Tuesday, September 9, 2008

An argument for affluence

Affluence - as uncomfortable as I am with that term, I cannot deny that I am affluent. I cannot escape the fact that I am affluent because I am American and therefore I have more than others. When I say that, I mean it in two different ways. Relatively speaking, by definition, Americans are affluent because we have more wealth than the majority of other people in this world. Far more.

Based on a complex global economy, which in itself is based on treaties, embargoes, international policies, greed, protectionism, and exploitation, we are affluent because we depend on the rest of the world to provide us with what we want, essentially at their own expense. If all the poor of the world had even their basic needs met, we could not live at the standards that we now do. So I also mean that we are affluent because of this cause-and-effect mechanism.

Affluence as a term is very similar to wealth. One definition of wealth is “an abundance of items of economic value.” (from wikipedia). Economic value, at least in the western world, is typically determined by the “free market” (although considering the recent government bailouts of major corporations, the term “free market” as applied to western-style capitalism is really a joke). By this definition, wealth equals quantity. In a larger sense, wealth is a greater quantity of material things that have economic value in a global market, and the ability to trade these things fairly. America is a country that values material things, and uses them as a measure of wealth.

Often, when we talk about friends, family members, or even strangers who are in financial difficulties, we find ourselves becoming disgusted with their purchases, deciding unilaterally that what they’ve bought isn’t something they really needed. The responsible way to handle money, we tell ourselves (and sometimes others), especially when money is tight, is to buy only what we need, and not something we merely want. But we’re still talking about quantity, of course, and we’re talking about it in terms of economic measures, of physical things on which we can place a market value.

In a physical sense, as animals, all we need to survive is oxygen, food, water, shelter. Then we have non-physical goals that we would typically describe as “wants”. We want such things as love, acceptance, community, freedom from worry, the tolerance of others, a meaningful way to spend our time, recognition of our good qualities and forgiveness of our mistakes. To do more than just survive on a physical level, to really thrive, I would argue that these things are psychological or social needs. And interestingly, none of these things can be bought, directly, with money. In fact, in many ways, these things are either completely independent of monetary value, or they have an inverse relationship to money. They can’t be quantified.

Compared to typical Americans, the lifestyle my husband and I live might not be considered affluent (although by global standards we are incredibly rich). We share a car, and we either coordinate our schedules, or we take alternate transportation – bus (me), train (me), or bike (both of us). We grow a lot of our own food (well, that’s mostly me, too). I bake my own bread, shop at the local food cooperative and a variety of farmer’s markets, and preserve a lot of food for the winter. I enjoy making things by hand. I meet with like-minded friends for discussion and to read thought-provoking books. My husband and I both love getting out into nature, hiking, meditating, experiencing the beauty of the natural world. None of these things are valued in the “free market”. They have no economic value, and bring our family little or no wealth, despite the fact that they fulfill our psychological needs. By our own standards, we feel very lucky, and very wealthy.

Based on this, I would propose a new definition of the word affluent. “Wealth” derives from the old English word "weal", which means "well-being". Despite current usage, the term was originally an adjective to describe the possession of great qualities. Can you imagine a society in which people who have a sense of wonder, compassion, justice, forgiveness, quiet intelligence, humility, charity – these are the people who are considered wealthy? A society in which those who take only what they need and give everything else they have to those in need, they are the ones who are considered affluent?


sac48738 said...

damn woman, what a rant! haha

Calcandide said...

"A society in which those who take only what they need and give everything else they have to those in need" - some people might call that socialism (and I'm not saying it's good or bad, it's just what it is).

Green Bean said...

I like it! What a society that would be and what a world that would create.