I decided to pick up Eula Biss’ most recent book, Having and Being Had, because of the reviews I had seen of it I had seen online. I have recently become more interested in understanding more about homeownership and capitalism, two things I was assured by many of the reviews that I had seen online I would find out more about while reading this book.
I found Biss’ book to be incredibly accessible, well-thought out and refreshingly honest and candid about money. Biss does a great job of introducing the reader to the work and ideas that scholars and thinkers such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Karl Marx had during their lifetimes, without using unnecessary jargon. She also has chapters where she describes how Marx’s wife played an integral role in his success, and where she explains the relationship that women such as Virginia Wolf and Joan Didion have had with money and ownership. The chapters are short but each teaches the reader a different lesson about money, capitalism and ownership, in addition to how Biss and other historical figures have related to these things throughout their lives.
I don’t think I have ever read a book where the author was so open about how much they earned. In Having and Being Had, Biss is extremely honest about where the money that she has earned has come from, as well as the cost of different purchases that she makes. She explains how much her salaried university teaching job provides her, and how much more she makes than her husband. She explains how much her house cost to buy, and how much money she has received from various foundations and trusts. She also provides some information about her upbringing, particularly how even though she was the daughter of a doctor she was raised by a single mother who never had very much money and didn’t seem particularly bothered about having any. I think I find what Biss does here so bold because, in my reading experience, this is not information that many or any authors have freely offered up. In doing this I feel Biss is either knowingly or unknowingly taking steps to break down the taboo that surrounds talking about money.
One of my favourite things about Biss’ book was how she provides information about the way that capitalism works through the lens of her young son. Biss perfectly illustrates how, through various games that they play, children are encouraged to think about capitalism from a very young age. One of the best examples Biss gives of this is the stress that her son experiences when playing with Pokemon cards. Biss explains that nothing is more stressful than having something that holds a lot of power and weight, as well as needing to continuously monitor or maintain it. She describes how her son was in possession of a particular Pokemon card and how the value that this card had filled him with dread. The power that the card hard, and particularly the power and responsibility that came with being in possession of the card, was too great for her son. He felt most free when he ran into the bushes and handed the card over to another child. It was clear to see how this aligned with what Biss what saying with regards to having a house. Yes, having a house may bring many benefits but keeping hold of a house can be an incredibly worrying and at times debilitating responsibility. This I felt was a fantastic way of drawing a parallel between how children and adults experience the same pressure and responsibility, but in very different ways.
Biss also uses an example of playing Monopoly with her son to highlight how mercenary and individualistic capitalism is. As someone who hadn’t played Monopoly for several years until December 2019, I can tell you that playing it with my family made me feel disgusted. It was clear to me that the purpose of the game was to focus on pure individualistic gain at the expense of others. I often asked, why this was a children’s game as it seemed to be sending a very bad and capitalist-oriented message to very young and impressionable people. If “greed is good” was a game, it would be Monopoly. It was also enlightening to find out that Monopoly was originally credited with being invented by a white woman, but a white man ended up taking the credit. What was even more interesting was finding out that idea for such a game came from a native American woman. I found that this was a great example of the hierarchy of oppression that exists in the world. White women feel oppressed by white men, but the irony is that white women often oppress people of colour, especially women of colour. However, they never see that they do this, they only see themselves as victims of oppression rather than both victims and perpetrators of oppression.
I recently came across a review of Having and Being Had which I thought was rather simplistic in its analysis of what Eula Biss talks about regarding pensions. In the book, Eula Biss recounts going to see a financial adviser to discuss her university pension plan. Biss recounts feeling uncomfortable that gaining returns from her pension relies on her investing in the stock market, which in turn relies on the labour of other people and industries which can be very harmful for both the environment and wider society. Biss muses over being conflicted by this, but eventually ends up allowing her money to be invested in the stock market all the same. The reviewer appears to see this as virtue signalling. The reviewer says that if Biss really cared she would make an individual choice to not invest her money in the stock market. While I do agree that there were several times in Having and Being Had (including this one), where Biss seemed to ponder over a moral quandary, but finally decides to act in her own interests (and thereby comes off as a virtue signalling person), I think it is rather simplistic to state or imply that opting out of a pension to avoid causing harm to people or the environment should be an easy individual choice to make if you want to do the right thing.
Being able to choose from multiple options to stay afloat in old age is not a privilege that many, even in the West, have. And when the alternative to saying yes is saying no and being left without a post-retirement safety net that will mean you have to work longer and well into old age, can you really blame someone from buying into the powerhouse that is the pensions sector? The alternative is so undesirable that I feel that most people will opt in by virtue of wanting the more attractive-sounding option. Having access to such a system is an incredible privilege, but the alternative to opting out of this privileged system if you live in the Western world is having to work until you die just to stay afloat while your peers enjoy relaxing in old age because they bought into the system.
I fear that a small group of people opting out is not going to make a dent into a pensions system and structure that it is so powerful. I also feel that given other more pressing issues in the world, including white supremacy, Islamophobia, xenophobia and climate change, a movement to oppose this would not gain very much traction. If sustainable change was implemented by the systems currently in place, and if this change led to pension firms divesting from harmful businesses and industries, this would have the greatest impact. It would ensure that people have enough money to retire and rest in old age, and that they are able to invest in companies that avoid causing environmental and social harm while they are of working age. Investment and pension companies are starting to offer products which enable individuals to do this, which is a sign that change is upon us. There has been an incredible rise in the number of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds over the past few years, and many pension companies now provide pension holders with the option to switch to more sustainable ESG options. I believe that the only way to truly create change would be for pension companies to completely stop investing in harmful industries. But when there is still so much money to be made from these businesses, and when capitalism still rules much of the world, I understand that there will be little incentive for pension companies to do this. But I feel that this is a change that can only come from the systems and structures in power, not from a few individuals.
To sum up I really enjoyed reading Biss’ insightful and accessible musings on home ownership, ownership more generally and capitalism in Having and Being Had. If any of this sounds of interest to you then this book will be right up your street.
Rating – 3.5/5