There's a newish genre of books that aim to position a big, common, ancient human problem -- how to love or eat or invest or run a business wisely -- as specific to women, and then tell women how to solve it. Some of these books are transparently commercial. And why not? It's a no-brainer to target female readers. That's why we don't have gender-inspecific titles like "The French Don't Get Fat" and "Your Lover Just Isn't That Into You." The more interesting of the group are sincere, motivated by passion of one kind or another, but so obsessed with the idea that the problem in question is a female problem that they ignore the very facts that could help everyone solve it.
Journalist Liz Perle's "Money, a Memoir" is a case in point. The crucial error occurs very early in the book. After recounting the end of her first marriage, she describes her long-delayed "examination of my convoluted relationship with money" at the age of 42. "[That examination] ultimately lead[s] to my conversations with hundreds of other women," she continues. "When it comes to money, women everywhere have so many fears and fantasies in common." Huh? How did we go from Perle's anxieties and issues to surveys of hundreds of women? In the next 240 pages, she never convinced me that women have any more convoluted relationships with money than men do, or even that her relationship with money has much to do with her being female. Don't people everywhere have fears and fantasies in common having to do with money? But that observation wouldn't necessarily sell books.
What if on Page 10 Perle had written, "Jews everywhere have so many fears and fantasies in common," or "Writers have so many fears and fantasies in common"? Doubtless true, but the reader would impatiently object, why explain your convoluted relationship with money by your Jewishness or your being a writer? For reasons that are tiresomely obvious, if someone claims that her neurosis derives from being a woman, she has the benefit of the doubt.
Perle calls for the need to get "beyond an emotional relationship with money" and especially beyond the taboos against discussing it. She argues that a lot of materialism stems from the wish to locate ourselves in an "emotional middle class" of security and tranquility. And to achieve this, according to Perle, "we will go into debt, spend on impulse ... save too little ... We spend on luxuries we can't afford and simultaneously deprive ourselves of real necessities."
The "we" she has in mind is female, and her book has an archaic flavor, echoing nothing so much as the late Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," a vastly superior work. It's full of women sliding "into true poverty" because they aren't able to charge enough for their work, and stay-at-home wives stealing from their husbands' wallets to establish a separate, secret bank account for emergencies. Turns out Perle did the same thing in her own marriage in 1994. When her husband sends her and their 4-year-old son back to the U.S. from Singapore with $1,500, she admits to having recourse to "a bank account my husband knew nothing about."
Yet Perle has little evidence to support the idea that women are more irrational about money than men, or that the differences in their neuroses are so large. (I've known men who had bank accounts that were secret from their wives, too.) Women may be more prone to shopping sprees -- and even, lately, to declaring personal bankrupcy -- but men have their own ways of wasting money. They may buy a new car and immediately crash it, or spend it self-destructively on cocaine, or, on the tamer side, pursue a "sure-fire" investment strategy into ruin. (And some of Perle's argument is pretty class-bound; working-class men in many cultures turn their paychecks over to their wives.)
In fact, on detailed inspection, Perle's urgency seems misplaced. Perle takes a certain relish in reminding her readers how improvident and ill-prepared for old age women are. "More than 48 percent of female baby boomers have saved less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan. Between one-third and two-thirds of women now thirty-five to fifty-five years old will be impoverished by age seventy." Sounds pretty serious.
But then, distracting myself from these grim facts with the cover story on the trendy field of "behavioral economics" in the current Harvard Magazine, I read that "about half " of American workers over age 59 = don't even contribute to a 401K plan. A Harvard professor who "may be the world's foremost authority on enrollment in such plans" has concluded that "People want to be prudent, they just don't want to do it right now." And doing a little digging on the Web, it seems that 401K behavior has more to do with age, income and employer policies than gender. One 1998 study by AARP of 2.3 million federal employees concluded, "There is only a small difference between the average overall participation rates for men and women -- 84 percent and 82 percent respectively. It is worth noting that when the participation rates were adjusted for salary difference between men and women, participation rates for women were slightly higher than for men."
"Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash"
By Liz Perle
"Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping"
By Judith Levine
Although Perle's hope is to demystify money so that women do not continue to live without control over their finances, I can only describe Perle as hystericizing the subject. She admits that there are many reasons why "women still earn only 78 percent of what men do" but emphasizes, "We simply don't ask to be paid what we're worth." This line of reasoning may be emotionally gratifying to some women, but as I discovered while researching this terrain a half dozen years ago, it just isn't true.
The 78 percent number includes both women with children and those without, and it includes women born in the 1930s and '40s, when far fewer women attended college or prepared for a professional job. Denise Venable, a researcher with the National Society of Policy Analysis, notes that "June O'Neill, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, found that among people ages 27 to 33 who have never had a child, women's earnings approach 98% of men's."
A host of National Bureau of Economic Research studies that are shorter and infinitely more interesting than Perle's book have investigated the "gender gap" and found that it is really a child-care gap. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard and National Bureau of Economic Research economist who is one of the leading lights in this field, concludes, "Whether or not the gap will continue to narrow and eventually disappear is uncertain, and probably depends on the gender gap in time spent in child care and in the home." The problem is in how to reconcile careers and family life, not a problem of women's failure to ask for or be paid proper wages -- but that is a lot less sexy.
There's another popular genre in which the author undertakes a prolonged, often yearlong ordeal in order to write about it, usually with the aim of bringing the reader over to the ideological or political point of view the author already holds. For instance, "Nickel and Dimed," "Black Like Me," or the recent "Self-Made Man." To my knowledge, no writer emerges from these tribulations having reversed his or her initial opinion. ("Wait! The working poor have it pretty good here!") The reader is supposed to relish the gory details he doesn't have to suffer through, and finish with the same burning indignation the author began with.
At the start of 2004, Judith Levine, a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Vermont, and her live-in boyfriend, Paul, a consultant, decided to "purchase only necessities for sustenance, health, and business." A self-described "red diaper baby" in her mid-50s, Levine is motivated by her awareness of the environmental cost of consumerism, but also wants to discover if she can have "a connection to the culture, an identity, even a self outside the realm of purchased things and experiences." And presumably, she wants to get a book contract.
Five months and 84 pages later, on a quiet May night she is spending without Paul, Levine is complaining of "a feeling of scarcity." Having sworn off movies, concerts and theater, unless they are free, she is bored. "I could take a bike ride, I could read, I could learn to knit or start on ancient Greek ... [but] the idea of one more homemade, edifying pastime makes me yawn."
The night she complains about is pretty much the way everyone lived before the 17th century, if they were lucky enough to have leisure time. Some of us aspire to it today, but to Levine, it's dull. Fair enough; tastes differ. But one of the major problems with Levine's book surfaces here. How does she intend to use the time she wants to reclaim from consumerism? What does she want from life? Levine diagnoses her malady as boredom and immediately offers, "Shopping defeats, or at least circumvents, boredom." This misses the point. Not everything in life revolves around shopping or its absence. "Not once since the year began have I experienced a surfeit of desire," Levine says. This is a problem that goes beyond limiting consumption, and likely has more to do with other issues in Levine's life than with whether or not she shops.
Another big problem with "Not Buying It" is that Levine spends almost no time deciding or discussing what she thinks a necessity is. That's a pity, since it's an interesting question, and one she needs a clear stance on to make her choices understandable to the reader.
For instance, Levine decided that a $65 meal for her journalism school's 25th reunion is presumptuously expensive while taking a $55 bus ride to a demonstration in Washington was a necessity. But that $65 meal is prepared by people who make a living exercising their high-level culinary skills; if everyone acted like Levine, those workers would be out of a job. What would Levine have them do for a living? And would the world be better without fine dining?
If she buys Ivory soap rather than something more esoteric, is she really helping the environment? And if buying alcohol is a luxury (Paul ends up brewing his own), why not make your own soap? Is either home brewing or home soap-making environmentally efficient? I don't know. Reading that Levine rushes home to watch her favorite TV shows I wondered why she considers TV to be a necessity -- or why she finds it fun to watch. (I haven't turned mine on since New Year's Eve.)
Each of us will answer these questions somewhat differently. There are several issues that I wanted Levine to parse out -- how to live in a low-impact way, practically speaking, which is somewhat quantifiable; how to live in a beautiful/moral way, which is subjective; and how to live efficiently, spending as little time and head space on buying as possible. There is no answer to these questions, but there are more and less eloquent, persuasive and original responses. "Walden," which Levine references more than once, is perhaps the best American take on the subject. But Levine is far more interested in seizing any opportunity to bash Bush or the many Americans to her right than in engaging in the hard work of philosophy.
Instead of analyzing her need for paid entertainment, or for television, or pointing out how they do or don't enter into her idea of the good life, Levine takes constant potshots at red-staters. For example, Levine tells us on Page 1 that "the coffins are returning from Iraq"; later, she wonders if "my lack of a hedge trimmer or a microwave oven may qualify me as an enemy combatant in George W. Bush's book." After the 2004 election, she insists that Bush will "hand what's left of the meat to a snarling pack of private corporations." In between, she reminds us that "images of naked prisoners ... are impeding the Bush Administration's efforts at convincing the Iraqis that we wish them well."
"Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash"
By Liz Perle
"Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping"
By Judith Levine
These asides not only date and trivialize her book; they reflect conceptual confusion. Almost certainly, at least as many, if not more, red-state types than blue make their own jam, cheese, beer and sausage, hunt their own meat, fish their own fish. Going further out, plenty of people in the developing world grow all of their own food and produce next to no garbage and yet hold political beliefs that would horrify Levine. How much or how little virtue accrues to these choices? And does living a low-impact, environmentally sound life translate into happiness? Levine can't resist another lefty clichi, that things are better in welfare-state Europe. But if, as she says, Europeans' "life satisfaction is higher," why are non-immigrant Europeans not even reproducing at replacement level?
Levine forgets that you don't have to be a leftie to be concerned about or simply repulsed by overconsumption. What about right-wing aesthetes -- and I'm not the only one -- who would not be caught dead buying Wonder Bread or Skippy or air freshener, simply because we find them disgusting, or right-wing ideologues, who hate consumerism for its lack of values? A new book by Rod Dreher, "Crunchy Cons," suggests a "sacramental" sense of life, including organic food, smaller houses, and home-schooling. If I bike to the pro-war demo with a homemade organic snack, where do I fall in Levine's virtue-o-meter? She says that in her year without shopping, "Paul and I had extra time, energy and money to act as citizens." But whether or not she, or I, likes it, the right-wingers who are antiabortion activists or (oy vey!) campaigning against teaching evolution in the schools, are also acting as citizens. If Levine's cartoon red-stater comes down from his snowmobile and stays out of the mall, he might not use his extra time as she imagines. But he might use it more passionately and originally than Levine seems to use hers. Like Perle, Levine offers banal solutions in search of a problem, while leaving the real problems for others to investigate.