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“Today the richest ten percent earns five to six times that of the poorest ten percent.”

Book Review: Elsewhere, U.S.A. by Dalton Conley

In Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, Dalton Conley, a sociologist and professor at NYU, explores what’s out of whack in the American society. In the race among some to get ahead, they’ve created an enormous gap between themselves and everyone else.

The author quotes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “The 13,000 richest families in America had almost as much income as the 20 million poorest households; those 13,000 families had incomes 300 times that of average families.”

With growing economic insecurity, workers are striving harder to hold on to their lifestyle and income. Conley looks back to a time when leisure was something you attained when you reached a certain income level. Today, the rich have to work harder to maintain their status. In fact, the rewards of work are so great; they make the opportunity cost of not working all the greater. It’s now the poor who can afford the time for leisure activities.

Many of us, as entrepreneurs, will identify with Conley’s portrayal of medieval craftsmen who fashioned products one by one, set their own schedules, and could work only limited hours. Most needed raw materials, light which was available only during the day, and had a very limited customer base. But today’s knowledge workers and craftsmen can work around the clock, have a worldwide market, and work without ever satisfying an unending demand for an unreachable market.

Conley veers into economics with his discussion of “convestment,” the mix of consumption and investment. We now live not in an industrial society but a capitalistic society where an increasing amount of economic activity is based on fulfillment of social-psychological needs.

The author’s conversational tone and personal examples make for great reading and understanding of issues of self-worth, financial satisfaction, and interpersonal role conflict among non-peers. He sorts out our present American problems of inequality and injustice, while not quite able to provide solutions society would be willing to adopt. He notes that the greater degree of inequality we encounter as we climb the income ladder may be what feeds the shift in the personal valuation of work over leisure.

“We have come full circle,” says Conley. At one time we lived in tribes, then kin networks, then the nuclear family, which has devolved. Today we circulate like electron clouds through the networks of love and human connection. “Perhaps the most fundamental line that has been breached is between the ‘self’ and the ‘other.’ The interpenetration of the social world into our daily consciousness – or orientation to elsewhere – has the ultimate effect of colonizing and fragmenting not just our attention but our very identities.”

If you’re looking for a way out, make a date with yourself to read Elsewhere, U.S.A. in a quiet corner. The Author’s Notes comprise over twelve pages of detail, representing an excellent bibliography on a topic that’s sure to garner further interest.

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