On wealth-2

(Part 1 can be seen here.)

One of the odd things that I have found about America is how many people are willing to fight to protect the interests of the very wealthy, even though they themselves are nowhere close to attaining that level of income, and where the efforts by a few to acquires such wealth adversely affects them. Some are willing to defend the rampant greed that resulted in practices the led to the recent financial collapse. “Joe the Plumber”, “Tito the Builder” and others like them were notable figures during the last election campign that belonged to this category. During the recent tea parties protesting Obama’s tax policies, a demonstrator was asked whether he earned more than $250,000. When he said that he earned much, much less, he was asked why he was protesting since his taxes would be lowered. He said that he hoped to become wealthy some day and thus was looking out for his future interests, however unlikely that may be.

I find it curious that so many people seem to want to be actually wealthy and not merely comfortably middle class, that becoming so is the goal of their lives. Some time ago, a commenter suggested that my occasional rants against the way that the very rich oligarchy in this country exploits the poor were due to me being envious of them. The commenter seemed to think that it was a given that I too desired to be wealthy and that my political views would change dramatically if I ever became so.

But anyone who chooses to go into academia knows they are never going to be wealthy. Although the life can be good for those who enjoy the intellectual life, you will never rise above a comfortable middle class life as a teacher. Because it is quite hard to become an academic (one has to study for many, many years and the competition for jobs is fierce), it should be obvious that for this class of people becoming wealthy is not a high priority.

A student once asked me if I am paid what I think I am worth. It is an interesting question but one which I could not answer because I don’t know how to measure what I am worth. What people usually mean by this question is whether I am paid more or less than other people doing comparable work in a comparable institution in a comparable location.

Apart from idle curiosity, I have never had much interest in the question of how much other people make but it is clear that many do care. The Parade magazine insert in my Sunday paper has as a recurring feature a listing of people in various occupations and their income, feeding what seems to be an insatiable curiosity about how much other people earn. Making such comparisons will always make some people unhappy since there will always be someone making more than you whom you think is undeserving. H. L Mencken said that, “The man’s satisfaction with his salary depends on whether he makes more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Some people want such comparisons in order to use them as a salary negotiation ploy. In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he talks about how until 1992 compensation packages for top executives used to be kept confidential. But the ratio of the average CEO pay to that of the average worker rose from 36 in 1976 to 131 by 1993. Congress thought that this rise was made possible because of the secrecy about compensation and that by passing a law making this information public, top executives would be shamed into accepting more modest salaries.

The exact opposite happened. Chief executives started comparing their salaries, not with that of average workers, but with other CEOs and demanding to their own boards that they match their competitors. Salaries started leapfrogging until they reached the obscene levels that have been revealed during the recent financial scandals. Right now the ratio is 369.

While I have no idea what I am worth, I do know how to measure what I need, and what I need to have what I consider to be a great life is not much. I like to spend my time reading and writing, for which all I need is proximity and access to a good library, and both my university and community libraries more than meet that need. I need to have a modest home that I can maintain without too much trouble or expense. I need a reliable car, a computer, and internet access. I like to be able to buy books occasionally without worrying about whether I can afford them. I like to live debt-free and not worry about whether I will have a roof over my head or whether I can afford food, heat, and the other basic necessities of life. But that is about it.

What is troubling is that such is the inequitable way that wealth is distributed in the world that what I have described for me as a ‘simple’ life represents an almost unimaginable level of luxury for almost all the people on the planet, for whom having even a single water faucet in the neighborhood with drinkable water or enough electricity to light a single bulb or a sanitary toilet would result in a huge improvement in their living standards.

So even though I am not wealthy and will never be wealthy by the inflated standards of the US, I am extremely well off by any reasonable measure. To ask for more would just be greedy.

POST SCRIPT: Utica? They’ve heard of Utica?

It is a staple of comedy shows to interview the “person in the street” in America and reveal their appalling ignorance about world affairs ompared to people in other countries. Here Jason Jones compares the ‘average’ Iranian’s knowledge of America with the ‘average’ American’s knowledge of Iran.

One should, of course, never take these things seriously as a measure of general knowledge. Selective editing is a powerful weapon. It can make any person or group look good or ignorant. Done well, though, it can be funny.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Jason Jones: Behind the Veil – Ayatollah You So
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran


  1. Maria says

    Here’s one personal anecdote about why people vote against interests. My sister once, in exasperation, asked my father why he voted favor of the rich when he himself was lower middle class if that and he told her that it was because he thought that we (his kids) would be rich one day. My sister, an associate editor at a trade magazine, looked at him in disbelief and said she was never going to be rich and neither were the rest of us. He was so firmly entrenched in the “American dream” that education and hard work will lead to prosperity and wealth that he still, to this day, believes it.

  2. Ravi Venkataraman says

    Your ideas on wealth and what I need to be happy are identical to mine. These are some of the values I’m hoping to pass on to my children and anybody else who cares to listen to me. Thanks for sharing your ideas on wealth.

    I often say that money, like friction, is a necessary evil. Would that there were an alternative leading to a more equitable world.

  3. Jack says

    When the makers of the original Trivial Pursuit game were interviewed after its initial release, one of them was asked “what are you going to do with all that money?”

    He replied, “I realize that money does not buy happiness, but, it allows you to choose any misery you want.”

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