The Last Shame in America

Why is everyone so squeamish about money?

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Try this: Throw a party. Announce that guests will be required to expose their net worth and income to total strangers. Bring a brokerage statement! Show us your pay stub! Come on, don’t forget your year-end bonus! Give it a whirl! Chips, beer, and full financial disclosure! Who can resist a theme party?

Well, in this case, nearly everyone.

Secrecy surrounding money is so ingrained that silence is a matter of social propriety. What if we went to the party and learned that we make less—or more—than our friends? Neither situation is socially tolerable. We welcome our isolation; it keeps us safe from shame.

If you are fulfilled and daily go forward with absolute confidence that your lifetime of effort will culminate in an extended twilight of comfort and creativity for you and the people you love, you need read no further—just list the contents of your medicine cabinet, please.

The rest of us exist in constant low-grade economic terror. Like those harmless but noticeable electric charges that imprison dogs in unfenced backyards, low-grade terror and shame about money make us work harder, longer, accept authority, and leave us feeling grateful to our employers, which, in fact, generate the voltage of fear that runs beneath our feet.

Like mutts free to roam only so far in the backyard, we devote ourselves to a corporate master as though it had our best interests at heart. Corporations benefit from the shame that surrounds money because employees who share what they know about compensation hamper productivity. Honest executives will admit that when it comes to compensation policy, their job is to observe the legal minimums for such things as wages and maternity leave and to otherwise squeeze every ounce of effort possible from every employee.

Achieving high productivity at low cost is simply good management. If compensation policy were conducted in the open with equal information available to all, no one could object. But it is not conducted openly, because corporate apologists cannot justify the discrepancies: How is it possible that highest-level management can receive compensation 300 times greater than the lowest-paid employee’s? Why do male employees earn more than female employees? Comparing pay stubs would plunge a company into a bog of dark issues about fairness that have nothing to do with company purpose—profit.

Meanwhile, inflated job titles and flatulent job descriptions keep us comfortable in our isolation by co-opting our identities. No one works for anyone anymore, but a lot of us have joined organizations to engage in a collaborative, mutually beneficial effort, as if we were all partners in the making. While secretaries might be prone to exchange frank mutually beneficial information about their jobs, administrative assistants would never be so indiscreet. No business in America any longer employs a clerk, though quite a few retailers pay thousands of sales associates clerklike salaries to walk a sales floor. If you try to find a foreman at a work site, don’t trip over the shift managers.

It’s all so flattering—America is a classless nation of leaders. No wonder those levelers of the workplace, labor unions, have faded in popularity. A secretary might consider union membership, but no ambitious administrative assistant wants to be out of the air-conditioning with armpits gamy as Norma Rae’s—that’s for workers or laborers.

Rhetoric that leaves us unable to distinguish ourselves from our employers helps provide corporations with a self-policing, pliable workforce. Ignorance and shame about money also create the tsunami of revenues that washes through the financial service industry. Money in motion generates fees; managed money generates more fees; advice on how to manage or move money generates yet more fees.

Underpinning the financial services industry is the dubious claim that finance is a complicated and ever-changing realm no layperson can hope to understand. In partnership with government, the financial services industry generates a never-ending parade of bewildering financial vehicles, each a new and improved version of the last wave of bewildering vehicles. IRAs—Roth, regular, and SEP—529 plans, UTMA accounts, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, whole life, wrap accounts, universal life, decreasing term life—the jargon proliferates like detergent boxes at the supermarket.

This entire scam would collapse if people knew just a bit more about money, but the public’s lack of financial education is startling. The fact is that anyone who survived high school can, with a library card or Internet access, learn all that’s necessary to know about saving, investing, insurance, and managing credit. Spend less than you earn; invest your savings in diverse vehicles appropriate to your risk tolerance; insure yourself, your loved ones, and your property against disaster; borrow money at the least expensive rates possible only to purchase a revenue-producing asset such as a car that will get you to and from work, a house where you can rest and live your life, or a business from which you can reasonably expect to harvest a return greater than the interest you pay.

The basic requisites of personal economic life do not change, but as long as the financial services industry can leave us ignorant enough to believe that money is an intimidating inexplicable mystery, we’ll pay sharpies and hucksters whatever they ask to manage our money.

This is no rant against either “the system” or capitalism. The miracles of progress and innovation made possible by constitutional democracy coupled with open markets—mechanisms to gather and concentrate capital for further growth—are undeniable. But the system today is being undermined as insidiously as any terrorist might hope. In the end, our shame about money endangers our personal freedom. Open markets presuppose information accessible to buyers and sellers; they thrive on transparency. Turning back an odometer is a criminal offense. Real estate agents are required to disclose defects in property. In an open market, an industrious buyer can find out the valuation of every house on the block and can learn the price of any make or model car in any newspaper.

So why should it be a social transgression to ask the guy in the next cube what his salary is?

The shame surrounding money is therefore more than a cultural quirk. It occludes the open market and by doing so strikes at the foundations of capitalist democracy. Individually, we are vulnerable to being screwed, but in the aggregate our identification with Corporate America perpetuates political and social misery. Consider the results:

Our government equates corporate triumph with national triumph and collaborates with military dictators and gangsters because order, however brutally imposed, safeguards business profit. Despite soaring worker productivity, we continue to link health care to employment, and so the fear of disease and infirmity accelerates the corporate flywheel. We work more hours to make more dollars to take on credit-card balances to buy more cool crap. We delay marriage and children long past the optimal biological hour because we are terrified to miss the corporate career boat, leaving losers with baby carriages waving farewell at the dock. And for the generation just joining the workforce, busyness and stress are equated with power and status instead of being recognized as the surest road to premature death and loveless lives.

As long as we collaborate in the shame of money, we’ll be mutts burying bones in yards demarcated by invisible forces. But we are not helpless. In America the major social movements of the second half of the 20th century demonstrate that the elimination of shame—for good or ill—is possible. Public attitudes about women, civil rights, and alternative sexuality were willfully changed in a generation and are changing still. We are a nation of people, not a nation of companies, but as long as we allow ourselves to think like corporate apparatchiks, we will never engage in any free dialogue.

First, acknowledge that Corporate America flourishes through fear, ignorance, and the self-imposed financial isolation that is our defense against shame. Second, demand personal finance classes in public schools so that never again will anyone agree to a mountain of college debt but not once in 16 years in classrooms ever learn to balance a checkbook or know that 20 percent annual interest on a credit card invites eternal economic servitude. Third, talk money up. Often. Show your paycheck around. Abandon your shame.

Perry Glasser is coordinator of the professional writing program at Salem State College in Massachusetts. Reprinted from The North American Review (Jan./Feb. 2003). Subscriptions: $22/yr. (6 issues) from University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614.