Got Enough Money Yet?

The question of how much wealth we should have is thousands of years old. It’s a topic that has gotten us into trouble many times, one of them being now. We need to talk about it, and we need to make changes. Here’s my condensed take.

Money for what? is the first question. Writers have devised various categories of wealth ranging from the essential to the frivolous and extravagant. I divide wealth for Americans into three categories, which may or may not be pertinent elsewhere.

Money for what?

Category One is basics, or essentials. Some writers go pretty far in what they designate basic, including such things as leisure and respect. I include only things money can buy. Here’s my list of essentials: (1) all the common necessities we Americans take for granted, such as appropriate shelter, suitable clothing, and nutritious food; (2) a healthy external environment, including clean air and water, devoid of harmful pollutants; (3) freedom from violence of all types; (4) educational opportunity adequate to make one a good citizen, as well as trained in a useful occupation; (5) the availability of affordable health care; (6) an old age free of want. If you have all the essentials you have enough to survive in relative comfort.

Category Two. My belief is that it is really the things beyond essentials that make for a good life, the American Dream. This does not always involve money, but often it does. Do you have enough money to indulge your passion for your athletic team? To buy the jacket, see the games? Suppose you are someone who can’t wait to get home after work so you can play piano. The grand you’ve been saving for will set you back big bucks, but to you it’s the only possession that matters. There are many other things that may be expensive but available to middle class earners. Travel, a home theater, even just the movies every week. These are the things we must stretch for, but that make life rich and enjoyable. As a nation, we have more than enough for everyone to experience these two categories of wealth. Unfortunately, not everyone does, and far too many can’t even satisfy Category One.

It is really the things beyond essentials
that make for a good life.

Wealth is a moving target. Technological advances today provide most Americans—even the least well off—with advantages that were unknown even a generation or two ago. When I was a young child, many people had an ice box, an actual “ice box”, where they kept food cool with the daily delivery of a big chunk of ice. Our milk was delivered daily in a horse-drawn cart (even in the 1940s). Yet our lives were certainly not deprived by the standards of the time. We lived in a big, comfortable house. We had a car, an automatically stoked coal furnace, a refrigerator, a power lawn mower, an electric dishwasher, all just as soon as they were available. Yet today’s developments make that life seem quaint indeed, even deprived.

So the times do change, and these two categories don’t mean the same thing today. But they provide us with every essential available at the time plus enough more money to buy the things that make life interesting and enjoyable to us. Everybody should be able to earn enough money to satisfy the first category at minimum.

The lowest paid in the US do not earn enough money with full time work even to lift them from poverty. They can’t afford rent anyplace in the country. This is why I believe so strongly in Living Wage laws. If full time work doesn’t even provide essentials, the government (our tax money) must find ways of providing them, because they are essential for modern life. Why not just pay a Living Wage to begin with, and provide assistance only to those who cannot provide for themselves? I believe everyone deserves not only the certain benefit of Category One essentials, but also some of the modest extra wealth for Category Two wants. Our democracy (not our economy) has gotten so weak we don’t achieve either.

The lowest paid do not earn enough money
with full time work to lift them from poverty.

Then there’s Category Three. Nobody needs more wealth than the first two categories, but that’s what it means to be rich: to have money above and beyond. But the seeking of still more money is unquenchable, never-ending, and it has gotten us into serious trouble today. The reason is that acquisitiveness, accumulation, greed, are infinite, and can never be satisfied. We seek more solely for the purpose of having more, and it is a barren craving that leads only to more craving that never stops.

Now, I want to be clear that neither I nor most others object to people who have a lot of money. The accumulation of vast sums of money, it seems to me, is often luck, the product of the strange new world of global commerce, the IT industry, or being in the right place at the right time. Some of the richest people in the world became so because they found something to peddle to practically everyone for pennies. And who can object to someone who got rich by giving us something that significantly improved our lives? But too many of the rich don’t fit in these slots. Their lives are ruled by lust for money.

I also want to be clear that money in these amounts is meaningless in terms of needs or wants, because they are all satisfied by the first two categories. No one needs a million dollars. Unfortunately, a class of people has become prominent and powerful whose main goal is only to accumulate more money, always more. They have fallen victim to greed, and as every Buddhist learns, greed is infinite, and can only lead to more craving and dissatisfaction.

A class of people has become prominent and powerful
whose main goal is to accumulate
infinitely more money.

But even that small group of people could be tolerated if it weren’t for two things:

First, much of this huge excess of wealth has been obtained not by any virtue, such as providing a superior product or service, but by manipulation of markets and laws using this money. Corruption, in other words.

Second, great wealth has distorted the values of many of the very rich so much that they have come to believe they are a superior species, and everyone else is insignificant. This includes the Republican candidates for the White House, who believe nearly half the population wants only government handouts and are too lazy to work, let alone achieve their holy grail, a successful business. They seem incapable of understanding that owning a business is not most people’s main purpose in life, and that people do work, unless they can’t. This malignant attitude is unjustifiable, insulting, and intolerable.

The transfer of money to the rich
can only come 
from the rest of us.
There is no other source.

The worst of the mega-rich spend millions daily to influence lawmakers who should be independent of their manipulations. They buy laws and regulations that bring them still more money, money that accomplishes nothing. Politicians won’t get the big donations they need for their election if they don’t make these donors happy, by being “friendly to business”. And that’s only one of many ways the mega-rich have arranged the national wealth for their own benefit. The result has been to transfer ever larger amounts of the national wealth from those who need it to those who don’t need it at all.

At any given moment, there is a finite amount of money. When some of that money is transferred to the wealthy, it must come from someplace else, and that someplace else is the poor and middle class. There is no other place it could come from, because it is simply a transfer, not earned wealth. Aside from the rich, fortunes stagnated or declined even as the unusable wealth of the very rich grew like kudzu. The result is record level, ever-increasing inequality, and declining democracy.

The situation is intolerable, and could even lead to the collapse of our beloved republic.


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  1. “First, much of this huge excess of wealth has been obtained not by any virtue, such as providing a superior product or service, but by manipulation of markets and laws using this money.”

    That is the key insight here, I believe. Bernanke keeps going through rounds of quantitative easing, and yet this money is not making its way to small businesses or middle-income households. It is, however, enabling investors and speculators to drive the equity and commodity markets well beyond any realities in our economy.

    Bernanke seems to be blind to this, or is conveniently choosing to ignore it due to the lack of any other options, but his QE programs are simply circulating money at the top. Yet, with commodity prices rising but based on no actual demand, it is driving up food and energy prices, and essentially removing what little money is left in circulation at the middle-income levels. Bernanke, in essence, is accelerating the downward spiral.

    “At any given moment, there is a finite amount of money.”

    Not in Bernanke’s worldview.


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