Thursday, March 5, 2009


"Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed
the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where
graceful youth should have filled their features out, and
touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled
hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No
change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any
grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has
monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to
him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but
the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie
of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.

Money can't buy you happiness. It's one of those statements that is almost always 1) true, and 2) entirely beside the point. If someone tells you that money can't buy you happiness, the chances are good that he's either trying to make you feel better about not having money, or make himself feel better about having money that should have been yours. I once worked for a person of substantial wealth who told his secretary that she couldn't have a raise because it would come out of his pocket, and "That thousand dollars wouldn't make you any better off, but I'd sure miss it."

In the post-industrial West, money and affluence are the same thing. Affluence denotes having more than enough (often far more than enough) to have your needs met. Having your needs met means an absence of want. Want guarantees misery. You might make yourself unhappy because you don't have something you desire, but that sort of peevishness doesn't compare to the misery of someone who hasn't eaten for several days or can't afford medical care for his dying child. That's want.

Money protects you from want, so it can buy you out of many instances of misery. Put another way, money enables you to satisfy the physiological and safety levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Most of us have never known want. Or at least we don't remember it: the last time most of us had unmet physiological needs was when we were infants, and those needs typically got met as soon as we cried. It's somewhat ridiculous that we worry so much about insulating ourselves from something that we're not likely to experience, but the probability of something truly awful doesn't have to be very great for us to insure against it. (You might, for example, be almost certain that there's no hell waiting for the wicked, but if the chance that an everlasting lake of fire exists is even one in a thousand, then the expected value calculation makes occasional piety look pretty attractive. But religion is beyond the scope of the current discussion.) So it makes sense that the wolf doesn't have to be at the door for want to color our behavior. The wolf can be three counties away, on the other side of a major highway, and that's plenty close, thank you.

The closest I came to want in my adult life was during the early stages of my divorce, perhaps ten years ago. I'd spent almost three years as a stay-at-home father, so I was just getting back into the work force, and the cash flow from my job wasn't keeping up with my expenses (primarily legal bills). The joint assets had all been frozen, and my only separate credit card was maxed out. I remember being out of gas, swiping my card, and having the pump give me a quarter-gallon of gas before it realized that there were no available funds. I had to scrape together the change out of the cup holders to get a gallon of gas, and then I couldn't drive until payday.

All the same, want wasn't at hand. I had paid the rent on the apartment, and I had enough food in the pantry and refrigerator to eat. And I could (and eventually did) borrow money from my parents and a friend. But the awareness that my own efforts couldn't provide a layer of insulation from want was enough to make me ragged, scowling, and wolfish. But prostrate, too, in my humility.

It's the fear of want that drives acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is a rational response to want, and it's probably a rational response to the fear of want, but only when want is near at hand. At some point, you're no longer making money to meet your most fundamental needs or even to ensure that you'll be able to meet those needs in the future. When you pass that point, you're acquiring wealth for the sake of acquiring wealth, which makes no sense. Or you're acquiring wealth to meet needs that wealth can't satisfy, which equally makes no sense. [Or you're the sort of person for whom money does buy happiness, but if that were the case then you likely wouldn't have read beyond the first paragraph. Not because there would be anything wrong with you (though I'd be dishonest if I didn't acknowledge that I do think there's something wrong with such people), but simply because our world views would have been so incompatible as to make my arguments incomprehensible to you.]

One of the reasons why we continue to fear want long after it's clear that we have more than enough for the foreseeable future is that there's still plenty of want in the world, and most of us are exposed to the want of other people -- in the form of street people, through media reports of victims of natural disasters, and through appeals from charities, among other sources -- on a regular basis. It's not hard to see that reducing the want of other people is one way of sending the wolf even farther away from our own door. So there's a clear, albeit indirect, benefit to helping other people escape want.

There's also a more direct benefit to helping other people. Stay with me here for a little thought experiment. Let's say that you have ten farmers. Each farmer has his own bit of land, but each is subject to different vagaries of weather, infestation, etc. In a great year, a farmer can produce twice as much as he needs, and he can stockpile the rest. In an average year, he can produce a third more than he needs, and he can stockpile the rest. In a bad year, he produces half of what he needs, and he has to get the rest from his reserves. And in a disastrous year, he gets nothing, or nearly nothing. Let's also say that he can do about twenty percent better in great or average years by working especially diligently.

Now let's assume that each farmer is an island, entire of itself. If a farmer has a great year, he can survive two bad years or one disastrous year on his reserves. If he has three average years, he can survive the same level of ill fortune. But he never knows what the next year's going to be like. Two disastrous years in a row are rare but not unheard of. The farmer's going to want to work as diligently as possible because he's going to want to avoid, at all costs, running out of food. He's going to need large stockpiles of extra production to guard against years of famine.

But there's an alternative, of course. Let's say that instead of taking the I-am-a-rock-I-am-an-island-and-a-rock-feels-no-pain-and-an-island-never-cries approach, the farmers agree to help each other out. Each produces what he can and agrees to share his surpluses with his compatriots who are having tough years. You can, if you like, assign probabilities to each outcome (great year, average year, bad year, disastrous year) and run some computer simulations, but I can tell you up front that if you look at any reasonable set of assumptions, you'll find that under scenario 1 (I have my books and my poetry to protect me), you'll end up with a) greater total reserves and b) more people going hungry. In other words, if you decide that we're all in this together, you end up with a) less total affluence and b) fewer people starving. Also, the people who don't share the burden and share the wealth will end up working a lot harder.

This, readers, is a parable, and it has several lessons. First, GDP is a highly flawed measurement of a society's affluence. Second, rugged individualism may be sexy, but it also means that more people don't have enough to survive on. Third, when people work together to ensure a minimum level of comfort for everyone, nobody has to work as hard. Don't believe me? Compare the social safety nets, the number of hours per week worked, and the levels of want in Western Europe and the U.S. We work harder, and we have more people on the streets and in soup kitchens.

Guaranteeing a minimum level of security, guaranteeing an absence of want, means that people are happier, even though some of them will have less than they might have had without the same guarantee. They're happier because they have less fear of want and because they see less want around them.

I'll be thrilled if this turns out to be the lesson we learn from the current economic crisis, but I can't say that I'm especially optimistic. It'd be great if we responded to having less by sharing what we do have with others, but I think that our natural tendency -- especially in this country -- is for each of us to ensure that we have enough without regard to, and often at the expense of, the security of other people. And we do this even though it's counterproductive, even though by weakening the safety of others we're ultimately undermining our own positions. I don't know exactly why we behave in this irrational manner, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with many years of bad habits and, especially, bad leadership.

We have much better leadership nowadays, but I don't see anyone making the case for having more by having less. You would think that the fact that there's so much less to go around would lead people to pursue this strategy, if only out of necessity. But the response to any plan of shared sacrifice is to denounce it as nationalization. I just hope that we get over that impulse before there's no nation left.

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