Robert Sullivan is the author of a trio of intriguing, highly regarded books-Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and Rats-which though diverse in subject matter are driven by the same desire to explore the arbitrary lines we humans draw between what is “natural,” and thereby intrinsically deserving of our respect and protection, and what is “unnatural”: that is, those creatures and places beyond the pale, at best ignored, as in the case of the Jersey swamplands, or, in the case of rats, exterminated. In his latest book, How Not to Get Rich (Or Why Being Bad Off Isn’t So Bad), Sullivan turns his attention to what might be considered the most unnatural activity known to the homeland of free enterprise, individual striving, and worship of the Golden Calf-the active pursuit of unwealth.
Salting his book with quotes and bon mots from, among others, Thomas Merton, Henry David Thoreau, Dorothy Day, Alcuin, Sophocles Publius Sirius, Emily Dickinson, and Groucho Marx, Sullivan eschews a whimsical, half-baked approach to not being rich in favor of practical, hard-nosed advice for those seeking to ward off the infamy of unbridled prosperity. Although he hasn’t designed one of those twelve-steps programs dear to the hearts of the self-help/self-improvement set, he has come up with basic approaches that should, if put into practice, turn the climb up the ladder of success into a tumble down the cellar stairs.
Take education, for instance. “These days,” writes Sullivan, “a good education is a must if you are planning on working your entire life and ending up with little or nothing.” Yet, as necessary as immersion in the liberal arts might be to a lifetime of financial underachievement, a top-flight education alone won’t do the job. How many times has a philosophy or theology major ended up going to law school and sliding up the slippery slope of success to a lifetime of fat fees and megabucks? As Sullivan points out, even more important than a major in the classics is the choice of a career in a field devoid of large-scale pecuniary rewards.
When carried out virtuously, according to Sullivan, public service traditionally proved a reliable “recipe for financial ruin.” But as the notion of civic idealism has shrunk to pygmy proportions and the cozy interplay among lobbyists, legislators, and regulators has grown ever cozier and mutually rewarding, this option has dwindled dramatically. Today, billionaires such as Mayor Mike Bloom¬berg of New York and Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey are chosen by the electorate partly on the grounds that they’re too rich to bother raiding the public fisc.
Not to worry, Sullivan advises. There remain many other promising paths to permanent nonrich status. Sullivan’s list includes public broadcasting (a shrinking field, unfortunately), teaching (of course), and that old standby, traditional music (“Have you seen a mandolin player with a yacht?”). Some non-income-generating jobs have other benefits as well. A career as a wildlife biologist brings not only puny remuneration but ensures that “you will live in a tent in the cold watching a small radar screen indicating the location of the sea otter that you have lovingly tagged.”
Sullivan is no rosy-eyed optimist. He recognizes that in a country given to periodic pandemics of irrational exuberance-bull markets, high-tech bubbles, real estate booms, etc.-no wage slave is safe. Say, for example, you’ve dedicated your life to the study of medieval literature. What better guarantee of a hand-to-mouth existence, you think. Well, caveat mendicus, think again. Lurking out there could be some movie star whose aberrant interest in the arcane leads him/her to be enamored of your area of expertise. Next thing you know you’ve been hired as a consultant on a film that turns out to be a new Lord of the Rings, robbing you of your obscurity and transforming your sackcloth into silks. The price of mendicancy, Sullivan reminds us, is eternal vigilance.
One surefire safeguard against ser¬en¬dipitous success is to marry for love. Ignore the social status of your beloved. Pay no attention to his/her earning potential or property holdings or investment portfolio. Just go ahead and tie the knot on the basis of love alone, asserts Sullivan, “because the one thing you can absolutely count on love for is to lead you on a path of distracting bliss, to a situation of unwealthy emotional strength, wherein you gaze out on the world of commerce and shrug, safe in the meaningless cocoon of insolvent happiness, of devotion and allegiance made simultaneously more difficult and more meaningful in light of the constant onslaught of debt.”
As a result of our collective obsession with not only keeping up with the Jones¬es but leaving them behind to eat our dust, we Americans have become a nation of workaholics-Jews, Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims, unbelievers all driven by the same Protestant ethic. The problem, posits Sullivan, is that we’ve lost the art of wasting time, “AKA life.” The profit-oriented, purpose-driven existence allows no room for activities with no purpose beyond themselves, a list that includes “sand art, storytelling, Bavarian beer-stein collecting, travel, canasta, ham radio...wooden duck decoy making, boccia ball, fantasy baseball, sex, or any combination thereof.” And don’t forget the art of hanging out with your kids, a pastime that demands quantity over quality, numberless hours spent on board games, model airplanes, television watching, “and all kinds of things to talk about that will cause no elevation of your personal financial picture whatsoever.”
In an era of widening economic disparities, when real wages are stagnant, tax policy increasingly regressive, and great wealth is being reconcentrated in the hands of the relative few, Sullivan’s book can be read either of two ways: as a training manual and spiritual guide for those seeking to embrace their probable exclusion from the precincts and privileges of the posh, thus making the inevitable into the desirable; or as a wise and reasoned call to active resistance against a system that exalts wealth accumulation über alles and that recognizes, as the old saying goes, “the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” To my mind, Sullivan offers a dose of both, and at a price that will leave unharmed the humblest of pocketbooks. How Not to Get Rich is a real bargain.