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'Having And Being Had': A Book That Answers Your Questions On Capitalism


The essayist Eula Biss focuses her new book on what seems to be a simple question. What is capitalism? For her, the answer to that question is complicated and elusive and comes in the form of short, often funny essays that make up her new book, "Having And Being Had."

Eula Biss, welcome.

EULA BISS: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: Eula, this book grew out of you having finally bought your first home. And for a lot of people, that would be considered a pure success, a goal of adulthood. But you say it gave you a sense of security that felt unfamiliar and even uncomfortable. Why did you feel that way?

BISS: Yeah. This book came out of that contradiction of me enjoying all the new comforts that came with having a home, having more space and also a new kind of economic security but feeling uncomfortable, I think, really, with the system in which I had acquired those things. And I wrote the book as an effort to hold onto that discomfort. I had the sense that the discomfort had something to teach me.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You seem to think that if you lost the sense of discomfort, there actually was a loss there. What did you think you could lose by not feeling that way anymore?

BISS: One of the things that I didn't want to have happen to me as I entered this new life and lifestyle was I didn't want to begin to think that I had what I had because I'd worked hard, which is one of the patterns of thought very common to upper middle class. I don't believe that I got what I got because I worked hard. I believe that I got what I got because the system favors me in a number of different ways - one, because I'm white, but also because I started out middle-class. And I think that it's uncomfortable for people who start out with more to be reminded of that.

So - and I do think that this is damaging in so many ways. The implication is that people who don't have enough have just not worked hard enough, and that's damaging to people who are working extremely hard and still don't have enough because they're being underpaid. But it's also damaging to relationships between people who have more and people who have less if there is this implication hovering in the air that you could have as much as I have if only you just worked a little harder.

PFEIFFER: In the book, you actually seem to make an effort to share exact dollar amounts. I think you say it felt important to you to do that. So you volunteer that your house cost, I think, almost a half million dollars. You tell readers the size of the advance you got for your book. Why be so open about that, things that people usually don't want to share?

BISS: Yeah. I was open about that exactly because I didn't want to be. I made a rule for myself, and I made it after having written that section where I talked about the price of my house. That section summarizes a conversation I had with my sister where I told her that what I'd really done was acquire a $400,000 container for a washing machine. But what I noted in that moment was that I was misrepresenting to my own sister the price of my house, which was much closer to $500,000. It was 485. So when I noticed myself lying to my own sister about money, I decided that if I was going to learn anything from writing a book about money, I was going to have to use the actual figures involved, and I was going to have to face honestly what I had.

PFEIFFER: And did you downplay the amount to your sister because you had a sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment about having bought that size house or borrowed that kind of money?

BISS: Yeah, I downplayed it because of self-consciousness because I knew that my sister was trying to buy a house and that her budget was smaller than mine. And it made me feel uncomfortable that I had more than her, and I downplayed it because I just had not myself become comfortable with the amount of money that I was dealing with. And it still was too enormous a sum for me to even say out loud.

PFEIFFER: At one point, you're talking about your son paying for a Pokemon card, although someone else thought he overpaid for the Pokemon card. What was it like for you to watch your son try to figure out what something was worth and why and maybe not figuring it out correctly?

BISS: Oh, it was amazing. In watching him learn how to play Pokemon the way it was being played in first and second grade at his school, I felt like I was seeing an economy be invented. But it was also somewhat excruciating to me because I saw the ways in which other children and his babysitter and I were training the values of capitalism into him. So, yes, at one point, he gave away a valuable Pokemon card because he just didn't like it very much.

And then I heard his babysitter saying to him, were you a smart negotiator? And I thought, oh, no. What are we doing? This kid is only 6, and we're already training him not to be generous and to get as much out of an exchange as he can possibly get out of it even if he doesn't care about the thing he's giving away.

PFEIFFER: Oh, that's so interesting. I mean, diamonds are objectively very expensive and valuable, but if I don't care about them and I just want to give them away, is that fine, or is that flawed financial thinking?

BISS: Under the logic of capitalism, it's insane, right? But by some other logic, it makes perfect sense, especially since diamonds aren't incredibly useful. You can't eat them, and you can't live inside them.

PFEIFFER: After you finished your book, how do you define capitalism in your words?

BISS: Yes. So the definition that was most useful to me was David Graeber's from "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," and his definition was the art of using money to make more money. And I think that that's a revealing definition in part because it exposes one of the fundamental problems with capitalism, which is that if you don't start out with money, you don't have much hope of making more money.

PFEIFFER: A lot of the political and societal divisions we're dealing with in this country today have to do with capitalism and whether capitalism should be changed or improved or even replaced with another system. After writing your book and reflecting on these issues, how did you feel about that? Did you feel like capitalism is this immovable, unchangeable system we have and we just all participate in without questioning it very much? Or did you think it could be different?

BISS: I think it can be different, and I think I wrote myself into that understanding. And it was, for me, a very empowering understanding that our economic system is made by people, and it's theoretically made by people for people. So we make this for ourselves, and if we don't like what it's doing for us or to us, we can change it.

I think one of the possibilities that I could perceive, especially once the pandemic arrived, was the possibility of - what if we compensated the people we speak of as essential workers? So what if everyone who is essential to the daily workings of our lives was paid well and had health insurance and had basic security? That's entirely possible. It's even possible within capitalism, but that involves us making a series of changes in policy and, to some extent, in what we collectively value.

PFEIFFER: Eula Biss is the author of "Having And Being Had."

Eula, thank you for talking with us about your new book.

BISS: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "HAD TO HEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.