Monday, January 11, 2016


I was curious about the article "What Can The Rich Afford That Average Americans Can't?" (Hat tip: Maggie’s) explaining that the ability of the rich to buy better stuff is far more limited than popularly supposed.  I have strong reactions in both directions.
 It is an idea I have put forth myself at times, when pointing out that wealth may not be the ticket to happiness one thinks it is.  (Related: An older post, Jewish Ideas of Wealth.) I can only live in one house at a time.  The current one was a bit small when there were more boys around, but now is too big, if anything.  There are some improvements that would be nice, but even going all-out on that would not create much in the way of life improvement.  I look like an unmade bed thirty minutes after dressing every morning, so a wardrobe that cost me five times as much would not likely add significantly to my overall happiness.  An unlimited food budget might only mean that we would entertain or eat out more, but those also take time, which would remain in about the same supply as now.  Though perhaps not, as we shall see later.

Everyone in the family would advocate for significantly better cars, and I would likely acquiesce, but I’m not seeing much improvement in the ability to get from here to there.  Decorations of self and home?  More computer or entertainment?  Little change.  When folks trot out the cliché that things can’t make you happy, they are about right. I believe everyone should go through straitened circumstances at least once in their life.

Yet things aren’t so much the difference between rich and poor. A few commenters brought up other considerations.  Living among the poor has its own hazards. Plenty of them are fine folk, just like in the Good Old Days we keep saying are gone.  But some aren’t.  Poor neighborhoods include lots of people who have screwed up their lives in the usual ways of crime, drugs, poor decisions, and bad attitudes – except now they are only a few feet away, noisy and angry. Poorer neighborhoods have much higher crime.  Who cares if the square footage of your apartment is the same as that of a middle-class home of previous generations, with comparable furniture and a better TV? The neighborhood sucks. Even middle-class neighborhoods have higher crime and less space between houses. (Christianity tangent: this is why Jesus came to live among the poor, not just drop off little bags of gold.)

Even if we restrict all the comparison to the middle class instead of the poor, all sorts of things pop up.  Financial cushion, that margin for error, can be huge. A sudden increase in medical costs can throw everything off. The rich are more insulated from many such catastrophes. Cheap cars may be equal in function to expensive ones, but if any car dies on you, it has to be replaced, sometimes quickly.  The rich can retire earlier, or have fewer family members work, purchasing more time, a precious commodity. (Of course, one’s source of wealth might also be Golden Handcuffs, reducing flexibility. )

The rich can give to causes if something breaks their heart. The middle class has to watch things fall apart or get left undone.  It may be true that the most important gifts can be as easily given by the middle-class as the rich – prayer, time, encouragement, compassion - but that is starting to get into more advanced spiritual lessons.


The $1.4B Powerball is all the discussion up here at present.  I am not the first to note how ridiculous this is.  What, $1,000,000 wouldn't be enough for you?  Winning that much money would destroy my life.  I couldn't live in this house, as people would just drop by to tell me about their sick relatives and business opportunities.  I couldn't walk in my woods because there would suddenly be 1600 people who would "just run into" me there. Church might be worse, as people might have more respect for my wishes, but also feel they had a greater claim on me. People would join church to get near my money, or start hanging around my children and grandchildren nefariously.   I would have to move to someplace I could keep others at a distance, or embrace the new life of belonging to everyone, like an ant carrying mash for the rest of the anthill.

I suppose winning $1.4B would be a clear sign that this is God's project, and I would at least have the simplicity of knowing that my job is to give it away properly.  Winning $1M, OTOH, would be more of a temptation to just keep it, giving a nominal amount to God but basically regarding it as Good Fortune rather than Spiritual Mission.


james said...

Of course at our age it would be 600M$ before taxes, since expecting to live another 29 years for the annuity is a little presumptuous. Even so, it would, as you say, bring on many calamities. Even old friends might not feel like peers any longer with such an asymmetry in capabilities.

I like to think that having spent more than a few years a half-paycheck from disaster means we'd use a windfall more wisely. We did get one a couple of years ago--it's pretty much all gone, mostly to help out family. (We used to say that God sent us money on the just in time program--if we got an extra $300 we knew the brakes were about to fail. Sort of like getting gold, frankincense and myrrh just before you have to finance a trip south.)

I wonder, though. Something that large might, after a little while, blur our vision and leave us careless.

james said...

Now that I think of it, I'd probably also get an invitation from some of my colleagues to work with the Gen2 proposal :-)

Texan99 said...

I've always been a big believer in the power of savings at any income level. My folks never made much money, but they were big savers and never appeared to face any setback with significant anxiety. I made more money, but internalized their lesson. My co-workers mostly overspent their incomes and were often in anxiety, against all reasonable expectations. But all this is quite different from the impact of a sudden inrush of unimaginably large amounts of money. Despite all the stories of people who spent their lottery winnings in a year on swimming pools and fancy cars, it would take some serious effort to go through $1 billion before you could get your feet under you. I agree that you'd pretty much have to keep it a secret if you didn't want hangers-on to encrust you like barnacles. I will say that, when I fantasize about what I'd do with virtually unlimited funds, the things that come to mind are (1) the ability to play Santa in the face of terrible wrongs, mostly involving (I'm afraid) distressed animals, (2) construction projects and/or buying up wilderness to protect it, and (3) daily four-hour massages. But more realistically, what extra money means to me is some insulation against minor disasters, especially illness, i.e., the ability to purchase more effective or humane care, as in avoiding a nursing home, or the impact of some crazed social policy that can be wired around only at great cost, like Obamacare. In other words, I'd be a little like Donald Trump, experimenting with the things one can do if he doesn't have to worry about financial impacts of any kind. Want to run for president without caring what donors think? Want to command media attention without making the media happy about your views?