My car was recently stolen while parked outside my apartment building. Why anyone risked prison stripes for the rusted pipes on a beige Cutlass is a mystery. It belonged to my grandmother. It smelled of Grecian and gin, had a “Pollock paint job”, and the brakes gripped like a giggling infant’s fists.
Still, it was my only means of transportation, and on days when the cassette player worked, I was pleased to have the convenience that the car offered. I hadn’t the resources to replace it, since the balance in my savings account was, and is, more gumball machine worthy than ATM reminiscent. Fortunately, I had access to public transportation, and comfort in the knowledge that there hadn’t been a shooting on my bus route in months.
While still able to get to work, I found my pride inexplicably dulled, my ego wounded. It’s not so much the car I miss, but what its ownership conveyed: That the owner is sufficiently competent to offer his labors to companies that compensate with wages sustaining enough to provide payment, insurance, fuel and fuzzy dice. Finding myself suddenly dispossessed of this, my most visible and recognizable symbol of status and ownership, I felt reduced, and a little ashamed.
Of course, most people wouldn’t articulate their frustration at this length, but would if they did? According to Jeffrey Jones, in his book The Unaffordable Nation, such value judgments are intrinsically American, a paradigm inherited from English ancestry. Ask around, says Jones, and the ideal of honest pay for honest work remains a foundation upon which our country’s labor views are built. Indeed, he argues, part of what makes Americans so unique is their steadfast belief in this virtue. If you’re doing your best, you should live a decent life.
But how accurate is this? The Unaffordable Nation explains that our unshakable belief in the correlation between hard work and quality lives is being eroded by uncompromising distinctions between deserving and undeserving, failed politics and mounting personal debt.
To question standards of living seems unpatriotic. America rewards effort, so the poor must not want it enough, otherwise they’d work for it. Jones dispels this fallacy, claiming a near-unanimous desire for certain standards of living. “One, such items constitute the quality of life that Americans customarily expect for themselves; and, two that the possession of such products comprises a badge of public dignity, the lack of which disassociates the deprived from the rest of America’s moral community”. Image, according to Jones, is everything, and a reflection of our quality as individuals.
But how realistically attainable are these standards? Not everyone can drive a Bentley, or eat lobster every night. For Jones, it all comes back to decency. One of the book’s best qualities is its ability to define concepts that are fervently but tenuously held. Decency then, is the ability to live comfortably within our means, by receiving monetary value for working to our fullest potential. To live decently is to reside in safe neighborhoods, to have access to reliable transportation, health care and good schools. Polls of Americans continuously confirm these standards.
But increasingly, a decent life is out of reach for many. Early in the book’s first chapter, Jones lists some staggering statistics evident of the vanishing American dream, including those that reveal the inadequacy of the prevailing minimum wage to allow for sustainability, unaffordable health care costs, and a declining middle class. These data should surprise absolutely no one and, to his credit, Jones presents them simply without belaboring their sensationalism.
It’s worth mentioning that this simplicity of presentation seems detached, initially, but is far from clinical. Among Jones’s legal credentials, he’s also a PhD in philosophy. Alongside quotes from Weber and Locke are those from Thoreau and Voltaire. The latter provide leverage for the more didactic economic theory and imbue the book with warmth and humility.
Jones continues by claiming that, from the failure to attain said items of decency come feelings of inadequacy and degraded self-worth. Gambling, lotteries and litigation are ascendant, and borne of the associated desperation that comes from being poor. Jones sympathizes with these people, to a point, erring on the irreducibility of personal choice. “I’m suggesting that a primary incentive for lawsuit and lottery abuse is the indignity of unaffordability. The desire to belong to the class of the economically respectable, is worth risking ever-greater financial hardship”. Lottery players probably won’t win, but what more do they have to lose?
Only a few people get a free pass from the pressures to perform at their economic best, namely those who’ve been disadvantaged through disabilities and are unable to find any means to improve their lives. Not even some physical afflictions are exempt however, from what Jones calls labor’s Golden Rule.
“The Golden Rule requires devoting one’s energy toward some productive economic activity with a regularity and commitment likely to yield economic self-sufficiency”, says Jones. “More so, doing one’s economic best requires regulating conduct outside of work that can affect the course of personal economic development”. This, Jones thinks, is an abominable reversal of the ‘work to live’ adage, where labor was merely a means to greater ends, like family, health and recreation.
So whom does the author blame for this mess? German polymath, Gottfried Leibniz. According to Jones, Leibniz was primarily a lawyer and philosopher, but is most famous for his defense of a doctrine known as religious optimism, conceived in the mid-sixteenth century. Essentially, in an attempt to reconcile an all-powerful Christian God with the existence of evil and other worldly imperfections, Leibniz argued that men must “live in the best of all possible worlds”, because this world is the creation of a perfect God.
In other words, Jones says, this kind of optimism supposes that famine, disease, violence, and corruption are all perfect, and it is precisely this doctrine that leads the moral justification for the economic status quo in the United States. This, he argues, makes people oblivious towards the true realities of the disadvantaged. There might be poverty, but it’s all part of God’s great plan, and who are we to contradict? However illogical it sounds, Jones says, its acceptance is being annealed as a matter of perverse national pride. No, we think, it can’t be happening here; not in this perfect country.
Don’t look to Jones to advocate a political fix. Politics, and, specifically, Congress are to the author an extension of the people, and both are therefore of the same pernicious optimism. While staunchly denouncing their repeated inabilities to pass a higher minimum wage, Jones ultimately highlights their representative service through their reflection of the public’s ideas of labor, however misguided. The issues of unaffordable living transcend party partisanship and rhetorical rancor, and there are no easy answers presented here. In the sound-bite arena, Jones’s book seems quaintly anachronistic.
Ultimately, The Unaffordable Nation works best first as primer, then as resource. Because of the potential enormity of the undertaking combined with his desire “to be accessible to a nonacademic audience”, Jones often seems as though he’s constrained. That the book covers topics from tort reform to affirmative action in fewer than two hundred pages is a remarkable feat, but it doesn’t leave much berth for elaboration.
Jones’s advice is clear and insistent: Read the book and start thinking. More importantly, read the wealth of notations that follow every chapter, for it’s here that the author seems most enthusiastic and uninhibited with his opinions and commentary.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article