Posted by: dacalu | 14 July 2013

Two Myths about Wealth

The concept of wealth captures the popular imagination and now (as perhaps always) strongly influences how we view ourselves and how we think of ourselves in relation to the world.  On this Good Samaritan Sunday (the Sunday on which we read Luke 10:29-37), I’d like to say a few words about wealth and what it means and does not mean to me.  It doesn’t just apply to Christians, but my Christianity informs my thoughts, as does Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book Theory of the Leisure Class.  I would like to address two very popular myths.  More accurately, I would like to address two popular yet damaging misconceptions about wealth.

1) Leisure is not fulfillment.  (It’s not even pleasure.)

I was listening to NPR this afternoon and heard a statement I’ve heard often before, but rarely questioned.  “In the near future we will have raised the standard of living, so that everyone has more leisure.”  I’ve questioned whether this was true, but never gave much thought to whether it was desirable.

Is leisure really the primary goal of life?  Is it even a step on the way toward the primary goal of life?  Veblen argues convincingly that humans are driven to productivity and leisure, but we are only driven to leisure by envy.  It represents a conspicuous display of the fact that we don’t need to work.  Leisure means being able to eat and support ourselves without doing anything productive.  This provides a signal to others of how successful we are.  Just like the peacock’s tail, wasteful exuberance demonstrates that we are so strong we manage to get business done AND show off.  We show off with “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption.”

For some this leisure is personal.  They take vacations or buy goods for themselves.  Sometimes they do it for pleasure, but sometimes they do it in order to place themselves in the social hierarchy (keeping up with the Joneses, as it were).

For some the leisure is vicarious (done through or for others).  A prime example is the 60s housewife whose husband is so successful that she “doesn’t have to work.”  If he’s really successful she’ll have a housekeeper or maid or au pair who will even do the domestic chores for her.  She demonstrates leisure beautifully, but it might not be a happy leisure.  She too, might prefer to be doing something productive.

My point is that our goal should not be to increase the amount of leisure time (or capital) everyone has.  Leisure is not personal fulfillment.  Nor is it even equated with pleasure.  In fact, we generally feel more fulfilled and more happy when doing something we know it provides a long term benefit to self and others.

In a time of distressing employment, I am far more concerned that everyone have employment they value than that everyone have leisure.  The Gospels suggest that stored up time and money really don’t bring us to where we want to be.  They only make us more concerned with storing up more time and money.  So I don’t think producing more leisure should be one of our goals.


2) Riches are not about stuff (at leas not mostly about stuff).

A very common misconception in the United States comes from the idea that being rich is about having stuff.  Think of the common saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  Economists from Adam Smith on, have suggested that if we can only insure increase the stuff per person ratio, things will be great.  They envision a time in the future when everyone is wealthy and everyone is happy because there is a near infinite amount of stuff (money, food, houses, art…).  It sounds silly when I write it out, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that I bought into this concept of wealth pretty heavily for most of my life.  I thought the Star Trek dream of universal affluence really was the ideal future.  Now I’m not so sure.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that wealth has two phases.  In the first phase, we move from having nothing to having food, shelter, clothing, and a minimal level of predictability.  This line lies near what we call the poverty line.  In this first phase, I think increasing the wealth of every person on the planet is a good and noble thing.  We want people fed and housed and free from the chances and changes of nature.

Most of us in the US, however, are focused on the second phase of wealth, the accumulation of resources beyond what we can personally consume – at least biologically.  We begin to want the resources to consume rare or exotic delights.  Those concerned with “wealth” and not just survival want resources as leverage.  They don’t just want to consume, they want to consume things that they have to compete for.  They want to rent apartments in neighborhoods where other people really want to live.  They want to spend time in places other people want to be.  They want beautiful things that others also wish to possess.  And those are just three examples from my own desire for wealth.

This second phase wealth is not about wanting stuff.  It’s about wanting stuff that other people also want.  It’s about having the leverage to outcompete other humans.  At a more abstract level, it’s about being able to manipulate others into pursuing your ends instead of theirs.  We want to be able to pay people to do things.

Wealth is competitive and manipulative.

You need only imagine a millionaire completely alone.  There is only so much stuff he can make use of personally.  “Millionaire” or these days “billionaire” no longer has to do with the accumulation of stuff.  It has to do with accumulation of the power to get other people to do things.

Once you see wealth in this way, you realize that the Star Trek dream of universal wealth will never be achieved.  “The poor you will always have with you.”  This kind of wealth – really the only kind we usually speak of in the West – requires comparison.  It requires the ability to control the actions and productivity of others.

This is the problem of those philosophies that tell you each person should be able to acquire and keep their own wealth.  It doesn’t work like that.  When I say I want to be rich, I mean I want to be richer than others.  Otherwise, it doesn’t change my happiness or my style of life.  (Once again, this is only true after basic needs have been met.)

For those of you particularly attached to the idea, I should probably provide a few examples.  After all, can’t we just automate the things we want?  Can’t we live in luxury, supported by robot labor?  Partially, yes.  In truth, no.
We will still want to attract and impress potential mates.  And yes, that requires looking better than the other guy.  We will want to collaborate – humans are social creatures beyond any actual need – and in those collaborations, we will want our contribution and goals to be disproportionately recognized.  We will want our say – really more than our say – in the outcome.  At the very least, we will want to thwart the desires of others when they get in the way of our desires.  Life together means competition and wealth means winning.

Next time you think about what you want and what you deserve, next time you think about what role government has in wealth, I’d encourage you to think about these myths and how they affect the way you think.  I know I’ll be a lot more conscious of my own desire for wealth and what it means about me as a person.  As a Christian.


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