Money, Community and Family Values
Jennifer Thompson, Master of Theological Studies, Graduate Fellow, Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Emory University
This is a review of two recent books:
Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy. New York: Howard Books, 2010.
Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen. The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Two recent books use the idea of "the new normal" to explore how families' lives can be transformed when they think deeply about their choices as consumers. In The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, father-daughter team Kevin and Hannah Salwen chronicle the story of their family's decision to shift their focus away from an achievement- and accumulation-focused lifestyle. By focusing instead on their connections to each other as a family and what they can do to help others, their worldview substantially changed. Jim Wallis's Rediscovering Values On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy takes a broader view, using the occasion of the Great Recession to argue for a new understanding of the relationship between morality and the economy. This "new normal," Wallis says, can help us become more compassionate and healthy individuals, families, communities, and nations. While at first glance these two books don't seem to be in the same genre, they actually deeply resonate with each other.
Wallis and the Salwens share little in common at the outset. Wallis, an evangelical Christian theologian who runs Sojourners, a magazine focused on social justice, uses a prophet's voice to call readers to introspection and discernment of ultimate values. Wallis indicts the vast systems in which we all live that threaten the well-being of individuals and communities alike by stacking the deck against the poor, poisoning the environment, and deadening family and civic relationships with meaningless consumerism, narcissism, and unreasonable work demands. Kevin Salwen, the author of most of The Power of Half, enjoyed a successful career working for the Wall Street Journal for nearly two decades. Salwen suggests that his readers would be familiar with the acquisitive lifestyle he comes to reject. "It would have been difficult to differentiate us from other families. Two parents, two kids, nice house, dog. ... Like others we knew, we bought most things we wanted." He recalls the years when he focused on buying ever-nicer things and ever-larger houses until his family came to live in a mansion with its own elevator. The family gave to charity and performed volunteer work, but its stance toward its possessions was to continue acquiring "better, nicer, more," as Salwen puts it.Enlarge this image
The acquisitive lifestyle that the Salwens ultimately come to reject is the same one that concerns Wallis because it encourages greed and competition rather than concern for the common good. "Normal-people greed," as Wallis puts it, is of the same ilk as the competitive, status-seeking consumption of billionaires who own 300-foot yachts. "Without a clear sense of self, a strong identity, and a community of purpose, it seems our default mode is to identify ourselves by the things we own," Wallis writes. "We try to convince ourselves and signal to others who we are almost solely by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the restaurants we eat at, and the houses we own." The central theme of the Salwens' book is that they decided to change their acquisitive lifestyle. As Kevin Salwen tells it, he was driving with his daughter Hannah one day when they saw a homeless man asking for money. Hannah noticed another driver in an expensive car, and realized that "if that man...had a less nice car, ... [the homeless] man there...could have a meal." Kevin responded, "if we had a less nice car, he could have a meal." The Salwen family decided that they had more than they really needed to live on, so they would scale back their lifestyle and give $800,000 to charity. Individually and together as a family, they pondered whether they really felt able to make such a drastic change. Once they agreed that they would, they debated together what values would govern how they disbursed the money and to whom. They ruled out some potential recipients based on personal preferences, as when Kevin's wife, Joan, says, "Yuck. I have no interest in going to India. I don't think we can handle those slums in Calcutta." Others they analyzed according to idiosyncratic categories: a list of issues that the family generated "was divided into two sets of problems, broadly split into 'Poor People's Issues' and 'Everybody's Issues.' In the first category [Joan] listed such ills as hunger, homelessness, lack of clothing, inability to read or write, lack of job skills.... 'Everybody's Issues' ... [ranged] from drunk driving to smoking to cancer to racism to the environment."
Kevin Salwen seems primarily interested in telling his family's story and pointing out that as they discussed their values and took action together to live them out, the family grew closer. Unfortunately, his central point about the family's deepening closeness sometimes gets buried by the storytelling and his avoidance of a deeper level of analysis. For example, he says early in the book that children understand acts of chesed, a Jewish value that Salwen defines as "good deeds done without cause," more than tzedakah, the Jewish value of "financial charity." But he does not spend a lot of time dwelling upon why that might be the case, and more reflection on that in the context of his family's unique experiences would be edifying.
Rediscovering Values helps to fill in the analysis missing from The Power of Half. "Parenting is a countercultural activity," Wallis says, arguing that our morally bankrupt economic system hurts family life. Linking the broad social and economic context directly to individual and familial experience, he describes how American economic and public policies dedicate few resources to the needs of parents and children, and suggests that as we recover from the Great Recession, we revise our ideas about what constitutes success in our lives. For example, in order to enjoy a deeper connection with his family, Wallis describes his careful protection of his time with his children and wife. His two young sons, Wallis writes, "have become a spiritual anchor for me.... I began to build my speaking and traveling schedule around things like Little League baseball, or even just putting them to bed at night-which I now do most nights. After a while, I realized I wasn't just doing this for them-but also for me.... [B]eing a dad to Luke and Jack, I now have a new phrase: 'A calendar is a moral document.' ... [A] budget tells you what and who are most important to a family, church, city, state, or nation. And that's certainly also true about a calendar. It tells us who or what is most important to us."
When the Salwens encounter the homeless man on the street corner in Atlanta, they present the situation as something of a zero sum: we need to accept having less so that others can have more. Wallis also wants to ensure the well-being of people all over the world, but he presents it differently: if we share and care about one another, he says, there is always enough to go around. The reason for this, he suggests, is that if we focus on values and relationship that matter deeply, rather than consumption, then having a less fancy car or house or stereo really doesn't matter and we can be content with what we have. And instead of "keeping up with the Joneses," Wallis writes, in the "new normal" we should instead make sure the Joneses are okay.