I’m rich, bitch!

An excellent post on the zero-sum wealth fallacy:

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the “robber barons” of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.

One of the lasting impressions that traveling to India at a young age left me with was the fact that I, in my middle-class American life, was fabulously wealthy by the standards of a considerable chunk of the world’s population.  Perhaps this is why I never fell seriously prey to the kind of wealth-angst that apparently large numbers of even upper-middle class Americans feel.  Wealth isn’t just a number.  It’s about value.  And while I may bitch and moan from time to time that I can’t afford all the toys I might like, I never lose sight of the fact that in all meaningful respects I am wealthier than almost anyone who has ever lived.  Not only do I have objects of concrete value like a DSL internet connection, well-stocked supermarkets nearby, and a vehicle capable of traversing thousands of miles in a matter of days; but I have the leisure and the resources to invest in the intangibles like meditation, time spent outdoors, and the company of friends.

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  1. There is one aspect of wealth in which the modern middle class, with all of its toys and scheduled leisure, is easily beaten by the 19th century robber baron: freedom from power. Freedom from having to bend your life to the whims of other people; from having to sacrifice half of your waking hours to someone else’s ideas.

    1. Considering how big a section of the middle class is moving towards a free-agent information-worker economy, I wonder if this is really true.

      1. A free agent is still an agent, in the work-for-hire sense. He is doing the bidding of others. It may one day be possible to switch employers on the same fleeting whim as one switches brands of toilet paper. This doesn’t change the fact that, unlike the PaulGrahamian information worker, the robber baron was truly free in the sense of not having to do things one would not do unless someone pays. The robber baron (or even today’s rich and powerful) is free to act solely on internal motivation.

        To me, personally, ‘true freedom’ is when you could, if you wanted to, at any moment decide to devote the rest of your life to idle meditation (or debauchery, or disorganized invention) without any noticeable change in your standard of living.

        1. True, most of us haven’t reached that state of freedom (Aside: I really think there should be specific words for freedom-to-choose-with-consequences and freedom-to-choose-without-consequences. “Freedom”, like “love” is too general.)

          We’re getting there, though. Slowly but surely.

  2. Very well said!

    I usually compare us to mediaeval kings. I’ll think about the robber baron idea.

    “If you own enough stuff, eventually the stuff owns you” — Fight Club

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