My wealthy grandmother, married to my grandfather who at one point was a millionaire business owner, once told me:
“You can never have enough money”
As a reason to pursue a higher-paying career after university.
Never mind that there are other reasons to choose a career, the logic is nonsensical.
“You can never have enough money” was clearly intended to mean “no such thing as too much money”. She wanted me to understand the importance of relentlessly pursuing such a valuable commodity.
And money is valuable. Having wealth opens doors. Problems become easier, life becomes more comfortable, everything becomes safer.
Instead of putting up with something broken or ugly, you can pay for repair, or buy it new. Instead of struggling with poor quality tools, you buy new ones. If you miss your bus, train, or plane, you can pay for a taxi, the next one, a hotel for the night.
Instead of arguing over the parking ticket, you pay it.
Instead of serving time, you pay a fine or bail.
Instead of negotiating free legal advice and healthcare, you pay for it.
But is it enough?
As my grandmother accidentally revealed, maybe it isn’t.
In 2014, Oxfam reported that the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker. In this poster from 2016, the number has gone down to 62:
There are other shocking ways to represent this, such as the 99% vs 1% cartoons:
Or my absolute favourite graph…The Champagne Glass: showing how wealth doesn’t really “trickle down”:
And what about me?
I’m writing from the UK, on a computer, in a library run by a council by a government that is democratic, with national healthcare, stable economy and a current state of peace (however much EU negotiations are currently wobbling this).
That puts me pretty high in this champagne glass.
Now looking at my background; I have had wealthy relatives. I have university educated parents who have been mostly employed and never been in prison. I’ve never been in Care, and if I needed a roof over my head, they could provide me with one.
I’m creeping up that champagne glass again.
Now look at my lifestyle. I’m currently employed, above minimum wage, and work office hours. I rent, but I am in a relationship, so I pay half. I went to university. I was given a bike, and have the money to maintain it. I have enough clothes, shoes and homewares to be comfortable without needing to spend more money. I live near a food shop that is well stocked and affordable, and never need to worry about having enough for food. I pay a tenner to charity each month, I don’t have credit card debt and I have a small amount of savings which I add to each month.
That isn’t bragging, or unusual. Lots of people that I know are at about that level of income and comfort. I know a lot who are above it, and more who are below it.
But are we high enough in the glass?
Yet when I see someone who is homeless, or begging, I automatically chirp “no thanks” and I walk faster. The (in)humanity of this is well-debated, but my rationale is simple:
I am too poor to give you money.
Is that true? I don’t honestly know.
Some people are begging for money for drugs; that isn’t part of my decision. Some are begging for money for food or a motel room, it isn’t part of my decision.
But are all of the people begging are poorer than me?
I have a home to go to that’s comfortable and legally mine. I have a job to go to and know where my next income is coming from. I have a life that I don’t need to escape from using drugs or alcohol.
I have a life that means begging isn’t a good idea.
The person asking a stranger for change? They certainly don’t have that.
I believe in equality. Yet I don’t give anyone money, and I tell myself I’m poor, despite being so much better off than the people asking. Technically, I could give up my savings, and give what I have to the people in my city who have nothing when they ask, or decide carefully and give regularly to just one person, or spend money on water and food and warm clothing and give this out instead.
Yet that would make me poorer. Being poor is real, and not an abstract philosophical concept. Resources run out. Comfort matters in maintaining good mental health.
And mine isn’t more important than theirs. But I have a duty to myself, so I choose to say no, despite knowing that it isn’t fair…
When will I have enough to give money to people I see?
I don’t know if anyone will ever have enough money to give it away to people who ask. It makes us feel better when we can help someone, but so many people need so much help, it’s hard to believe we could solve it just by re-arranging money.
The Most Basic Economics
There’s a basic economic theory called “diminishing marginal returns”. It means stuff is worth less each time when you get more of it. Imagine you need a pen to sign for a delivery. In that moment, you need a pen, it’s valuable to you. If I give you one, you’ll be really pleased. If I give you a second pen, that’s okay, but it’s nowhere near as valuable.
With money, it is the same thing. A tenner when you don’t have enough for your grocery shopping is priceless. A tenner to the Queen…less important.
Money is also a construct, so it’s flexible. You can pay £200 for a lamp, easily, or feed a family for a month; so why do we spend like money doesn’t matter? Again, this is economics, called “Framing”. We forget that this is the same £200 that can pay vet bills or fix someone’s car, because we are only looking at prices for beautiful homewares, and they are all around £100+, so we accept this. The lamp is not really as valuable as the other items, but it is hard for us to connect this unless we look at them side by side.
Ultimately, we are greedy; we will always want more for ourselves, it’s survival instincts, to acquire and to hoard. But many of us live in zoo-like safety, and we need to acknowledge that this urge to acquire is only an urge.
We can’t have enough, but that isn’t money’s fault. That is a problem inside of us, that we look to ourselves and our needs first. This is what it means to live in an increasingly atomised community, and what the “nuclear” family has created. When everyone earns and everyone pays, no one has money to spare, even when you and everyone you know are part of the richest 25% in the world. We need money to help each other, but who decided we couldn’t help each other for free?
It isn’t really money we want. We want freedom, the ability to have nice things and protect the people we love, the ability to go places and do things that interest us and enrich our lives. We want the time to spend on ourselves and our loved ones. Money takes this all away from us, and sells itself back to us as the solution.
It Is Not Enough
The answer is no, you don’t have enough money. And I don’t, and my rich yet naïve Grandmother doesn’t either. The richest people in the world don’t have enough money, because it isn’t money that we really want. We want safety, and we live in a world were that is defined by an arbitrary construct, so no wonder we never feel it is enough. We could always be suddenly “priced out” of safety and happiness, if food costs suddenly increase, or the rent goes up, or the stock market mess collapses again, or our car breaks down.
To truly feel like we have enough, we need to be able to help each other. We need to live more natural and close knit lives, where we don’t “buy into” the concept that money is everything. We need to know how to do things ourselves, and share the tools that we do that with. We need to be able to feed people when they are hungry, and cover their basic needs without counting pennies. While our humanity is still determined by how much money we have, we will never feel like we have enough.
Thank you for reading!
Interesting Articles I used:
http://www.milkenreview.org/articles/billionaires-and-growth – Statistical analysis looking at the difference between political wealth and entrepreneurial wealth driven by innovation or luck.
https://thesocietypages.org/graphicsociology/2009/05/27/champagne-glass-distribution-of-wealth/ – Analysing how this model works.
https://www.raptitude.com/2010/07/your-lifestyle-has-already-been-designed/ — Why money takes away from our lives
https://medium.com/@NSallakAnderson/pretty-birds-in-pretty-cages-could-the-nuclear-family-be-the-reason-were-all-miserable-46126d573263 – About the atomisation of society.
https://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/wheelbarrows-of-money-and-the-weimar-republic/ – Explanation of hyperinflation images and source for my final image.