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Poor Richard's Principle

Poor Richard's Principle: Recovering the American Dream through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business, and Money

ROBERT WUTHNOW
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 444
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sxww
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    Poor Richard's Principle
    Book Description:

    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 Principleoffers an analysis of how moral restraint can once again play a more prominent role in guiding our thinking.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2220-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. Introduction THE QUESTION OF MORAL RESTRAINT
    (pp. 3-14)

    WORK BECKONS. Money talks. Like a mysterious force, the economy waxes and wanes. It flourishes by following its own logic—seeking new markets, new opportunities for profits. So say the experts. Are beliefs and values relevant? Of course—but as ways to legitimate this incessant expansion. Advertising is thus a way to encourage consumers to buy more. Corporate subcultures ply bureaucrats with better reasons to put the company first. The Protestant ethic is relevant if it encourages workers to work harder. The American Dream promotes the endless pursuit of more prestigious careers and a more comfortable life.

    The argument I...

  5. PART ONE: THE UNREALIZED AMERICAN DREAM

    • Chapter One HAVING IT ALL—AND WANTING MORE: THE SOCIAL SYMPTOMS OF CULTURAL DISTRESS
      (pp. 17-36)

      WHEN MARK LATHAM graduated from college, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. Like many other young people with talent and good credentials, he decided to maximize his options by getting into something where he could make a lot of money. That meant Wall Street. Within two years, Mark was a successful analyst negotiating leveraged buyouts for a major corporate finance firm. Now, at age 26, he works for another firm arranging financing for huge real estate deals. Handling sales in the $400 million range has become routine. He knows he could become enormously successful if he...

    • Chapter Two MAKING CHOICES: FROM SHORT-TERM ADJUSTMENTS TO PRINCIPLED LIVES
      (pp. 37-58)

      WITH INCREASING levels of burnout, career dissatisfaction, substance abuse, alcoholism, and costly job-stress suits, a growing number of American corporations have started paying attention to the possibility that people are simply working too hard, taking on responsibilities that do not nurture themselves as human beings, and putting themselves under too much pressure. General Motors has more than 100 staff psychologists dealing with problems of drugs, alcohol, burnout, and depression on the assembly line. Motorola, Xerox, Levi Strauss, and a few other large firms have initiated task forces in recent years to study the relationship between work and family problems among...

    • Chapter Three MORAL TRADITION: THE LOST AMBIVALENCE IN AMERICAN CULTURE
      (pp. 59-82)

      THE IDEA THAT economic behavior can be regulated by moral restraint dates far back in history. It can be found in ancient religious texts and in the ethical writings of the Greeks and Romans. It was present in medieval religious injunctions against usury and was carried forward by the Protestant reformers’ emphasis on stewardship and the Enlightenment philosophes’ effort to derive principles of compassion and civic virtue from natural law. All these traditions came together to make the moralist literature in our own society particularly strong during the first half of the nineteenth century. Though eclipsed by the social and...

  6. PART TWO: THE CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION OF MATERIAL LIFE

    • Chapter Four SHIFTING PERSPECTIVES: THE DECOUPLING OF WORK AND MONEY
      (pp. 85-104)

      BY THE MIDDLE of the nineteenth century, the moralist vision that had provided a framework in which to think about economic behavior in relation to broader values was already losing influence relative to the rising scientific claims of the political economists. Were we to trace these developments in greater detail, we would see that the wider cultural movement of the nineteenth century was toward a progressive narrowing of the framework in which public discourse about work and money was located. To be sure, there was still much at the popular level to link work and money with other moral commitments:...

    • Chapter Five ACCOUNTS: THE CHANGING MEANINGS OF WHITE-COLLAR WORK
      (pp. 105-137)

      WHAT ARE YOU going to do with your life?” We ask this question of our children and teach them to ask it of themselves. Generally we mean, “What kind of career are you going to pursue?”¹ During high school or college, a legitimate way to explain yourself is to say you are studying to become a ––––––. Later, when asked who you are, it seems appropriate to respond by giving your profession or describing the kind of work you do. Having chosen one career out of the many possible, you also feel compelled to legitimate your choice in some...

    • Chapter Six (NOT) TALKING ABOUT MONEY: THE SOCIAL SOURCES AND PERSONAL CONSEQUENCES OF SUBJECTIVIZATION
      (pp. 138-168)

      MONEY IS ONE of our deepest passions. Loved, sought after, sometimes ridiculed and despised, it has always been considered fundamental to the lives of individuals and of societies. Following customs nearly three millennia old, printed currencies carry the faces of public figures who symbolize the commonweal. The great age of exploration that led to the founding of our own nation was prompted in no small measure by the belief that bullion and power went hand in hand. Even the radical social reformers of the nineteenth century, so often critical of the economic arrangements of their day, believed money to be...

    • Chapter Seven GETTING AND SPENDING: THE MAINTENANCE AND VIOLATION OF SYMBOLIC BOUNDARIES
      (pp. 169-205)

      IF MONEY is so personal that people often feel at sea in thinking about it, there are nevertheless highly institutionalized frameworks in our culture that guide our conceptions of money most of the time. I suggested in the last chapter that money isbothsubjective and objective, a feature of private life and a matter of public record. Great psychological distance often separates the two. And yet the two are inextricably connected. We must now try to understand what these connections are.

      My argument will go something like this: Having been severed to a considerable extent from work (as we...

    • Chapter Eight THE WORKING CLASS: CHANGING CONDITIONS AND CONVERGING PERSPECTIVES
      (pp. 206-238)

      AT FOUR-YEAR INTERVALS the American political system tries to rejuvenate itself from the bottom up. In the process, seekers of high office make ritual pilgrimages back to the nation’s roots: its working class. Here they expect to find earthy homespun wisdom. America’s workers are the proverbial keepers of its moral values, the bedrock of common decency, the heartland, where the dream still resonates loudly. They are characteristically thought to be unsullied by the intellectual pretensions of the better educated and uncorrupted by the conspicuous glamour-grubbing of the affluent upper middle class.

      I have to this point deliberately said little about...

  7. PART THREE: THE PRECARIOUS SOURCES OF HUMAN VALUES

    • Chapter Nine FAMILY LIFE: THE NEW CHALLENGES OF BALANCING MULTIPLE COMMITMENTS
      (pp. 241-264)

      NEWCASTERS AND POLLSTERS have trained the American public to think of economic commitments and family life as trade-offs: working too hard or being too interested in money focuses attention away from the family; lightening up on these commitments gives more time to focus on family values. Individuals can be more devoted to one or the other. The whole culture can also tip from side to side. “Americans are placing increasing importance on family values and turning away from materialism” is thus a formulaic lead for a newspaper story about public opinion.¹

      The trade-off between economic commitments and family life can...

    • Chapter Ten REDISCOVERING COMMUNITY: THE CULTURAL POTENTIAL OF CARING BEHAVIOR AND VOLUNTARY SERVICE
      (pp. 265-291)

      THROUGHOUT our nation’s history, being involved in the community has been another value that forced people to set limits on their economic pursuits.¹ People took time off from work to help sick neighbors with theirs. They paused from the daily routine to attend the weddings and funerals of their neighbors and kin. Sometimes they set work aside to form vigilante committees for the physical protection of their communities. They devoted evenings and weekends to community events, and they donated a portion of their earnings to local relief chests. Marveling at the extent of these activities in the 1830s, Alexis de...

    • Chapter Eleven THE QUEST FOR SPIRITUALITY: AMBIGUOUS VOICES FROM AMERICA’S RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES
      (pp. 292-328)

      SINCE EARLIEST TIMES, religious leaders have drawn a sharp contrast between the pursuit of material gain and the life of the spirit. “I undertook great works … owned possessions … amassed silver and gold … found pleasure in all my labor, and … this wasmy reward … it was futility, all of it, and a chasing of the wind, of no profit under the sun,” proclaimed one of the early Hebrew writers.¹ The patristic John Chrysostom vehemently denounced the love of money. “Like a fire catching a wood, that desolates and destroys all around,“ he wrote, “this passion has laid...

  8. PART FOUR: THE LANGUAGES OF MORAL DISCOURSE

    • Chapter Twelve MATERIALISM AND MORAL RESTRAINT: THE ROLE OF ASCETIC AND EXPRESSIVE VALUES
      (pp. 331-356)

      I BEGAN this inquiry by asking whether economic commitments in contemporary society can be effectively curbed by subjecting them to moral restraint. The tendency for these commitments to expand has been widely taken for granted in the theoretical literature. The empirical evidence I presented in chapter 1 demonstrated that most Americans perceive this expansion to be part of their own experience. They feel that they are working harder than they were a few years ago, and by many indications they are in fact working longer hours. Most say they have more money than ever before, but a majority also say...

    • Chapter Thirteen THE POSSIBILITIES OF MORAL DISCOURSE: LIMITATIONS, PATHOLOGIES, AND CHALLENGES
      (pp. 357-374)

      THE ROLE OF moralist orientations is not to restrict economic life by making it less meaningful, but to set limits around its meanings, showing them in fact to be circumscribed, making differentiation possible, as it were, and then providing bridges between these delimited meanings and other conceptions of value. Moral discourse does not necessarily provide legitimate reasons to work shorter hours, but it helps sort out how to know if those hours are really contributing to the realization of one’s goals and one’s personal identity.

      The observation that many people find their work fulfilling because it provides variety might be...

  9. METHODOLOGY
    (pp. 375-376)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 377-426)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 427-429)