In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter, in the manner of the Hebrew prophets he admires, descended from two weeks of seclusion at Camp David and declared to a less-than-enthralled nation: "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." Yet, Carter warned, "Owning things and consuming things do not satisfy our longing for meaning. We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."
Laurence Shames, in his second book, "The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed" alludes neither to that speech nor to the merciless prophet-stoning that followed. Nor does he quote George Bush, who--with no apparent irony--eerily echoed his former adversary: " . . . My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions."
But Shames, once the ethics columnist for Esquire, is preaching precisely the same message against Mammon as Carter and (dare we believe it?) Bush, targeting that inglorious decade bracketed by the two speeches as an "age of greed." A feisty Baby Boomer (who notes that he grew up in a 1960s suburb), Shames is artfully re-packaging one of the grand old messages in American culture, from Jefferson to Thoreau, from Veblen to Schumacher--a message, in his words, of "the high and difficult ideal of a balanced life--a life that integrates labor and leisure, one that reconciles self-interest with an ethic of service, one that recognizes peace of mind not only as a desirable thing but as a moral achievement in itself."
For Shames, who joins a host of decade-watchers now looking back in anger, the '80s, in fact, self-destructed on Meltdown Monday, Oct. 19, 1987. With the stock-market crash, he insists, came a dark night of the national soul, then the advent of a new era in which entrenched assumptions about money, success and what he calls "the habit of more" no longer went unchallenged. Never mind that Shames has, as yet, an empty bag of evidence for this happy turn of events; in his admitted optimism, he wants to believe it--and so, of course, will some readers.
How, after all, short of war, Depression or full-scale environmental disaster, could the lights get dimmer for many Americans than they did in the '80s? In bracing prose, Shames dissects a litany of the decade's maladies: the society-wide worship of a money-based definition of success; the increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth; the erosion of the middle class; the sharp decline of American productivity and economic clout. It was a time of permanent limits, he argues, of a closed frontier on national growth, "but Americans have been somewhat backward in adopting values, hopes, ambitions that have to do with things other than more. In America, a sense of quality has lagged far behind a sense of scale." Or, as he puts it in one of the many aphorisms that pepper his chapters: "Measuring more is easy; measuring better is hard."
Pithy and bolstered with an impressive array of facts and figures, Shames' analysis of what went wrong in the '80s is, nevertheless, by now, mostly warmed-over porridge: That Americans in the '80s denied the death of what economist Kenneth Boulding once called the prosperous, postwar "cowboy economy" is not exactly revelatory, nor are the psychological reasons he cites for why we shamelessly lionized the values of CEOs, consumed beyond our means, and obsessed on wealth in a time of identity crisis for both the middle class and the national economy.
Shames is more engaging when he gives rein to the sort of ethical preoccupations that marked his column for Esquire. In "Ghettos of the Conscience," a wide-lensed retrospective of business ethics in the '80s, Shames argues forcibly that "people found it much less exposing to compartmentalize morality, to regard business as a sort of ghetto of the conscience, a bad neighborhood for values, but one that could be avoided in the evenings and on weekends." This "ghetto view of conscience," he concludes, "creates an atmosphere in which the bad guys can prosper. Denatured values, having lost their ability to balance money against other things that matter, allow this to pass for 'winning.' "
True enough, but has the atmosphere really changed? It would certainly be lovely to think so. But no one really knows--only Shames, for whom saying is believing. "By the spring of 1988," he writes, "eighties social fashions had begun to look as bad as last year's suit. The rabid chase after the fast and famous dollar had already come to seem a trifle retro, a little out of sync."