The Ways We Don’t Talk About Wealth

Wealth and money are touchy subjects in most societies. Americans are unique for being relatively passe about ostentatious displays of prosperity, as well as for tolerating high income inequality (indeed, we have the largest gap between rich and poor in the developed world).

But even in our (in)famously money-obsessed society, discussions about one’s income or class – the latter of which many Americans deny the existence of – can be very tricky, especially in light of the economic recession and subsequent focus on socioeconomic inequality. There’s increasing talk about class warfare and a political system beholden to the wealthy; about whether the rich should be taxed more and whether their greater wealth obligates them to “pay a fair share” – the definition of which opens up a whole other can of worms.

Charlotte Shane of The New Inquiry wrote an interesting piece about the way Americans, rich or otherwise, discuss wealth, and what that says about us both psychologically and as a society. Her longish article is a good read, but what stuck out most for me was the following assessment:

Having a lot of money creates a sense of responsibility — or at least, it should — as well as vulnerability. The knee-jerk “I’m not rich” refrain is fundamentally a denial of that responsibility, a deflection: I’m not the problem, though I may be implicated in a problematic system. There are people of far greater worth who are far more culpable.

Does having more money, whether your earned it or not, obligate you to pay more in taxes, share more with your workers, or give more to charity? In a system that allows for such astronomical inequality, is there really such a thing as being wealthy solely through fairness and hard work? Does lots of money come with lots of responsibility to your society? While chewing on this, consider a few other interesting points highlighted by Shane:

Witnessing richness usually means witnessing a profound loss of perspective. An infamous study in early 2011 found that 42 percent of American millionaires didn’t “feel” rich. In 2009, it was 46 percent.  Back in my 40k days, a friend (also a sex worker) commented to me that she was running out of things to buy. I was too, but that’s because we were both operating on our former 12k-a-year, minimum wage appetites, and those would soon morph into a hunger to match the harvest. Years ago, someone told me once that if he were to pursue his passion, he would be a physics professor. I asked him why he wasn’t. He replied that professors only made $90k a year to start, maybe $110,000, and “you can’t live on that.” The average American household income at the time was $50,000.

It’s well established that as families ascend through income brackets, so too do their tastes and spending habits, meaning that one’s lifestyle always feels more average than extravagant. As wealth accrues, it creates a new normal, again and again as required. My current annual income brings a pleasant blindness; I don’t have to actively worry about my finances, and I can be impulsive and carefree in how I spend. While in some respects I remain resolutely frugal, even downright cheap, it’s mostly a matter of principle (or neuroses.) I’ve been good about saving from the beginning, so when I sit down to check my bank statements and I see the numbers of what sits in my account, I’m always surprised. Aside from fraud-check sessions, I never bother to look at my balance. When a bank rep asked me last year if I was planning to buy a house with my savings, it took me at least a full minute to digest his question.

Speaking honestly about money is among the last remaining taboos in contemporary American discourse. Politics, religion, assaultive crimes, sexual proclivities, family secrets, and even health problems (including those involving bowel movements) will all be more warmly received into a conversation than the topic of what everyone in the conversation earns. It’s shockingly bad manners to bring it up. But even social censure isn’t trusted as a powerful enough deterrent: some companies contractually forbid employees to disclose their compensation to colleagues. (It’s obvious how this benefits employers, most notably when gender discrimination is at play.)

It appears that being rich – or poor – does in fact alter one’s psychology and social relations. This may seem obvious enough, given that our values and perspectives are clearly shaped by our environment and experiences, which in turn become influenced by your level of wealth.

But I think most Americans are hesitant to accept that money, or lack thereof, can indeed change your personality and behavior. What you make influences who you hang out with, what you do, what kind of things you enjoy, and even your perception of reality (research is revealing an increasing geographical divide between different classes, to the extent that rich and poor live on very different physical worlds).

The same applies to societies as a whole: entire cultures are changed by wealth. Witness the age-old struggle between modernity – resulting primarily from industrialization and higher incomes – and traditional, often simpler, ways of living. While wealth has given us many comforts, it also seems to make us more stressed, busy, and materialistic.

Granted, it’s not like we were better off poor; it’s just that having all this money seems to have done far less good than we would expect. Infrastructure is still crumbling, education and healthcare are still a mess, and politics seems to have actually worsened through the infusion of untold billions. This country, to say nothing of the world at large, is beset by all manner of problems that never seem to have enough funding. Whether it’s the cure for cancer or the need to raise crop yields, it always comes down to a lack of investment. Trillions of dollars are sitting in bank accounts across the world, or displayed all around us through superfluous luxury and over-consumption, and we can’t seem to find the will or resources to fix these problems.

So for all our tireless pursuit of commercial prosperity, both as individuals and as a society, we seem far and away from creating the better world that such capital can make possible. We’re not willing to foot the bill or make the necessary sacrifices, even if we could still live in relative comfort while doing so. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about wealth: in the end, our ethics and sense of responsibility remain little changed despite the burgeoning potential to seem them through.

One comment on “The Ways We Don’t Talk About Wealth

  1. Poor is a relative term.. someone may be rich monetarily but poor in every other sense, lacking real social relationships and any kind of connection to the earth.. Money does not buy happiness is indeed a truism..

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