I know, this is a pretty strange and spammy-sounding title for this post – not to mention quite out of character for the general focus of this blog. Let me explain.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what wealth really means. The line of thinking that has most currency (pun intended) in our culture right now is that being rich means having a lot of money. In the mainstream way of thinking about wealth, monetary assets – whether actual cash assets or holdings (such as real estate, stocks and bonds) that are convertible to cash – are the measure of a person’s standing. A good example of this is the Forbes list of billionaires, which ranks individuals by their total assets, measured in US dollars.
Lists like these point to the fact that our culture tends to view prosperity almost exclusively in terms of the individual, rather than in terms of communities or society as a whole. Forbes’ billionaires list doesn’t take into account the relative health of the cities and nations in which these individuals reside. For example, Carlos Slim is ranked number one for personal wealth, yet his monopolistic business activities have left his country – Mexico – a less-wealthy place than it might otherwise be. By singling out the individual earner, we miss the big picture of what constitutes real prosperity.
Might there be other ways of measuring wealth altogether? Whether for the individual or for society as a whole, could it be that there are more life-giving ways to discern prosperity than a one-dimensional cash figure? Many people at various times have suggested that health, a good family, leisure time, or emotional well-being could be considered effective gauges of wealth. Is it possible that many people today have very little money, and yet enjoy high quality of life?
The advantage of money as a measure is that it is so easily quantifiable. Rather than debate about intangibles – who lives in a more pleasant neighborhood, whose marriage is healthier, or whose co-workers are friendlier – we can mark our progress strictly by the numbers. If my house is valued at a higher level than yours, it must be better. If my assets and income are higher than yours, I must be more successful.
For all its advantages, however, money has a dark side. In his book, Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein argues that the expansion of the realm of money represents a systematic impoverishment of society. As money economies have grown, more and more things that were once free have become saleable items. He’s talking about things like drinking water, child care, home-cooked meals and social gatherings. In the last century, all of these treasures have been largely enclosed and commodified in the developed world. It turns out that the process of development is one of taking things that were once in the realm of non-monetary, gift economies and moving them into the money economy.
Most economic growth we hear about is actually a transfer of riches from the commons into private hands, where it can now be measured in dollars and cents. Take, for example, the music industry. Not so long ago, music was free to an extent we can hardly imagine today. Musicians were at liberty to perform, modify and share songs widely. Folk songs exist because no one copyrighted them. Today, however, music has become bound up in the money economy’s strict ideas of property and payment. No longer is the joy and beauty of song a gift; it is a proprietary holding that is subject to rent. Though in the past our ancestors were free to sing, modify and share any song they pleased, today musicians are being sued for performing songs that they do not own the copyright for.
Once awakened to this principle – that economic growth represents a transfer from the commons into the commodified realm of the money economy – one can begin to observe it everywhere. One example of this is AirBnB. This service allows individuals to rent out rooms in their homes to travelers, essentially serving as a bed and breakfast and charging a per-night fee. In Washington, DC, which has a lot of visitors and expensive hotel rates, this can mean serious money. It also represents a move away from a gift economy – receiving hospitality in people’s homes without the expectation of explicit, cash payment – and into the money economy, where services are rendered in exchange for currency.
In a similar vein is SideCar, a company that connects car owners with individuals who need a ride. With their slogan, You drive every day. Why not get paid for it? this company moves the act of sharing a ride out of the informal gift economy. If their model succeeds, ride sharing will no longer be an act of hospitality; it will become an economic exchange that can be measured as part of GDP. According to our current paradigm of economic growth, this represents an increase in our overall wealth as a society. But from where I’m sitting, it seems like an impoverishment.
Perhaps there are ways we can do the math differently. For example, how might we recognize that a parent leaving their paying job in order to care for children might actually be an increase in prosperity for that family and their community? How could we recognize the value of those gifts that are not necessarily recognized by the dominant economy with cash payment – musicians, artists, ministers and caregivers of all kinds? For all of us, regardless of our level of cash income, how can we increasingly embrace the economy of the gift, recognizing that every good thing comes from God, and is meant to be shared?
Could it be that the way to get rich might actually involve earning less money?