Monday, December 14, 2015

If We're So Rich, Why Do We Feel So Poor?

For the last class in my course on ethical theory this term, we discussed some passages from a book called Ethics for a Broken World. This book has a brilliant concept: it takes place in a future world that has been broken by catastrophic climate change, and presents imaginary lectures that discuss, as we do other historical periods, the philosophical writings of our era.

In the book, our world -- the world of 21st century western liberal democracies -- is called "the affluent world." Clearly, relative to the broken world, we are utterly affluent. In the broken future, there aren't enough resources for everyone to live. There are "survival bottlenecks," which necessitate "survival lotteries."

Looking back from the future, the affluence of our world seems astonishing. We have enough resources for everyone to survive, and we frequently spend enormously on gratuitous entertainments like flying around just to see new places.

Of course, you don't have to look back from a broken future to realize the affluence of 21st century western liberal democracies. We are richer than we were in the past -- maybe richer than ever before. We are richer than some countries, and way, way richer than others.

According to this, if you make more than $34,000 USD, you're in the top one percent of the world's richest people. If that's even sort of right, then in some sense, relatively speaking, we are living in an affluent society.

So why, if we are so relatively affluent, do we feel so economically crunched? Why does it seem like everyone is freaking out about not having enough money? Why is everyone so indignant about the bits of money that go into sensible projects like fighting climate change, improving elementary education, and helping refugees?

The obvious answers have to do with cost of living, changes from the status quo, and inequality. Yes, things cost a lot in modern liberal democracies, so what seems like "a lot of money" may not translate into a lot of buying power. Plus, what feels like "a lot of money" is often relative to some previous point in time, and since the economic crisis, we feel we're doing less well than a few years before. And rising inequality means "we" experience non-affluence in very different ways.

But I think there are also some subtler effects.

First, when it comes to living human life, it's not the case that "everything is relative": there are things and activities that everyone needs to survive and there and also things and activities that everyone needs just to feel part of their social and cultural world.

In our society, you need food and shelter, but you also need other things: to feel part of our social and cultural world, you have to be able to get around, you have to have access to the internet and other forms of news information, you have to have access to banking, and so on and so forth.

And here's the thing: in our society, when it comes to these things we need, it's not like there are a range of ways to do it and if you're poor you do it one way and if you're rich you do it another. It's more like -- there are pretty expensive ways to do it or you're just SOL.

For example. You want a TV? There used to be old technology that made TVs pretty expensive. Then new technology came along, and the old technology got pretty cheap. For a while there you could buy a TV with the old technology for almost nothing. Then they stopped selling those. Now it's back to a TV is a pretty expensive thing.

Same with cars, which are astronomically expensive and which you need to get around if you're not lucky enough -- and rich enough! -- to live in a densely populated area with public transit. Same with housing. Houses are bigger and nicer, so you can get a nice one if you have the money or ... not.

This is where rising inequality makes such a difference. If enough people over a certain level means consumer demand shifts, and the only version of things you can do is the expensive one. If you can't afford the expensive one, you're in trouble. This is one way we are so deeply economically interdependent, even when we don't want to be.

I think this phenomenon is part of why the post-economic crisis time feels like such a huge problem rather than a dip in an already affluent set up. When times are even a bit flush, we ramp up -- we create systems in which the things we need to do work in a certain kind of way and demand a certain level of resources.

Then when things shift down -- even a bit -- we can no longer use those systems. It is, legitimately, a crisis, even if in some sense there is still a lot of money around.

Of course, another reason that virtually everyone, at all points up the economic ladder, feels like OMG we don't have enough money has to do with this obvious but usually unspoken fact: in advanced capitalism, the whole point of the system is to make you feel like you don't have enough money.

Especially in an affluent world, where you have to convince people to buy, what is advertising, except a massive scheme to convince people that they're inadequate as they are and that they would be less inadequate if they had this or that thing? 

You put it all together, it's really no wonder we're all feeling so poor. In a way we have so much, and in another way, we don't have what we need. Those things seem contradictory but in a deep sense I think they're not.


Janet Vickers said...

"Especially in an affluent world, where you have to convince people to buy, what is advertising, except a massive scheme to convince people that they're inadequate as they are and that they would be less inadequate if they had this or that thing?"


Anonymous said...

"It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor." --Seneca
(It applies equally to women.)