By Darrin Drda
Jun 9, 2015
It’s difficult to find anyone in America—and increasingly elsewhere—who doesn’t aspire to be wealthy. Most people seem dedicated to disproving the aphorism that money can’t buy them happiness, and far too many Christians ignore Jesus’ description of how impossible it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even among socially and environmentally conscious progressives who decry consumerism and corporate greed, the New Age mantra of ‘manifesting abundance’ is endlessly intoned.
Yet at a time of converging global crises, it becomes especially important to examine the ways in which capitalism’s core tenet of ‘more is better’ is destructive on both the personal and the collective levels. Here are five reasons to avoid catching ‘affluenza’ (I’ve saved the best ‘til last).
(1) You will contribute more to war. This is most relevant to people who live in the USA, where over 25 per cent of tax dollars get funneled into the biggest and most lethal war machine in history. Though all taxpayers are complicit in this crime against humanity, the rich are more culpable from a mathematical perspective.
This is not to say that the rich make the greatest sacrifices. In fact, they are notoriously good at avoiding both fighting and paying their share of taxes, whereas the poor pay dearly for war in terms of their lives and livelihoods (as a percentage of their income). Meanwhile, the wealthy elite tend to profit handsomely through their investments in Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and countless other corporations that do exceptionally well in wartime. For all these reasons, it seems fair to say that the rich have a bit more blood on their hands than the rest us.
(2) You will hasten the destruction of the planet. The carbon footprint of a prince is substantially larger than that of a pauper. The rich travel much more frequently, and often in private jets, limousines, and luxury cars. They live in larger homes (often more than one), which require more energy for heating and cooling. They own more stuff that’s made from raw materials, eat more imported delicacies, and create more waste. To quote an article from In These Times:
“… the carbon footprint of the top quintile is over three times that of the bottom. Even in relatively egalitarian Canada, the top income decile has a mobility footprint nine times that of the lowest, a consumer goods footprint four times greater, and an overall ecological footprint two-and-a-half times larger… And global carbon emissions are particularly uneven: the top five hundred million people by income, comprising about 8 percent of global population, are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions.”
(3) Your prosperity = someone else’s poverty. We live on a planet with finite material resources, meaning there’s only so much to go around. To answer the question of what might constitute a fair share of these resources, author David Ulansey proposes a simple arithmetic of compassion that involves dividing the Gross World Product (the monetary value of all goods and services exchanged by humanity in a given year) by the number of people in the world.
For the year 2013, this calculation yields a figure of around $13,000 per person, which is already adjusted for purchasing power (or what one US dollar can buyin the USA, not elsewhere). Thus $13,000 is the salary to which everyone is ethically entitled in this formulation. As Ulansey states bluntly:
“…any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery: indeed, every additional increment of [$13,000] represents one slave somewhere in the world whose entire life, birth to death, is completely devoted to getting us our ‘stuff.’”
If you’re reading this, the chances are that you already ‘own’ a number of ‘slaves’ who mine the metals for your computer and cellphone, sew your clothing, and harvest your food, sugar, and coffee. You may even be in the global one per cent of people who make more than $34,000 per year. In any case, your ‘slavery footprint’ gets exponentially larger as your earnings increase.
(4) Money makes you meaner. It’s fairly well known that the well-off contribute a smaller percentage of their income to charity than do folks of modest means. To understand this tendency, psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley conducted a series of experimentsthroughout the USA, all of which led to the same conclusions.
First, rich participants were more likely to lie, cheat, and break the law than their poorer counterparts. And second, increased wealth brings with it an increase in feelings of entitlement and self-interest, along with a decrease in feelings of compassion and empathy.
Before asserting how generous you would be if you had a boatload of cash, consider that the study in question found that wealth causes selfishness, not the other way around. Participants who were relatively poor in real life acted inconsiderately when made to feel rich (in a rigged game of Monopoly, for example), while participants who were affluent exhibited more compassion when made to feel poor.
In short, money messes with your mind.
(5) Money won’t make you happy. In fact, it’s more likely to make you miserable. According to studies conducted by economist Richard Layard, we now have empirical evidence that money can buy you happiness, at least for people living without adequate food and shelter.
But once these basic needs are met (at around $20,000 per year), any additional income doesn’t increase happiness. Instead it makes you more prone to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsiveness, and other mental and physical afflictions. For further evidence, we can look to the many countries in the world where median income has risen dramatically in recent decades, while levels of reported happiness have either remained steady or declined.
In these cases, the root cause of the problem is not wealth itself, but the insatiable desire for more if it, regardless of your income level. Money—and the things it can buy—are like drugs to which we become addicted. As Layard writes:
“Once you have a certain new experience, you need to keep on having more of it if you want to sustain your happiness. You are in fact on a kind of treadmill, a ‘hedonic’ treadmill, where you have to keep running in order that your happiness stand still.”
Despite the dollar amounts I’ve cited above, my aim isn’t to provide a definitive answer to the question of ‘how much is enough?’ but to encourage everyone to ask this question for themselves, ideally on a daily basis.
Better yet, simply step off the treadmill, give up the relentless pursuit of happiness and just be happy, both for your own sake and that of others.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.
Darrin Drda is an artist and writer whose books include The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times and Overcoming Empire: A User's Guide to Personal and Global Revolution. His articles have appeared in a variety of online journals including Nation of Change, Open Democracy, and Reality Sandwich.