Some twenty years ago, the American sociologist Robert Wuthnow found in an opinion survey that his subjects consistently expressed extraordinarily conflicting attitudes toward money, proclaiming in one breath that Americans are too materialistic, and then in the next breath unashamedly affirming money's central importance, and wishing they had more of it. At the time, Wuthnow argued that these strikingly contradictory results probably reflected something in the national mood during a time of economic stagnation. But I think we are safe in guessing that his findings are not too different from what a similar survey of Americans would find at almost any time in the recent past. The ambivalences he detected in his survey have about them the ring of truth, the feel of something enduring. Even conspicuous comets of material ambition may be trailed by long tails of moral misgiving; and something like the reverse, conspicuous rectitude veiling grand acquisitive passion, may also be the case. Prosperity generates an “embarrassment of riches,” as Simon Schama put it, which is why “the tensions of a capitalism that endeavoured to make itself moral were the same whether in sixteenth-century Venice, seventeenth-century Amsterdam, or eighteenth-century London.”
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