times and places. Money means so many things to us—spiritual as well as temporal—that we are at a loss to know how to hold its majesty at bay.

Lapham's words bring me back to Sociology 1010 my first year in college. It was here that I was introduced to Social Comparison Theory (essentially, it is the measuring up we do in order to place ourselves as--hopefully--elite amongst our peers). Like most sociological theories, it is relatively common sensical. In Leon Festinger's theory (thanks, Wikipedia), launched in the 50's, the comparing was usually done between one's skills, abilities, and opinions and another individual's skills, abilities and opinions. Today, however, I believe Lapham is more spot-on. Especially in the middle and upper classes. Money is a currency far more valuable than previously suspected. Rather than waiting to find out if one is intelligent, or trustworthy, or good based on their actions, we assume by their mere appearance whether or not this is the case. And when I say their appearance I mean *What (or whom) are they wearing? *Is their hair styled professionally? *Are their teeth whitened/straight? *What do they drive? *With what technology do they accessorize?

And all of us are just climbing and scrambling to the top of the best dressed, latest, greatest heap. We gauge an individual's value by how wealthy we perceive them to be--in comparison to ourselves. Other factors enter in, obviously. Festinger's theory wasn't all wrong: we feel better when we feel better than somebody else. But my-oh-my, how our national psyche (and subsequent economy) have been screwed over time and again by our own little egos.

Yes, money is funny. And taboo. But I think, sadly, the joke is on us.

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