Poor Richard's Principle: Recovering the American Dream through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business, and Moneyby Robert Wuthnow
The American Dream is in serious danger, according to Robert Wuthnow--not because of economic conditions, but because its moral underpinnings have been forgotten. In the past this vision was not simply a formula for success, but a moral perspective that framed our thinking about work and money in terms of broader commitments to family, community, and humanitarian… See more details below
The American Dream is in serious danger, according to Robert Wuthnow--not because of economic conditions, but because its moral underpinnings have been forgotten. In the past this vision was not simply a formula for success, but a moral perspective that framed our thinking about work and money in terms of broader commitments to family, community, and humanitarian values. Nowadays, we are working harder than ever, and yet many of us feel that we are not realizing our higher aspirations as individuals or as a people. Here Wuthnow examines the struggles in which American families are now engaged as they try to balance work and family, confront the pressures of consumerism, and find meaning in their careers. He suggests that we can find economic instruction and inspiration in the nation's past--in such figures as Benjamin Franklin, for instance, who was at once the prudent Poor Richard, the engaged public person, and the enthusiastic lover of life.
Drawing on first-hand accounts from scores of people in all walks of life and from a national survey, the book shows that work and money cannot be understood in terms of economic theories alone, but are inevitably rooted in our concepts of ourselves and in the symbolic rituals and taboos of everyday life. By examining these implicit cultural understandings of work and money, the book provides a foundation for bringing moral reasoning more fully to bear on economic decisions. It re-examines the moral arguments that were prominent earlier in our history, shows how these arguments were set aside with the development of economistic thinking, and suggests their continuing relevance in the lives of people who have effectively resisted the pressures of greater financial commitments. Demonstrating that most Americans do bring values implicitly to bear on their economic decisions, the book shows how some people are learning to do this more effectively and, in the process, gain greater control over their work and finances. At a time when policymakers are raising questions about the very survival of the American dream, Poor Richard's Principle offers an analysis of how moral restraint can once again play a more prominent role in guiding our thinking.
Wuthnow, a noted professor of religion (Princeton; God and Mammon in America, 1994, etc.), here conducts extensive interviews with Americans to reveal what he sees as a disparity between work, money, and spiritual health. Some of the interviewees raise interesting points. One claims that the difference between a salary of $30,000 and $70,000 is minimal; it's the move from $12,000 to $30,000 that counts. Another, a wealthy lawyer, assuages his fear of spending too much by compulsively turning out lights. All of those interviewed complain that they feel distant from family and values. Wuthnow's main point, which he illustrates with heavy-handed quotes and the story of Franklin, is that a more moral pursuit of money is needed. His theorythat a moral orientation to economics allows a worker a measure of choiceis a good one. The American Dream, he argues, has drifted more into a steady drone of endless work, and only an infusion of values can save it. However, while Wuthnow quotes a good deal of statistics, it's not clear why he thinks this amoral trend in the American economy has happened. He gives a number of examples of workers caught by golden handcuffs (they earn a lot, but they spend as much as they earn, so the cycle is endless), with the not-so-subtle implication that it is the lack of moral direction in their job choice that has led them astray, rather than the fact they don't save any of their earnings. His particular brand of Judeo-Christian morality is hardly a balm to people who simply can't manage money.
Though the book is rather plodding and offers vague philosophy instead of action, it does raise important questions about the internal life of the American worker.
"Through dozens of citizens who talked with him, Wuthnow records the continuing stresses in modern economic life.... [The] model of an ideal life, Wuthnow maintains, evolved before the Civil War into two schools of social thought, which he calls 'ascetic' and 'expressive' moralism.... Wuthnow's impressive body of polls and interviews convinces us that both of these modern traditions remain powerful influences in American life today."--Richard Parker, The New York Times Book Review
"In this sociological tract for our times, Wuthnow reconsiders the nature and meaning of the American dream in the late twentieth century. This book goes much further than merely recounting the manifold failings of American economics and culture in the pursuit of happiness.... Wuthnow perceives a moral vacuum at the core of American society, and recommends that Americans systematically revisit the cultural imperatives of an earlier age to reinvent the paradigm of personal success in late capitalism. An important and timely work."--The Virginia Quarterly Review
- Princeton University Press
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