Tuesday, April 27

What money buys

In middle-class America I believe the general consensus on the difference between being wealthy and being poor is the difference between driving a next-generation Lexus and driving 1980 Ford, between shopping at Prada and at K-Mart, between a night out at an establishment with a few Michelin stars and a night out at Perkins. The difference is quality. This is true. More money doesn't necessarily mean more things but better things.

This isn't the complete story, though. In describing the difference between the most common American means of transportation and Kenyan matatus and Indian trains or Indonesian ferries, Carol Hoffman, the author of The Lunatic Express, said in his interview that what money really bought was “space, quiet, cleanliness and solitude.” I had never thought of it in this sense before. It's counter-intuitive in a sense. When we say money can buy something, the immediate following thought is the price, and it's silly to try and price quiet or space. What would five minutes of absolute silence be worth? More or less than twenty minutes of twenty decibels of background noise? Would ten dollars be fair for a meter radius of personal space for ten minutes and twenty dollars fair for a two meter radius of personal space for the same amount of time? Like I wrote, silly, but our memberships and homes do buy us these things. Want more space at the gym? Buy a membership with some private club and get out of the YMCA. Want a little more quiet at night? Move out of your city apartment and to the suburbs.

What else does money buy? Time, for one. All the money in world will never allow you to outrun death, but it can help keep it at bay and give you more free time before getting there. Afford some more vegetables and fruits and have enough to not need to eat at fast food joints and all their attendant health risks. That's maybe five years right there. Afford regular check-ups with a doctor and surgery as necessary, and that's potentially another decade or two to your life. While keeping death off with generally better health, buy yourself a washing machine to hurry up with cleaning the dishes. That can be a few hours a week with a family. Have the money and hire a maid to do the cleaning, and that a few more hours a week for other interests.

Money buys choice. It may not help you make that choice in the end, but it does broaden the options a fair amount. Have enough money to afford a plane ticket and you can choose to go absolutely anywhere in the world. Only have enough money for a bus ticket, and your choices are pretty well limited to where the Greyhound stops. That is considerably less than the world. Short of having the intelligence or athletic skills to qualify for some excellent scholarships, you are going to an in-state public university or community college.

Money buys more money. There's the wider sense that if you're leaving paycheck to paycheck, you certainly aren't going to have any money to put into the stock market or mutual funds where the money accrues without any further effort from oneself, but there are smaller ways, too. Maybe those designer jeans do cost twice as much as whatever Target is stocking, but if they last three times longer, they are the better buy. I learned this one in freshman colloquium. Don't have a car and live in the inner city, and your grocery options are pretty well limited to the local gas station or convenience store. Ever see the price for cereal or tuna in those places. A few steps on the wrong side of ridiculous. Have a car and Costco membership and a pantry to store it all, and the difference from a week's of groceries from the convenience store can probably pay for the gas.

Something to keep in mind, I guess.

1 comment:

Carl Hoffman said...

Thanks for your thoughts after reading my book, Lunatic Express. It's the thing we in rich nations have that so many others don't - space, cleanliness, quiet and solitude. I had never thought of it before until traveling with so many people in such small spaces - and their whole lives are like that. Carl Hoffman