Once, when two Friends from Kenya were visiting, I had a phone call on which for some reason I said “I’m not rich.” I immediately wondered what my guests thought, and asked them “Am I rich?” It was very clear that I didn’t want to think of myself as rich. Sitting at my kitchen table, the younger woman politely said, “No.” The older woman was more sure of herself, and said, “Yes, you are.”
I don’t want to be rich. I want to have “enough.” But how do I decide what’s enough? My lifestyle is simple compared with many in this country, but I know I could get by with less. Where is my right balance on this seesaw? Do I owe it to the poor to give away all that I have, to demonstrate equality?
Chuck Collins was born into a rich and privileged family, members of the Oscar Meyer clan. At the age of 26, he gave up his half-million dollar trust fund, distributing it to four charities. He felt free.
Over time, Collins recognized that giving away his money did not make him less privileged. He already had an excellent education, as well as the self-assurance that we wish we all had but is harder to come by without privilege. We who are privileged usually don’t see it. We are working hard, and know we should get credit for that. Here is an experience Collins had that exemplifies this.
Collins was biking on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, effortlessly doing 25 mph and feeling great. It was so easy that, when he passed one 10-mile marker, he decided to go to the next. At 20 miles he turned around to go back and found himself facing a headwind. After a few hard miles he had to give up, exhausted, and call friends to come to the rescue. He says, “the subtle wind has probably been constant, but . . . I hadn’t noticed it before.” Now he couldn’t ignore it. “Privilege is like a wind at my back, propelling me forward. Of course, I’m pedaling so I can claim some credit for my forward motion, but the wind makes an enormous difference. And here I thought it was all about me.”
The evolution of Collins’s mature thinking has involved a long intellectual partnership with a working class, Jewish lesbian who opened his eyes to a wider picture. He has spent years working with the rich to keep the estate tax. He has done lots of writing and public speaking in union halls, colleges, assemblies of the wealthy, and so forth. He has come through a period of blaming the rich, which uses a kind of two-dimensional analysis, into a more nuanced understanding of how the flow of money can be of benefit to the community—or not. Collins writes now about the importance of a systems approach to money and investing, and of grounding capital in local, new economic enterprises such as worker-owned cooperatives. Privilege can be used to accomplish things you can’t do if you are working two jobs and trying to raise your kids.
When we use privilege to change the structure of society, especially in our own neighborhoods and cities, we enhance our sense of connectedness. Collins knows the rich very well, and believes that many of them suffer from alienation. He invites them to “come home” to connection.
This book is written for both the “one percent” and the “ninety-nine percent” in American society. Having advantages gives us the opportunity to be effective and build the new economy from the ground up.
Many Quakers see simplifying one’s personal lifestyle as a top priority. I think that matters but mostly in a private way, between a person and God (however conceived). But perhaps that simplification can come about as a side effect of understanding the complex system of the flow of money, time, energy, and so on. We can live with an enlivening awareness of our place in that flow.
For me, this book has been an eye-opener. It is written in the first person and is very readable, like being in a conversation. I do have one criticism: Collins does not address the dangers of normal American styles of consumption. My guess is not that he doesn’t see it, but that he is really wooing the richer folks and doesn’t want to alienate them before they hear his invitation.
The book ends with a list of resources, notes, and an index. Check it out and change your life.