Wealth: Some Irreverent Observations

We apparently have an innate drive to improve our lot. Everyone seems to strive for it, although what “improve” means is open to interpretation. Certainly we want improvement if we’re starving, but the only things we must have in a modern democracy are the necessary basics.

There is a point where all our primary needs are met, including health care and old age security. This is the poverty line. The inability to obtain even one essential need defines poverty. Above the poverty line, wealth begins.

Above the poverty line, wealth begins.

Americans view “getting ahead” as doing better than the neighbors, or doing better than the past, or both. This is not innate. There are other cultures in which specific striving to get ahead would be considered unseemly.

There is no natural point at which getting ahead becomes lasting satisfaction, since there is always someone supposedly better off to compare oneself to.

Improving even some small thing in your life is satisfying. Fixing a sticky door, for example, or eating a tasty tomato you grew yourself. Maybe such satisfactions are what makes a for a good life, and their absence a discontented life.

There is no natural point
at which getting ahead
becomes lasting satisfaction.

Greed arrives at the point in the process of accumulating wealth when further wealth does not improve anything. It is the pointless seeking that defines greed, not a specific amount of wealth. And greed is infinite.

Vast fortunes have come to some people these days from technology. They are usually bright people, but it’s the widespread adoption of their innovation that makes them suddenly rich, not their greed, and not necessarily their abilities. Certainly not their benevolent personality.

Greed arrives at the point
where further wealth improves nothing.

Recent years provide a perfect example of how national wealth fails to measure the wellbeing of individuals. Within a year after the recent market crash, the economy was pronounced “recovered”, bankers again rewarded themselves with multi-million dollar bonuses, and the rich became richer than ever. But in the sixth post-crash year the poor have hardly recovered at all, and millions of people have surrendered to the reality that they will never be able to work again.

Our focus on financial wellbeing to the exclusion of all else is misleading. Having lots of money in the absence of an interesting and satisfying life is just a different form of poverty: a social poverty. People who live in the gigantic residential blocks of large cities planned from scratch, surrounded by vast sterile spaces where life should take place, find their lives boring and unrewarding. They may have money, but they don’t have social wealth.

Having lots of money in the absence
of an interesting life is just
a different form of poverty:
a social poverty.

Social wealth might include: taking part in sports or other physical activities; cooking and eating good food with friends; making furniture or some other craft; improving one’s home; arts or music learned; attendance at all sorts of events from athletics to opera; reading, and many, many more. Some of the greatest satisfactions come from helping others, with no expectation of remuneration for oneself.

Lives spent in boring isolation, as happens to many of our elderly, whether or not they have adequate money, is social poverty. It is one of the tragedies of the generational breakup of families and separation by great distances, and not unlike the social isolation of dwellers in those massive, sterile, planned housing blocks.

If an important new medicine becomes available, something equivalent to polio vaccine, everyone’s life is potentially improved, and the poverty line rises. People who cannot obtain the new medicine drop below the poverty line, even though their income did not diminish. It does not matter that nobody had the medicine in the past. The new medicine itself redefines the point of poverty—unless of course universal medical insurance provides it for everyone who needs it.

It is the satisfaction of all essential needs
that defines where poverty ends
and wealth begins.

In many respects we have reached limits to what the planet can give us, which will become increasingly obvious over time. As the population continues to grow, and limitations become more apparent, “getting ahead” will eventually cease to be a practical goal. Living a satisfying life will by necessity require finding other ways to have that life.

I suggest that social wealth is the most promising path. But social wealth cannot replace essential needs. It is the satisfaction of all essential needs that defines where poverty ends and wealth begins.

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