In Pursuit of Wealth

People want wealth. And that’s not just my opinion. I have this convenient Gallup poll that supports my findings. In it, they asked the question, “All in all, if you had your choice, would you want to be rich, or not?” And a majority of respondents answered, “Yes.” But what I find telling is how the question is worded. They’re not asking people if they would like a certain number of dollars. They’re leaving the concept of “rich” open to whatever the person believes it to be, and asking if they would like “that.”

I find this so fascinating because it correlates with our modern understanding of the concept of wealth. Merriam-Webster defines wealth as “a large amount of money and possessions.” And as much as I hate to quote a source as shoddy as Wikipedia, they do occasionally provide neat summations of quality references, and in this instance they declare wealth to be “the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions.” Notice how there’s still no mention of a specific number of dollars. And why is that? The simple answer is that “being rich” or “being wealthy” is not an easily quantifiable goal. Even studies that hope to fix a number, do so based on people’s perceptions.

Now, simple logic and a basic understanding of economics tells us that many factors will change one’s perception of wealth over time. Some of the more obvious factors include inflation and changes in personal spending habits, but there are plenty more. However, I assert that these factors all have one underlying commonality, which means wealth is really only measured in one true way. And that measurement is what we have in comparison to others. Or, in other words, our wealth is only wealth depending on how poor the majority are.

Now, there are a number of factors that essentially force one to measure wealth in such a way, thus meaning that pursuing wealth is not something inherently insidious. After all, if everyone made the same amount, no one would be wealthy. And if the majority of people earned more, the amount needed to be considered wealthy would grow with it. Thus, it’s only realistic to measure it in such a way. And likewise, this would mean that someone who simply has wealth or is pursuing it wouldn’t automatically fall into immoral activities.

However, given that measurement, we can ascertain that the pursuit of wealth or trying to keep a status of wealth will make one more likely to have unscrupulous behavior. The reason for this is also simple. When one has wealth as a goal, their view of attaining that goal is then based on a comparison–to others and themselves. So, when presented with a choice, the pursuit of wealth will pull one toward forgetting other aspects and ultimately focusing on whether or not they will have more or less than others. This means that one would then strive toward all avenues that increased that gap, including those that gained them nothing but gave the majority less to work with.

But perhaps more telling is what the pursuit of wealth delivers in collateral damage. It pushes us to disregard employees and consumers simply for the sake of greater profits. Because, while a company might determine that customer service or a better product gains them more money, they will only enact those plans to the extent that they bring in greater profits–greater wealth.

So we end up with giants like Wal-Mart where the customer is almost meaningless and the employees are practically afterthoughts. Or companies like Apple where they simply tell you they’re giving you a better product each year, but are really simply churning out minor increments in favor of maximum profits. Sure it might work for their investors, and sure people might even love Apple, but what do they accomplish for society? When’s the last time they provided something that really added value? Even the small tech startups aren’t doing things differently. They’re looking for the quickest way to make more money, so they leave gaps in quality but aren’t necessarily looking to provide something useful or revolutionary.

Now, you might say that we’re doing alright and don’t need more innovative revolutions in society. And you would certainly have a decent point there. But I argue that innovation isn’t just nice, but vital. For example, if U.S. automakers had focused on greater innovation toward fuel-efficiency and reliability, we might not have needed to bail them out. Instead, they simply found cheaper ways to make the inferior products they had always made, but told us they were getting better. And I don’t think that’s what anyone wants for our society.

Unfortunately, while a majority of Americans might not like companies crashing or simply failing to innovate, a majority of Americans still want that wealth for themselves. And logic and history tell us that this will continue until we make a focused effort on changing it. And if we want to change it, we have to determine what’s causing it in the first place.

I assert that a large cause is our educational system. To be clear, this does not mean the teachers, or even those actually making decisions about how that systems functions. What I’m referring to here is the societal emphasis on grade comparison over ethics, creativity, or innovation. We push students to strive to be in the top percent from the time they start out. We focus encouragement on those who already fit into our preset system–a system we’ve had for years and haven’t cared to change because it worked “well-enough.” And those who don’t already fit are simply prodded to fit better, even if they need to take medication in order to do so. And when asked why, we generally focus on the ability to get into a better university, and thus into a better job. And the reason why that’s necessary? Why, to have greater wealth, of course.

(Image provided by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com)

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