08 January 2008

It's all relative?

I started this post back in August but it got lost amidst the nappies, daycare and playtime (see Mine, mine, mine!).

Is wealth not always simply a relative matter? Sure, the Silicon Valley millionaires are miserably rich. But aren't we all rich when compared with someone else, someone poor or poorer?

I get asked this type of question a lot when I talk about the work I'm doing with my frolleague (friend and colleague), Adam Jaworski, on elitism and luxury travel. As with all scholarly reasoning, the answer is yes and no. Although, I believe, mostly no.

From a moral point of view, I certainly think it's important to recognize the relativity of wealth and of the poverty it creates. This allows me to acknowledge my complicity in creating and sustaining inequality. In material terms, it's also fair to say that I'm wealthy by comparison with many, many people - here in Seattle, elsewhere in the USA and, especially, in the world at large. The professorial salary I contrasted with the wretched wealth of so called "working-class" millionaires (same Silly-con post), is, relatively speaking, a small fortune and nonetheless puts me in the top 50% of the USAmerican population (see this Time article). Compared with most worldwide wages, I'm inordinately wealthy.

Politically speaking, however, I just don't buy the "it's all relative" argument. It's this thesis which the NYT's Silicon Valley millionaires article hinges on - one where their relative poverty is defined in these sorts of terms:

The phrase relative poverty can also be used in a different sense to mean "moderate poverty" – for example, a standard of living or level of income that is high enough to satisfy basic needs (like water, food, clothing, shelter, and basic health care), but still significantly lower than that of the majority of the population under consideration. (Source: Wikipedia)
Clearly, relative wealth/poverty is useful for indicating basic within-country inequality compared against average incomes. But this is hardly subtle enough to highlight the disgracefully skewed distribution of wealth - within nations and most certainly between nations. It's for this reason alone that I am committed to the idea of "absolute wealth" as a conceptual/critical equivalent for "absolute poverty". It is this which helps me to stay focused on the inordinate poverty of $1-a-day wages and the inordinate wealth of $1,000-a-night hotel rooms (see this August post).

Furthermore, the "it's all relative" argument has powerful ideological significance. It is precisely this kind of criticism levelled at the working and middle classes which is designed to keep them/us in their/our place - it's how the super-rich, the unjustifiably wealthy, continue to pull the wool over people's eyes. "Who are you to criticize us," they ask, "when you are yourself rich compared with others?" All well and good, but for the fact that it simply does matter in absolute terms if different people are working 65 hours a week (the US average) to earn $15,000 a year, $30,000 a year, $60,000 a year, $120,000 or $240,000 a year. There is wealth and then there is excessive wealth. I don't know precisely where the cut-off point is - or should be - but it has to be somewhere, surely. How about $100,000 as a nice round number? How does one reasonably justify anything more than an annual income which already puts you in the top 10% of the US population? What can you possibly do that is so much more responsible, more valuable, more essential to the well being of society?

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