Actually, there is a problem with a small percentage of the people with a lot more spending power than everyone else. In a market economy, each dollar you spend is a like a vote for what is valuable, and what should be produced. This works fine if everyone has relatively equal amounts of dollars to spend - you get something like economic democracy. However, if some people have lots more votes than everyone else, then the things they want get lots more votes. This draws resources (raw materials, equipment, labor, etc) away from producing things for the average person, and results in more production of luxury goods for the oppressive minority.

The result is that things get more expensive for the average person, because resources have been drawn away to serve the wealthy. In addition, you traditionally assume people who are well paid are more valuable to the economy. This is not true when there is large spending inequality. Those serving the wealthy (limo drivers, personal assistants, etc) are paid more not because they are more valuable to the economy, but because the wealthy can spend more. Those serving the poor are paid less because the poor simply have less money to spend. The result is an economy that more and more rewards serving the few people that least need additional people catering to them.

You might say there is a "hierarchy of value" (extrapolated from Maslow)...

There are some things everyone must have so they can survive: food, oxygen, warmth, etc. Basic stuff.

Once they've paid for their most basic stuff, then they spend their money on other stuff.

The more money they have, the more "esoteric" their later spending becomes.

Pearl divers in general are probably not your richest people in the world - so what do they do if they have a pearl? Or instead of asking that question, let's ask what would they do if you gave them a Picasso or Rembrandt? Pretty much the same thing they would do with the pearls - sell it to rich people who would actually use it, and then spend the money on more basic necessities, like running water and electricity.

So why aren't there more of these poor cliff divers producing food, building homes, laying pipes, or building power plants for themselves to use? Why do they instead dive for pearls? The answer is that in the economy in which they live, wealth has been concentrated. When wealth is concentrated, it becomes more profitable to serve the rich than it is to serve people of your own class - thus poverty continues on in the lower classes, and on, and on, and on.

This is capitalism's own economic calculation problem.

There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.

— Andrew Carnegie

Those of us simple folks who grew up poor (I mean welfare poor) and then come into a little money by working hard (and sometimes being in the right place at the right time) bear the burden of a great socio-economic responsibility to our fellow man. There are three categories of people whom I believe we can help by setting a good example:

  • The poor, both by practicing charity and by setting examples by going into the community and spending time, not money. Stuff as simple as being a mentor for a student, helping at soup kitchens or shelters, or (one of my favorites) going into the schools and libraries which service the underprivileged youth and reading books to the little ones, getting them excited about books; the ones whose minds are a clean slate, ready for good examples to be written all over.
     

  • The nouveau riche. Ever hear the horror stories about lottery winners who end up drinking themselves to death? The entrepreneur who makes a fortune and then complains that as his fortune increases, his spending keeps up with (or exceeds) it? How many homes does one need? How many sports cars? What kind of insecurity causes a guy who grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and makes a few bucks to feel that he must prove to the world that he did make a few bucks? His home is double-mortgaged; but heck, there's a BMW and a Range Rover in the driveway! Worse is the case of the guy who finds himself hopelessly in debt keeping up with the Joneses, 'cause his Joneses don't live in Brooklyn anymore; his Joneses live in the exclusive suburban town he chose to move his family to and he didn't realize the Joneses had far more "stuff" than he can afford, even on his six-figure salary. What do we do? Gently let them know that there's an alternative to the rat-race. It's called the karma of simplicity; the polar opposite of "he who has the most toys when he dies, wins."
     

  • The super-rich. Yeah, a simple soul like me can make a difference by helping elect politicians who're somewhat honest (oxymoronic, don't that sound?) and who covenant to make a difference for all people; who're brave enough to question the breaks and loopholes given to the small percentage of the population who hold the most wealth? So what if the capital gains taxes seem unfair to those who're gonna pay big-time for their "golden parachutes" and divesting their stock options. If, by taxation, we can get wholesome meals and learning materials to children who right now don't have 'em 'cause mommy and daddy are out spending their food-stamps for crack, ain't it worth it to put someone like Leona Helmsley (the poster-child for unmitigated greed herself) in the position of having to perhaps forego purchasing one more Matisse for her Greenwich estate? There are so many people of means, albeit modest compared to the Trumps etc., who are so apathetic about the political process that they don't get involved. And one needn't even have much money at all to expend time and energy getting people elected who've had enough and want to even out the playing field. Volunteer for phone banks. Tell people to vote. Intelligence the people who aren't aware of it that their vote is more precious than anything tangible but for shelter, food and clothing.

To my relief, I've had the privilege of meeting some extraordinary people who're quite rich but give a damn about their fellow human beings. I know a multi-millionaire who works for the United Nations who, due to his deep commitment to keeping the environment clean, rides a bicycle to work each day (even in the winter). He gives away six figures a year to organizations like Greenpeace and other organizations who promote clean air, solar power and the like. This guy's also been known to donate heavily to scholarship programs for kids because he's disgusted with the way Federal money for education has dried up over the years. This man has introduced me to other extremely wealthy people who're involved in his causes.

There are many people who get angry at me when I say that sending money overseas is ridiculous as long as there are people who're suffering in the United States: children who're stuck in the poorly-funded and even more poorly-staffed foster housing systems; adults who're mentally ill and can't help themselves, who're homeless, not by choice but because we haven't enough facilities to intervene on their behalf, while housing them safely in the meantime; the working uninsured for whom regular healthcare is but a dream, and who die sometimes because they must choose between proper healthcare and putting food on the table. I could go on and on but I won't.

My wife complains that I tip too much. She accuses me of doing it to "act like a big-shot." I know how hard people work who depend upon tips. If a guy's freezing his ears off outside and brings my car to me nice and warm I'm gonna tip him. The nice lady who makes my coffee in the morning has two jobs and a kid. The father of the kid left long ago. By day, Dunkin' Donuts, by night, she cleans offices. She once told me that because I tip her what I do every day, she doesn't feel so bad taking a cab the two miles from her evening workplace home, because she's so tired and her feet hurt.

I've spoken to the housekeepers at hotels (many of whom are surprised when a guest actually strikes up a conversation instead of just asking for more towels). Their union wage is ridiculously low, and the work they do is back-breaking, the chemicals the use are irritating, and their chores are repetitive. And they have a quota of how many rooms to clean a day; regardless of whether the guests were neat, tidy executives or a gathering of rock guitarists who've wiped room-service food from carpet to ceiling in every room on their side of the floor. I tip those people very nicely, because, frankly, they do something I hate to do; housecleaning. That's why I pay to have my house cleaned and my laundry done. I've done enough of it.

Now, I'll admit that I've been through my stages of ostentatious behavior. Until very recently I drove a big, gas-guzzling American-made luxury car. What a waste. Now we've got a Honda and two Toyotas; a Camry and a Sienna minivan. That's all the metal I think I'll need right now. When I get passed on the road by a Cadillac Escalade (a truck that I must admit I'd like to own, but can't bring myself to) I think about the mother of my buddy Chris. Chris's dad was a biggie on Wall Street. Chris attended one of Fairfield County, Connecticut's finest private schools. Despite the fact that they had a mansion with four persons in service, Chris's mom drove a little Nissan car into town and back to attend the garden club parties and such. And when Chris's mom needed some hay or supplies for their horses, she took the other family vehicle, an enormous 1967 Chrysler station wagon that was more rust than anything else; but I guess they had the local garage keep it in operating condition. Oh, did I mention that Chris's mom and dad have a house in Italy and another in Vail?

In closing, I guess I could hurt someone by being rich, if I got that way by trampling upon their back to do it. But I give away as much as I can afford to, and when I whine about not being able to afford something it's not "stuff," it's usually something that, absent winning the lottery, will always be out of my reach (like a few thousand acres of unspoiled wilderness in Vermont). Money, indeed, doesn't buy happiness. But charity and giving does. And the ultimate form of charity is that which is given anonymously, because that level of humility, that level of self-appreciation, is wealth intangible and lasting, wealth far more than the monetary kind.

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