Tag Archives: rich

A fine and healthy debate

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Adam and Eve were living in a world of plenty. They were in the Garden of Eden and everything was taken care of.

They could have:

  • had long, revealing conversations with God
  • deepened their love and understanding of each other
  • lived in harmony with their environment while exercising a minimal self-restraint
  • contemplated, cultivated and created beauty
  • enjoyed the good life.

Instead, they became obsessed with the idea of more, and what did they get?

More work, more pain, more disease and two sons who were so desperate to re-ingratiate themselves with God, that they ended up hating and killing one another…

This was one of those fleeting thoughts regarding the origins of our current economic, spiritual and moral crisis that probably would not have made it out of my personal diary, if it hadn’t been for Fareed Zakaria’s show GPS on CNN this past weekend. Coincidentally, he had invited Britain’s Robert and Edward Skidelsky – University professors and authors of a deeply provocative and intellectually stimulating book – to talk about just that.

The Skidelskys’ new book, “How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” takes an unusually fresh and honest stab at the “deathly orthodoxy” of economics as the mathematics of greed and at the obsessive pursuit of GDP growth as the sole measure of  a good life, while pleading for economics as a moral discipline which has to recognize that there is more to a rich, gratifying life than the mere material, monetized pre-requisites of wealth.

This is not one of those excentric, edulcorated, vaguely philosophical books written by misguided idealists. The authors know what they are talking about.  Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and an acclaimed expert on Keynes, while Edward is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter.  Their research and their line of argumentation are as complex and serious as they are accessible. In the authors’ own words this book – full of exciting cultural references from the classics – is “an argument against insatiability”, focused on offering (against all odds) an objective and morally sustainable view of “the constituents of a good life”: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, harmony with nature, leisure.

How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” makes a wildly compelling argument, full of aha moments, well worth reading at this stage of our development in the Western (i.e. rich) world – and not only!  I can only recommend it. Together with Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” and Chrystia Freeland’s “Plutocrats – The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else“, I consider it part of a new school of thought that is gaining momentum. It is a troika of books that should not be missing from the bookshelves of those concerned with policy-making for future generations, as well as those simply concerned with making sense of their lives and escaping  the futility of the “rat race”.

Automotive darwinism

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I am naturally wary of any car that is either:

a) big enough to flatten my house

or

b) fast enough to break the sound barrier. 😛

Which is why I try to stay out of their way if I can help it. I (almost) always give Porsches, Hummers, and even some BMWs the right of way. That is my way of showing respect to those who are at the top of the cubic capacity chain. (Plus I like it safe). It appears to be a fact of life fact that the ability to read road signs and abide by rules is inversely proportional to the horsepower or the size of the bank account.

I mean, rich people do pay more road tax and generally contribute more to every public service because, when you apply even a reduced tax rate to their astronomical incomes, the absolute monetary value of their contribution still outweighs mine or yours by a ratio of at least one to… let’s say 100 (but feel free to add as many zeros as you think are appropriate).

But do they have to rub our noses in it? (When they do pay, that is. When they’re not in some offshore fiscal paradise.) Take this young lady at REAL this morning, for instance, with her precious Hummer. Did she have to occupy one of the parking spots reserved for mothers with children even though she was alone and she only stopped to drop off a summer shirt for ironing? Normal people kill for those spots, you know. Those spots are the only ones where there is enough space for you to be able to open both car doors sufficiently to extract your kids. It used to be that rich people in Germany had this very nice, redeeming quality of not flaunting their wealth – acting normally, following the rules just like everybody else. It’s great that you’re rich, it’s not like you have apologize for it or anything, but do you have to be arrogant, too? Modesty never hurt anybody. It’s not all about the money. There are other ways of contributing to society and to the public good.

Why do so many rich people begin to think they’re smarter than the rest? They immediately feel “self-made”. Rich people tend to think they got where they are exclusively thanks to their own efforts, and poor people tend to think they got where they are by some ugly conspiracy of the universe. I think they’re both wrong. There is such a thing as Providence, luck, being in the right place at the right time, having the right environment and resources – but there is also such a thing as being pro-active, determined, tenacious, knowing how to use the resources, the environment and the chances presented to you. All of us get some endowment at birth, from somewhere up above, and have to make the best of it. It’s not like you can take all the credit if it turns out well, but none of the blame if it turns out bad.

That being said, it is kinda worrying when our society starts not only chasing and brandishing status symbols, but also using them to humiliate others. It used to be that people bought status symbols to make themselves feel better. (Feeling empty? Add a brand.)  Now it’s like they’re buying them to make the others feel bad. (Hey, I invented driving.)

It is also worrying that, according to sociologists, a new type of feudalism is on the rise: people in certain professions (financiers and the like) make about 300 times more money than the average wage in our society. Their lives are spent increasingly in exclusive, elite circles, private clubs and private islands, that no longer have any connection with how the rest of us live. They mingle almost exclusively among their own kind and marry within the group more often than they used to, according to one study. These people are rulers of private empires parallel to our world, can influence policies more than we like to imagine, and exercise power over our lives without even being brain surgeons. The effect of such unevenly distributed wealth is a society driven by envy and a desire for quick profits and lax morals. Some degree of inequality is normal and even healthy. Some are, after all, more industrious than others. But too much inequality leads to frustration, tension and societal malfunctions.

Hummers of the world, please keep us little people happy and park where you’re supposed to.