Thursday 25 September 2014

Things I Don't Understand - Number Seven

I don't understand greed.

I don't mean being greedy for food, I do sometimes want to gorge myself on food that tastes really good, eg Christmas dinner, though I've learnt to restrain myself, as the results are not good! No, what I mean by greed is financial greed, the urge to accumulate more and more money, gather more and more of it into one's hands, or bank accounts.

I'm thinking here of how, when a reporter once asked an extremely wealthy man what he wanted, he replied "more money". He already had more than most of us could spend in a lifetime, yet he wanted more. And I suspect there are many out there like him.

Greedy people have always been amongst us, and there have always been disparities of wealth, though till the Industrial Revolution only royalty and the most powerful nobles could hope to live truly extravagantly. The resources and the material goodies just weren't there. And there have also always been those opposed to anyone having such a lion's share of the world's wealth, especially if it's at the expense of others (and it usually is). And during the middle decades of the twentieth century, it truly did seem that the world's wealth was becoming more evenly distributed, at least in the Western part of the world.

Now, however, it seems the wealthy are gaining the upper hand again. I read somewhere recently that in the 1960s, the USA's richest men had about thirty times the income of the poorest. These days, the richest are worth around three hundred times the poorest. (I don't have the reference handy, but it was something like that.) With this sort of concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, is it really so surprising that even the middle class are struggling, while the truly poor increasingly go to the wall? I think not.

Even in New Zealand, a country traditionally without this kind of financial obscenity, we are beginning to see such differences. In the same week that Campbell Live, a NZ current affairs programme, campaigned to raise money for Kids Can, a charity that feeds kids in poor schools, one of the wealthiest men in NZ launched his new yacht in Norway - worth around $NZ 78 million. The Campbell Live campaign raised around $NZ 800,000. This means that for less than one seventy-eighth of the value of his yacht (and he already has two others), this wealthy man could have provided breakfast and lunch for hundreds of hungry kids from poor families.

There are of course plenty of other obscenities of wealth out there. The movie stars who think nothing of spending thousands on a handbag or scarf, or tens of thousands on 'therapy', while just a few miles away homeless people are rummaging in bins to feed themselves. The huge houses of the rich, while down the road kids go barefoot and hungry to school. And no, I'm not talking about third world countries, but countries like New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA. 'First World Poverty' is very, very real, and becoming more so.

Don't get me wrong - though I would be deemed at least 'left-leaning' by most standards, I'm not any kind of communist, in fact I dislike communism as a system. And life's luxuries are very nice, I wouldn't deny that. I like decent cars and a nice house and smart clothes as much as the next person. I also know that many of the richest do give substantial amounts to charities. Though perhaps not all - a recent magazine article here in New Zealand asked if being rich made you nasty and selfish - and it seemed that sometimes, yes, it does. A typical example they quoted was how street charity collectors often get a better response in poorer neighbourhoods than they do in rich ones, that in fact the rich often ignore such collectors. The phenomenon of the rich attitude that the poor are 'just lazy', and should 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps' is also very real too, according to that article - which of course totally ignores the fact that a) not everyone has the entrepreneurial ability to become rich, and b) they've left a lot of us without any metaphorical 'boots'.

I don't know if my lack of understanding on this is due to my being an aspie or not - I have noticed many aspies do seem to be on the 'left' side of the political spectrum, probably because of our passion for justice, which extends to social justice. Others seem to be totally neutral, either undecided or so turned off by humanity that they don't give a damn, while a few express rabidly right-wing opinions - though I've noticed they also seem to be the ones who have jaundiced, misanthropic views in general, due usually to years of ill-treatment from the world.

I wonder too if my attitude is at least partly due to the family values I was brought up with. These values weren't made explicit, were never lectured to us or pushed on us, but rather simply demonstrated. I grew up seeing my parents get involved with groups such as Plunket committees, school lunch committees, and Lions Clubs. In more recent years, groups like the Child Cancer Foundation, Hospice, Save the Children and others have received the benefits of my family's energies. Moreover, we've all tended to gravitate towards careers and jobs that help, educate or take care of people - nursing, education, social work, etc. Community involvement is almost taken for granted in my family.

This philanthropy goes further back than just this generation - family history research has turned up evidence my ancestors were on church or sports committees, organised fundraising events, or were members of such groups as the Rebekah Lodge, the Hibernian Society and the Druids Lodge.

I've also had more than one discussion with various family members about "what we'd do if we won Lotto". The general consensus was that, after we'd satisfied our own needs, we'd distribute our wealth. 'Paying off our younger generation's student loans' and 'buying everyone in the family houses' featured prominently on that list, and there was a general feeling that beyond taking care of your own needs, it was best to 'spread the wealth' and help as many as possible.

Or perhaps my attitude is because of my own personal experience of all too often having to go without - I've survived, at times, thankfully never for too long, without things that most Westerners consider 'basic amenities', such as fridges, electricity or hot and cold running water; I've also lived (for a few weeks or months each) in a tent, caravan, housetruck and converted cowshed. I've gone without fancy clothes and many material goodies that others take for granted, and had to trim my budget or shopping bill to eliminate anything not absolutely essential to keeping body and soul together. I'm not saying this is a good thing, I'd very much like to not have to do that, but it has taught me you can live without many of the things most Westerners consider necessary to existence. Luxuries are very nice, but they're not essential. Other life-experiences have also contributed to what I can only describe as a feeling that "all things are best in moderation".

And that includes wealth. So I just don't understand greed.