It is Christmas season and I am sitting in the middle of capitalism hell. That’s right folks… I am in the United States of America, state of Florida, city of Ft. Lauderdale, and sitting down in a mall food court surrounded by the heavenly stores of Super Target, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy. Most that know me agree that I am very tight with my purse strings, mainly because my purse is quite small, but at this very moment even I am having trouble keeping my credit card in my wallet. Everywhere I look there are cool things to buy, new shirts, new shoes, gadgets, Christmas/Hanukah gifts, pizza, Chinese food, the list goes on and on. And all at very reasonable prices. It is amazing how anyone in this country keeps a savings account.
In my opinion (obviously you know it’s my opinion but still I decided to open with that line), what I am seeing and feeling right now is the ugly face of capitalism. Surrounding me are many consumer products, that although are cool and fashionable, are totally and completely unnecessary. Within the three square miles surrounding me there must be more aggregated wealth than in the entire country of Nicaragua. I am right next to Ft. Lauderdale Beach where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent daily by tourists, old people, and the wealthy locals. Could this money be put to better use?
Last night while hanging out with my friend Joey at a swanky wine bar, I witnessed the luxury than so many people have to just spend hundreds of dollars on wine. Then driving in his car, we passed by million dollar mansions, high rise condos, 100 foot yachts, and more boutiques and cafes than I can count on the legs of a centipede. This is upscale America.
Then Joey and I started talking. Joey was in my Peace Corps group and unfortunately had to leave early for medical reasons. He is now temporarily working at a fancy steakhouse on Ft. Lauderdale Beach and tells me that clients regularly buy 500 dollar bottles of wine and routinely spend 150 dollars per person on dinner. This is shocking to both of us and although he receives great tips, he also finds it incredible how much money is spent on food (hopefully great food). I admit that I have spent 60 dollars on a dinner one time in my life but that’s about my limit….150 dollars no sir. And when you really think about it, no steak can ever be worth THAT much.
The conversation moves to money and happiness and the world distribution of wealth. This may not be a common topic around your dinner table, but around the Peace Corps table, it is like talking about your day at work.
Is capitalism at fault for our problems? Are rich people greedy and selfish? Are wealthy people happier than poverty-stricken ones? Are we all in control of our own wealth?
Those of us that are less knowledgeable or more spontaneous will answer yes or no but that would be irresponsible. The more responsible answer would fall somewhere in the many shades of grey. Yes, there are many rich people who are greedy and selfish but there are also many who are extremely generous with their wealth and distribute it amongst all layers of society. Yes, there are rich people who are very happy but there are others who are just sad corpses held together by the weight of their billfolds. The same applies to those of us with less money; some are happy, others miserable, some generous, and many selfish.
So Joey and I continue talking and we come to an agreement on what is wrong with capitalism, consumerism, and wealth in the United States. We believe that it has caused us all to have a warped sense of the good life TM (I already trademarked this term, don’t try stealing it). Allow me to explain.
We look at a 10 million dollar yacht and think, “Wow.” We look at a big mansion in the middle of a beautiful landscape and say, “I want that.” We see the Lamborghini pass by us and wonder how awesome that life must be. We mistakenly believe that if we had that much money and had those cool toys that we, too, would be living the good life. But what is the good life? The good life in the United States generally means having a lot of money, a big house, cool toys, time to travel, and that we will be happy and fulfilled. But really all that most people want is to be HAPPY AND FULFILLED and they think that more money will allow that to happen more easily.
Yet we all know from thousands of studies, and hundreds of self-help books that equating money with happiness is wrong. We know that yes, you do need a certain amount of money to increase your happiness….say the minimum amount to feed, clothe, and support yourself and your family and to maybe take a family vacation once a year. I remember reading that the figure is something like $50,000 per couple in the USA. However, after that quantity, your happiness only oh-so-slightly increases as you obtain more money until it does not increase at all. Or better said, there are many, many other things that will make you happier (such as family, friends, outdoors) than money once your basic needs are met.
Using this research, Nicaraguans are screwed as many do not even have their basic needs met. On the other hand, Americans are equally screwed because we have more money than we need and still aren’t that happy or fulfilled as a nation. We have a warped sense of the good life TM.
I can also safely tell you that many Nicaraguans also have a warped sense of the good life in that they also believe that money alone will make them happier. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans (and millions worldwide) leave their families, their children, their parents, and their homes in order to immigrate each year and try to achieve the good life. Yet, so many of these same people, regardless of whether they return home, come to realize that the warped version of the good life isn’t so good. They come to realize that most people work really hard for their money, and that maybe their life of sitting on the porch with their family poor but well fed was a better life after all.
So how do we bend back this warped sense of the good life? I think many people have already figured it out to a certain extent but most still cannot truly accept the fact that money is just not that important. Most of us know that we should spend time with our families, surround ourselves with good friends, enjoy all the beauty the earth has to offer, explore new things, and do what in your heart you know what will make you happy. But at the same time, we just get trapped in the consumerism culture and think that buying things and having things will somehow fulfill us. And if we continue to acquire newer and better goods, then we will continue to be fulfilled.
We really just need to learn how to appreciate what we already have and get rid of our lust for more. Rich or poor, appreciate what you do have and that your basic needs are met. Once the basics are met, the rest is just gravy. And for those of us, who have been fortunate enough to receive a good education, count your blessings every night. No one can ever take that away from you. And I think that if at the beginning and end of every day you are able to remember what is really important in life (hint…its not money!) than you also will be happy and fulfilled.
Authors Note: Sorry if that just sounded preachy or corny…it is what it is.
I also want to quickly address the huge issue of distribution of wealth. I repeat. Within three miles of where I am sitting right now there is more aggregated wealth than in the entire country of Nicaragua. And in the entire world (probably just the US) there is way more than enough money to ensure that everyone has their basic needs met, food, clothes, shelter, education. Do I advocate redistributing this wealth and sending half of it down to Nicaragua? Well… yes and no.
While it is true that Nicaraguans do not have enough money to meet their basic needs, the answer is not just to give them money. The answer is never to just give money. The real answer would be to take half of the money here in Ft. Lauderdale, send it down to Nicaragua, and design an education system that teaches every child from age 4 and up, how to serve society and your family as a worker, friend, and human being. The answer is to use that money to pay for all of these kids to receive an education and ensure that they know how to develop jobs and work for future generations. Oh, and make sure the money actually gets to those who will utilize it wisely instead of those who will steal and abuse it.
Basically, what I just described is the conundrum in which international development and aid finds itself. Who is smart enough to find a solution? Could it be you or me, or has the solution already been found? I think we all should take more responsibility in being part of this solution.
As Linda Richman once famously said, “Rhode Island is neither a road nor is it an island. Discuss.”