What Is Wealth? (May 22, 2012)
We all think we know what wealth is, but sometimes the "obvious" misses the mark.
Asking "what is wealth?" seems needless because we all know what wealth is: never having to work again, endless leisure, endless consumption of the "good things of life," being waited on hand and foot, luxurious belongings, vehicles and homes, a life of travel and sport, trust funds, stacks of secure gold, and so on.
All this is "obvious," but is that certainty illusory? There are many people with $2 million in net worth, a significant number with $20 million, and more than a few with $200 million. All would be considered wealthy by the average household earning $63,000 annually with a total net worth of less than $100,000, not to mention the 61 million American wage-earners who pull down less than $20,000 a year who own negligible net worth.
Those with a mere $2 million may not reckon themselves wealthy, if their eyes are fixed on those with $20 million. But if a wealthy person suddenly discovers they are riddled with fast-growing cancer, then they quickly lose interest in financial wealth except in terms of what medical treatment it can buy.
There really isn't much more modern medicine can do for someone worth $200 million than it can for someone worth $2 million; once one's life and health are at risk, then conceptions of "wealth" are drastically reordered: health is wealth, and nothing else matters.
Once lost, health is difficult to restore, and financial wealth is no longer the key metric. The graveyards are full of extremely wealthy people who died "before their time."
A life of leisure may not be all it's cracked up to be, either. Whether it is paid or not, work is the foundation of meaning and identity. Those without work become depressed, those who retire often fade and die, and those with no goals or work ethic become dilettantes who enrich various therapists and pyschiatrists with their ailments and unhappinesses.
It's not just leisure that's wealth, it's control of one's work life.
We might also ask if wealth correlates all that closely with happiness. Judging by the hordes of wealthy people who are drugged-out, alcoholic, and in permanent therapy, we can surmise the correlation is not quite as strong as the "financial wealth is everything" PR would have it.
Who is happier, the "natives" serving the supine, isolated wealthy person, or the wealthy person? It turns out it's the people who have a well-earned place in a caring community who are healthier and happier than those who are unloved and isolated, regardless of their wealth and power.
If our labor is compensated in fiat currency that can be depreciated by official whim, then how much of our labor do we actually "own"? Frequent contributor Harun I. has asked this question here, and the line of inquiry it raises applies to all financial wealth held in currency.
Precious metals, long a favorite of those seeking timeless wealth, also have their own pitfalls. Being small in size and easily transportable, they are also easily stolen or confiscated by authorities. A few coins sewed into garments to be used to bribe border guards are an extremely useful form of wealth, but any large cache of precious metals attracts criminals and Central State authorities, i.e. higher-order crooks. Wealth that can be stolen or confiscated has a nasty habit of being stolen or confiscated.
What about real property? An expansive estate is certainly "wealth" if it generates income, but if it happens to classify you as an aristocrat in revolutionary times, then various unpleasantries typically follow, and the wealth that seemed so desireable is transformed into a death warrant.
Wealth is not as fixed as we might imagine; it only appears solid in eras of stability. In times of instability and transformation, wealth that appears solid can evaporate in crisis or crumble in devolution.
Health, skillsets, work you control and a caring community are peculiar "assets" in that they cannot be confiscated by others for their own use. They are uniquely bound to individuals and relationships in a way that financial wealth is not: financial wealth can always be separated from the individual, but the individuals' skills, community and relationships cannot be confiscated.
If financial wealth can't buy health or happiness, then what can it buy? Perhaps all it really
buys is an illusion of security and happiness that turns to dust once it is within grasp.
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