I am often shocked at the materialistic drives I see on TV and among some of the undergraduates — though in fairness I should note it was far worse at UCI when I was an undergrad. I am not trying to imply that I am free from the desire for expensive things–I am not. It’s just that desires for material objects do not shape my worldview. If anything, such desires interfere with my tendency to distrust ownership and the concentration of power. Nonetheless, there are certain times I wish I had much more money.
The first of these is when I wish for more freedom. I would like to live in Hawaii, and I would like to drive a Ferrari (I am in touch with my inner Magnum PI). I am stopped from doing so because I haven’t enough money. This seems so natural: “Of course you have to do things you don’t enjoy to be able to do those you do enjoy.” Yet, that is far more true for some than for others. I am lucky to have found an occupation that pays the bills while allowing me the freedom to do (mostly) what I enjoy. While I am sometimes wistful for better paying jobs outside of the Academy, the truth is that I would do this even if they paid me nothing. I couldn’t, of course. I would be forced to get a job to pay the rent, but I don’t feel as though my current work is somehow diametrically opposed to my play. I want to drive an Aston-Martin or TVR or Ferrari, but I am not overly concerned who owns it :).
The most pressing times I wish I were wealthy are those when I am uncomfortable. Given my girth, spending 8-9 hours in a seat in coach is physically painful. Having taken an overseas flight in the seats “up front,” I know the difference in comfort is more than merely illusory. First class really is more comfortable. But when a discounted ticket is still a significant expense — one that has a serious impact on my annual budget — the idea of paying the difference is utterly unthinkable.
This extends beyond air travel. When I was 20, it seemed a terrible waste to spend more than the minimal necessary for a hotel room. I preferred a bathroom “en suite,” but this wasn’t all that important if the price was right. I now put a lot more value in a hot shower and decent sheets.
I think many do not understand the difference between suffering through low thread counts and not knowing where your next meal will come from. The effect of wealth is not linear, there are some pretty significant jumps in there. There is on the one hand the sort of material needs created entirely by artificial scarcity (Nikes) and on the other hand needs for those things which when lacking lead to pain and discomfort — though I fully recognize neither of these are wholly fixed points. Everything seems to fall somewhere along this spectrum.
I’ve come to accept material desires an not evil, but bad. That is, I want to sit in first class, but doing so means allowing others to suffer or starve. It is not only my own, very minimal, deprivations that would be required (e.g., working longer hours or on boring projects), but how else such resources might be used. Just how many people must starve for me to sit in first class?
Is that enough to condemn the passengers sitting in the front. Doing so leads to a very slippery slope: international air travel in coach may be more common, but it is still difficult to justify. All I would ask is that those in the first class and in coach be conscious of their positions. How about a quick announcement — at the same time they are telling you to leave your kids for last when the oxygen gets handed out — noting that by being on this flight you are privileged, and that with such privilege should come great responsibility.