Book of the week: Extreme wealth is a double-edged sword

Cover of Uneasy StreetUneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence
by Rachel Sherman
Published by Princeton University Press, £24.95
(Buy at Amazon)

The last two decades have been difficult for many Americans, with two major recessions and median real incomes stagnating. At the same time, the fortunes of the rich and the upper-middle class have boomed. So, you might assume those sections of the population at least to be happy. Not so. Indeed, sociologist Rachel Sherman thinks that extreme wealth can be a double-edged sword. In this book, which is based on conversations with around 100 wealthy couples, she looks at how their net worth affects their attitudes to everything from philanthropy to parenting.

A few of her respondents were unrepentant about being rich, but most claimed to be guilty about their financial success. In some cases, as a result they took concrete measures to share some of their wealth with the community through voluntary work and donations. Others just hid their shame, paying private shoppers to recommend clothes so that they’d feel less guilty about spending $5,000 in an afternoon. Uneasy Street is a fascinating study of what it means to be wealthy at the start of the 21st century. Some of the anecdotes, such as the (second-hand) story of the boy who returned from a luxury skiing holiday with his family with the verdict that “it was great, but next time we fly private like everyone else”, are genuinely amusing.