Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Transcendentalist and the Immigrant: Two Views of Money in America

The Transcendentalist and the Immigrant: Two Views of Money in America

The desire for money as a tool of culture was implanted in the American consciousness early in its history when Alexander Hamilton held sway over Thomas Jefferson in setting economic direction for the future. Simply put, Jefferson argued for a land-based (or agriculture) economy. Hamilton was a monetarist. In Jefferson’s framework, the land and America’s abundant natural resources, if properly stewarded, would provide for a sustainable economy. But Jefferson, as a land and slave holder, was also an architect of private ownership, along with other framers of the constitution. In many ways these positions setup continual conflict between private ownership and the concept of the commons, which holds that natural resources are held by all with right of use as the economic element.

Hamilton held a vision of economic trade which required a monetary system as a tool of accounting to accommodate intra- and inter-national exchange of goods and currencies. His approach presumed that all things physical could be monetized—labor and natural resources as well as commodities. This monetarist approach explains the generation of great wealth (of the monetary sort) through the consumption of nature. Hamilton, along with international counterparts, set the groundwork for financial innovation which has transformed money from physical substance minted and held in treasuries (the gold standard and Fort Knox) to a nearly pure electronic record (most money these days is actually generated by the banks as debt).

Much more could be addressed concerning the economic dynamics broadly identified here; I mention them primarily as background for two other perspectives on money in America that speak more to the direct human experience of what has resulted from Hamilton’s policy. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson (an American Transcendentalist who wrote in the nineteenth century) and Eva Hoffman (an immigrant who grew up in Poland, and before coming to America moved to Canada at age 13) offer exemplary insights into and voices for the culture of money that has evolved in America. Emerson wrote the essay “Wealth” in 1860. Hoffman’s book Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language written in 1989 is about her impressions of this new culture.

These two voices evoke a moral tone that sounds across time. Though each of the insights is inevitably seated in an historical moment, a deeper thematic tone re-emerges and resonates in new expressions. Though American culture looks very different now than in the nineteenth century, the quest for a moral understanding of money, its purposes and its effects on the human condition, remains. Consider the following passages by Emerson and Hoffman that address money and the American experience from a moral perspective in surprising ways, though they were written more than a century apart. Emerson forewarned us of the moral challenge of accumulating wealth. Hoffman, the modern and open-hearted immigrant, witnesses the force that money bears and sees only two paths of recourse to its pressures.

Here is Emerson:

Whilst it is each man’s interest, that, not only ease and convenience of living, but also wealth or surplus product should exist somewhere, it need not be in his hands. Often it is very undesirable to him. Goethe said well, “nobody should be rich but those who understand it.” Some men are born to own, and can animate all their possessions. Others cannot: their owning is not graceful; seems to be a compromise of their character; they seem to steal their own dividends. They should own who can administer; not they who hoard and conceal; not they who, the greater proprietors they are, are only the greater beggars, but they whose work carves out work for more, opens a path for all. For he is the rich man in whom the people are rich, and he is the poor man in whom the people are poor.

And, Hoffman:

The gospel of detachment is as well suited to a culture of excess as it is to a society of radical poverty. It thrives in circumstances in which one's wants are dangerous because they are surely going to be deprived—or because they are pulled in so many directions that they pose a threat to the integrity, the unity of one's self....Money, in America, is a force so extreme as to become a religious force, a confusing deity, which demands either idolatry or a spiritual education.

It is pretty clear that Emerson, a preacher and deep interpreter of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American experience, was heralding the force of money at work in the culture of the early nineteenth century, and already experiencing the effects of it himself as a member of the contribution supported clergy. He could see that land holders, bankers and emerging industrialists were accumulating wealth through the right of ownership of land and capital. The first sentence of this passage establishes wealth or money as necessary to the well-being of humanity, but questions the right ownership of that wealth. He is in some senses positing wealth as part of the commons. His primary inquiry then was into who could be given the right of the use and distribution of that wealth.

Emerson was a student of human character—surveying its inner aspects through exploring the soul and linking that capacity to higher more transcendent forces of the spirit. He also understood that a person’s character, or essence, had a greater effect on behavior and on those around them than any measurable capacity of intellect. (See: Emerson’s lecture “The American Scholar” given to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University, 1837). But he takes character analysis another step by looking at whether wealth is owned selfishly or on behalf of others. He is pretty clearly in favor of an altruistic (on behalf of) rather than ego-centric practice. Dickens’s Scrooge could be considered an exemplar of both the inner and outer transformation from “stealing his own dividends” to “carving out work for more,” from greed and fear to generosity and compassion.

Emerson has taken the sense of land stewardship described by Jefferson and applied it to the monetarist model. In other words, he recognized that wealth or money had become the new “natural resource.” But he does not directly answer the question of how it would be determined who is a good administrator. He counts upon the individual’s highest moral integrity to self-determine if one can administer on his terms. This is truly the transcendentalist speaking—that a human being can rise above her or himself to a higher self in order to hear the reflective voice of truth as affirmation or condemnation of their practice of social responsibility. There is a kind of inspiring idealism in this imagination, and ample demonstration of good practice in the philanthropic sector. It is not an accident, but rather an integral part of its character that America, for all its flaws, far surpasses any other country in its charitable generosity. In some ways Emerson presaged the evolution of public charities in America (from their origins in the community chest in early 17th century England) as trustees and administrators of wealth for public benefit.

In his time he could not have known the extent of the wealth that would be generated by first the industrial, then the technological revolutions. He would not have guessed that wealth generation would have been separated from direct work, investment, or natural resources. But that has happened. Much wealth, though certainly not all, becomes self-generating via indirect investment through public stock trading, hedge funds, and other such well-orchestrated financial instruments. Financiers and wealth advisors have become the new priesthood, confessors, holders of family secrets, and cross-generational shepherds.

Such is the presence and power of money in the modern American economic landscape, that a young, impressionable person stepping into it brand new might realize the moral dilemma and choices it presents. Eva Hoffman writes from such a vantage point, but her gospel is not like Emerson’s. Hers is a depersonalized one in which the personal, one’s identity, is defined not by a sense of self as it was for Emerson, but rather imposed on the individual by the confluence of material and cultural circumstances. According to her narrative, the external pressures of the melting pot separated one’s self from one’s deeper authentic soul experience and the sense of community.

One can see this in the effect that contemporary media and marketing have on the identity formation of young people. Were I to succumb to this effect, I would think of myself as a brand rather than a self, an image rather than its source. This is the disconnection that Hoffman uses as her framework. In this light, one can hardly know the sources of desire or wants. Are they, for example, part of some image of myself created by someone else’s subtly commercial agenda to get me to buy a product that I may not really need? The passage brilliantly alludes to the connection between virtual or invented desires and the virtual wealth created by an overheated consumer and investment culture. They thrive on each other. Hoffman sees the causal relationship between the creation of wealth and the rise of poverty. Those in poverty will never have enough; those with wealth will face a multiplicity of choices and never-ending demands to spend.

She observed the power and attraction that a culture of everything-for-sale had on her attention. Purchase takes on the mantle of ritual. Desire is connected to the worldly and material, rather than the spiritual. Value resides in gratification not celebration. Money devolves into the icon of this experience. It comes and goes; its sheer impermanence, presence and absence, create fluctuations in one’s emotional life that are a far cry from the constancy of faith one might have in a higher being. The idolatry she speaks of is that of the biblical golden calf in which the thing itself, its material presence, is the locus of connection and belief. The antidote to such a materialist practice is a spiritual education which cultivates deeper human values and reverence for the mystery and generative principles of life—the spiritual that lies within or behind the material. She argues that this spiritual perspective and the practice of its values protect the self from the illusory power of money and all that it represents of a purely materialistic world view. Her ability to articulate this important distinction is based upon the strength of her soul-rich childhood experiences weighed against the pull of her new cultural experiences.

Both Emerson and Hoffman were aware of the dynamic duality of the spiritual and material. Emerson recognized it as an integral part of his philosophical framework. He came to understand and influence human experience through this wisdom that had its heritage in a cultural thread from Aristotle and Plato, through the science and spirit of Goethe whom he quotes. Hoffman came to her view from direct and personal experience, through the struggle to survive as a transplant in American soil. On the topic of money, Emerson’s Transcendentalism is matched by Hoffman’s intuitive intelligence, and her ability to engage us in her reflective process. Where Emerson instructs, Hoffman invites us into a modern dilemma, the capacity of money to dis-integrate inner and outer experience. She proposes two paths, two pathologies, but leaves us free to choose, maybe to bargain. Both authors were deeply engaged with the American experience and the American soul as witnesses and participants. Both ask us to explore our relationship with money as an instructive reflection of soul and possibly that of our broader economic life, as uncertain and highly abstract as it is. Both courageously call for a level of moral consideration of money that is often lacking or ignored in American discourse and culture.

John Bloom