This book is about time, work and money. Even as a child, I was aware that these were troubling and confusing matters. They troubled my father and mother, and they confused me.

         Between 1943 and 1964, I lived at home with my parents and sisters. During that time, typically six days a week, my father would wake early in the morning. He would put on a white shirt, starched rigid at the Chinese laundry. With that shirt, he would wear a tie, a suit and polished shoes. He would then leave our apartment in the Bronx and travel by subway to Brooklyn (in 1956 he learned to drive and bought his first car). I now know that when he arrived at work, he would take off the shirt, tie, suit and shoes and change into work clothes. He was a blue collar worker, working in a small factory that made women's blouses.

         In that factory he worked first as a cutter, then as a marker (the person who figures out how to lay the pattern on the reams of fabric so as to minimize waste) and then as the shop foreman. He always worked overtime, and often on Saturdays. He brought his pay home in a small brown envelope stuffed with tens and twenties. Coming home late, he often ate after the rest of the family had finished, and when he had finished eating, he would tell stories.

         Often, they were the stories about what had happened that day, and inevitably he was a modern knight battling against the utter stupidity of the people around him, his boss, his fellow workers, or officials from the union (of which he was a proud member). Sometimes, however, the stories were of another world, the world that he had grown up in.

         Born in a small village in Poland, he was the great-grandson of a famous Hassidic rabbi. (Years later, he and I would visit the Library of Congress and work through the several inches of card catalogue devoted to his famous ancestor). In his little corner of the world, he was something of a prince -- always known in his town as the great grandson of Rabbi K. As a youth, he rebelled against his religious background and became an ardent socialist. He was a natural leader and public speaker. By the time he was twenty-one, he had already been elected to public office and had served time as a political prisoner.

         As a young man, he came to the United States as a tourist on the Isle de France. He came to visit his father and mother and sister, all of whom had emigrated. He came wearing hand-tailored suits, and planning to return to his life in Poland. He never went back.

         At first, I suppose, the transition was not very difficult. There was a vibrant Jewish socialist movement in New York. Everyone spoke Yiddish. There was a Yiddish theater (he sometimes performed), there were Yiddish papers (he sometimes wrote). He met my mother. She taught him English. She too was a socialist. She was also beautiful and a dancer. He had friends; he had relatives; he had ideals; he had a political movement. He lived in Manhattan.

         Gradually it all changed. He had never pursued a career, had never even gone to college. He was devoted to the "movement" and took jobs just to earn some money. When I was growing up everything was different. The Depression was over. World War II was over. He was married, had two children and was living in the Bronx. My mother stopped dancing. She took care of the house, and ultimately four children. My father, for the most part, stopped his political activity. There were fewer friends. Mostly, it seemed, life was about making a living and supporting a family. He worked hard. He earned good money. He resented the work and resented what had happened to him. I remember he paid careful attention to how I was doing in school; he used to say, "Work now and you won't have to work later."

         One of the great things about my childhood was that I was able to spend my summers with another family. My mother's oldest sister never married. Having no children of her own, she became the extra parent of the children of her younger sisters. She owned a small cottage that was part of a summer cooperative some forty miles north of New York City. For years, my family would spend July at the cottage, and my mother's younger sister and family would spend August. My father chafed at the ambiguous arrangement, feeling neither guest nor owner. Ultimately our family spent the summers in the Bronx. We lived next to a park.

         Fortunately, it was arranged that I would continue to spend my summers at the cottage, living with the family of my mother's younger sister. If our income bracket was lower-middle class, theirs was what used to be called "working class." But my uncle wasn't a factory worker like my father, he was an artist. They lived in Greenwich Village and paid $60 a month rent.

         My uncle was a bit of a buffoon, but he was also a true magician. He saw the magic in the most ordinary things, and he could awaken you to that magic. He built a tiny frog pond in the woods -- a place to sit on large stones and watch the tadpoles as they grew their legs.  The cottage was on a hillside, and he spent a decade, perhaps it was two decades, transporting dirt from the front of the house to the back of the house, so that ultimately there was level ground for a driveway and for a turn-around area. What fun it was to work with him in the August sun, sweating and straining to fill a home-made cart with front-of-the-house dirt. The other kids used to come over just to join in the project.

         Around the cottage we had some of the best raspberries that ever grew. And in the July morning sun, we would walk a step or two out the door and gather jewels for our cereal. The cottage had neither phone, nor T.V. nor even radio. It had just one bedroom, and at night we rigged up all sorts of sleeping places and shared what beds and couches we had. Most of the time, we had no car. My aunt was a great cook, and though no one said grace at any meal, there was a kind of pagan reverence at mealtime -- a kind of food worship. It wasn't about overeating, nor was it about being thankful for having food. It was about the food itself -- about how good the bread was, even about how good was the old family knife that my uncle used to cut the bread.

         It wasn't all sweetness and light. Both families had their internal problems and considerable craziness.  My mother did not work outside the home and for many years neither did my aunt. Both of them suffered from the isolation. And for both of them, money was always an issue. For years, my parents fought about it. And my aunt watched every penny. Indeed, during the summers, she watched everything I ate and made sure that I was not costing more than my parents were contributing for my keep. Indeed, some of the worse moments in the family, some that estranged people for years, turned on the issue of money and property, on who was doing what to whom.

         For years I passed between these two families who had gone different routes with respect to work and time and money, both of whom had failed to square the circle. The issues never go away. When I was in college, I did a double major, philosophy and economics. My economic honors thesis was about John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society. That was twenty-five years ago, and nowadays, struggling over whether to send my eight year old to private or public school, I'm still wrestling with these questions.  During those twenty-five years, I have worked in various venues. First as an academic philosopher, then as a Congressional aide and Administrator of the House Budget Committee's Task Force on the Distributive Impacts of Economic Policy, then as a policy analyst in the United States Agency for International Development, now as a peace activist concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

         I've put all the autobiographical material in the preface; there is none in the text. Yet in its way, the book remains intensely personal. It is about something that many of us continue to feel and continue to struggle with.

         In the world today there is considerable confusion and uneasiness about how to live, in particular about those dimensions of life that are sharply impacted by the economic realm. Whether it be questions of overload, of hectic life styles and harried existence, or questions of materialism and consumption, or concerns over interpersonal competition, careerism, over-work, loss of leisure, or loss of security -- there is a widespread skepticism that our fast-paced, mass consumption society represents the highest form of human social development. On the most visceral level, for many of us, something just doesn't feel right. We have lost any semblance of graceful existence, and we sense it, even if we can't articulate it.

         As an American, it is the United States and the Western tradition that I know best. Thus, while these issues are of general concern, middle class life in the United States provides the contemporary context for much of the discussion. At the same time this inquiry into simple living should be of particular interest to those in wealthy countries, such as France and Japan, where much that they cherish is under pressure, whether it be two-hour lunches, or the small shops that give life to city streets, or family traditions and bonds that give shape and meaning to the cycle of life. Equally, what is discussed should have special relevance to those in low income countries. We in the United States and in other rich lands have somewhere along the line made a wrong turn. We are not quite sure where it was, in part, because we are not sure where we are. Yet even without fully diagnosing our own situation, there are clear mistakes that we have made that others can learn from.

         The subtitle of this book is: "Towards a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living."  The plan of the book is the reverse of what might be expected. I start with politics and end with philosophy. I take it as given that there is a widespread desire for a simpler way of life. Books on simple living abound; magazines regularly feature stories on people trying to "cut back"; there are simple living web-sites and simplicity support groups.  Part One concerns itself with how we can move towards simpler lives. Its central thesis is that this is not merely something to be pursued on the personal level. The missing half of the equation is a politics of simplicity.  Contrary to those who offer advertising, consumer culture, or even human nature as explanations of why we never feel we have enough, I argue that we have created a very inefficient society -- one in which our very real and legitimate economic needs can only be met at high levels of income. As a result, it is very hard to work less when this means a lower income for your family. This is a problem that we must address as a society, through new ways of thinking about economic and social policy.

         In Part Two, the discussion explores elements of a philosophy of simple living. It is concerned with whether or not, at bottom we are simple creatures with simple needs. It considers the nature of genuine wealth. I call for a form of simple living that I term "Graceful Simplicity" and from which the general title of the book emerges. Gracefulness is one of those elusive concepts of great power; like "love" -- it is not easy to say exactly what it is, but we can feel its absence like a pain in the heart. The absence of gracefulness captures much of what is wrong with the way we live -- our sense that things have gotten "hard" whether it be hard to make ends meet, hard times within the family, or the hard edges of our daily interactions.  And this is not a problem easily righted.  Achieving gracefulness is always a challenge. To live gracefully, in both its inner and outer dimensions, is to have mastered an art.

         The central theme of the book is that we cannot think coherently about economic life, unless we situate the economic within a broader conception of human existence. But that is not how we typically think of the economy and economics. We need to go back to basics and ask, "What is an economy for?" -- and this I suggest, cannot be properly answered unless we can also answer some of the questions that once animated philosophers, such as "What is the nature of human happiness?" and "What is true wealth?"

         The reader is advised that I allow the discussion to go where it needs to, without paying much respect to familiar boundaries that restrict any given book's subject matter to certain topics but not others. Thus, in the course of the inquiry, I consider diverse matters that are generally not found within the same cover, for instance, Aristotle's views about money, strategies for giving up paid employment, the virtues of Sabbath observance, and the extra financial costs associated with shifting from one to two wage earners. While this may be initially a bit disconcerting, I believe it gives strength to the argument, making it something of a web, tacked down at many points.

         Two cross-cutting themes recur throughout the text: the importance of the aesthetic dimension of life, and the central role of the services that people provide for each other. Let me address these in turn.

         The choice of the term "graceful simplicity" is intended to give emphasis to the aesthetic dimension -- by this I mean far more than surrounding oneself with beautiful objects.  Gracefulness is a way of being in the world, and there is an aesthetics of time that is violated when we live in constant rush, when our lives are a succession of agenda items, when we live like someone racing through the supermarket with a shopping list. To live well means giving things the time they deserve, be it time for the children, one's spouse and lover, one's friends, or the garden. 

         Taking the time to do things right strengthens our ability to live more simply. Slowing down, achieving a human pace brings out the value in the things we have and the things we do. Living in a beautiful environment, whether it be a beautiful city or the unspoiled countryside has a similar power to liberate us from the imperative to consume. Rather than retreating to the isolated self-created environment of home and possessions, we are drawn towards a shared public space.

          Our need for beauty also forms part of the discussion of household budgets, and of our need to escape to places of beauty. In a broader sense, aesthetics is also at the heart of the notion of Sabbath observance -- a cultural/religious construct that seeks to enable all, rich and poor like, a one-day a week opportunity to experience gracefulness within time.

         The second theme that laces its way through the book is the issue of services -- the centrality to the good life of the things that people do for one another -- paid or unpaid. The contexts in which this arises are quite distinct. In the final chapter, when taking up the question "What is real wealth?" I respond that real wealth primarily resides in access to the services of others and to modes of activity in which you can be of genuine service as well. 

         In the Greece of Aristotle, for those who were privileged, it was indeed easier to live gracefully on a modest income, because graceful living rested on three forms of inequality: the subjugation of women, slavery, and vast economic inequality. Thus substantial numbers of people were channeled into lives devoted only to serving the needs and pleasures of others. Even today, often in Third World countries we find that people in the middle class live more gracefully than in the United States, because they can afford to hire servants. Ultimately, this is much of what people seek when the seek riches. Yet in this sense it is logically impossible to have a rich society, because no matter what the economic abundance, it is impossible for everyone to have servants and yet not themselves be servants.

         The most significant progress than mankind has made over the last two thousand years is on the level of moral ideas. In thought, and to a considerable extent in practice we have made progress in overcoming the presumption that only a limited set of people possess transcendent potentials. Today everyone affirms their right to seek genuine fulfillment. On one level this is at the heart of many of the contemporary struggles within the household and over the role of women. But it also bears on the issue of living simply, of living in a way that does not give rise to an excessive need for the services of others, and thus, it motivates the search for a form of graceful existence that can be widely attained. This is the primary goal of the politics of simplicity.

         Taken more deeply, however, what people need is not merely to be the recipients of services, and to be freed from roles of subservient service providers. In addition, we have a need for the meaning and creative expression that comes through the services we provide to others.  Viewed through this lens, a politics of simplicity offers a distinctly different understanding of what the output of an economy is. Rather than thinking of economic output as a gigantic heap of material goods and work as a labor input, instead, the economy is better conceived as the creator (and destroyer) of life roles. The material outputs are the means of our subsistence. What is really important are the forms of service interaction, the forms of work that a society provides.

         This in turn circles back to the issue of time. When we give to things and to each other, the time that is deserved, the meaning of service provision is transformed. When we act in haste, whether it be at work or with friends, our activity and ultimately our very being becomes a mere means to some intended outcome. When this is our general way of being in the world, we have failed in what Thoreau identified as the great enterprise -- to make living poetic.

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  • published this page in Other Writings 2018-01-30 17:52:25 -0500