Your Money and Your Life

by Gilbert Seldes
[Whittlesey House, $2.50]
NEVER had a book a more exact subtitle than this: ’A Manual for the Middle Classes.’ Mr. Seldes assumes that America is a middle-class nation, that the middle classes overwhelmingly dominate its economies, that the middle classes control its ideals, its way of thought, its way of life; and finally Mr. Seldes has written his book presuming that the middle classes establish and maintain, largely for themselves, the political institutions of our country. He does not reveal any notion that the middle classes are vulgar, opinionated, selfish, class-conscious, and socially wicked.
His book is devoted to the political thesis that if the middle classes retain those liberties guaranteed by the Constitution — free speech, free press, the right to assemblage and trial by jury, free conscience, and the writ of habeas corpus — they can survive any economic cataclysm which may be visited upon them. Apparently he thinks that if they can devise some scheme of economic distribution of the income and wealth of the country that will permit stable wages at reasonable hours for everyone, on an annual wage-sufficiency basis, we may move our industries into mass production. Then we may make low prices for manufactured commodities, which, first, will keep the buyer digging into his pocket, and, second, will make consumers out of wage earners, at the same time giving the farmer a market for his products. So, by the magical twist of the economic wrist, we may in turn elevate the standard of living and also produce tempting profits for the manufacturer and secure decently attractive interest rates for the capitalist. Certainly this is a big order, but a not impossible Utopia.
Nothing in the book indicates that the author wishes to abolish property, to wipe out private capital, to curtail reasonable, even generous profits, to reduce wages, to hamper leadership of labor, or to strangle the enterprise of the financier. Mr. Seldes would not de-claw the capitalist system or extract the teeth of property owners and profit makers at one fell swoop. He would pare and manicure their claws and file the teeth a bit of the too-predatory instincts now menacing the stability of the social-order instincts which maintain the middle class in its supremacy.
The infection of poverty, Mr. Seldes feels, is the most immediate social menace, and he proclaims his feeling, by telling rhetorical repetition in many ways, that the first job in the reconstruction of our society to save its ancient foundations in private property and the profit system is to devise some way to keep men at work under better than living wages, not for the moral uplift that one gets by doing a boy scout good act, not for social justice primarily, but because universal
living wages will lubricate the entire industrial machine. It is evident that the author feels that if we understand clearly what is wrong we can, with the genius of the American people, tinkering with the social machine and not junking it, put it on the road again in due and good time.
Here is a book easy to read, but certainly not too simple to be important. The problems are not oversimplified. There is no attitude in the author’s heart or mind which indicates that with a law here and an administrative order there, and three hops and a whoop, we shall be all right. This ’Manual for the Middle Classes’ is none the less most vital. It should appeal to that section of the middle class which seriously realizes that we can not stumble through many more decades without falling upon evil days. It is not a fire alarm, this book that Mr. Seldes has presented, but a lively, earnest, interesting, and, to the wise reader, important discussion of the American problem from an optimist’s point of view.