• Posted: May 23, 2008 17:44:34
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During the early part of the 20th century, it was common hearsay that a man's shoes told the story of his wealth and station in life. Today, with most Americans owning several pairs of shoes differentially suited to varying aspects of their busy lives you'd be hard pressed to draw any firm conclusions about what they do for a living or how successful they've become financially based upon shoes. Even the late 20th century indicator, the car a man drives, would likely fail today as a reliable index of wealth since most any type of car can be rented or leased by anyone of even modest means. By contrast, the most reliable overt indicator of a person's wealth in today's world would probably be their house, though the prevalence of fraudulently qualified for sub-prime financing would seem to undermine that reliability somewhat. Even so, the house a person lives in tells a great deal about them. The vocabulary of wealth and even personal values is quite visible.
Objectively, economists and sociologists measure wealth in dollars. To do so allows comparison. Add up the market valuation of all assets, subtract all liabilities, and what you have remaining is net worth, the full measure of a person in dollars. Put one person's net worth up against another's net worth and you get an idea how unequally distributed wealth is. The term "net worth", of course, says nothing about the worth of an individual to family, friends, employer, or larger society. It merely calculates liquid cash on hand.
It is also true that how rich a person feels, regardless of their calculated net worth, is very much a function of their personal expectations of wealth. A contented person might very likely feel far richer than a bothered person no matter how their respective net worths compare.
A further measure of wealth is utility. A thirsty person will perceive some other person with a glass of water as rich. That same person might not feel so rich because they themselves envy the new tractor a neighbor has recently acquired. It would appear that envy motivates a great deal of today's world economy. Contentment seems rare. Everybody everywhere desires something they don't have that they believe will help them achieve even more wealth or, perhaps, more contentment.
From a physics point of view, however, whatever is accumulated in the name of wealth leaves a hole in the environment. Remove wealth from the environment faster than it can be replenished and like termite eaten wood, the whole structure of the environment could collapse. Understanding the larger consequences is wisdom. Whenever in any society will wisdom be commonly valued as wealth? Not anytime soon, I'd guess.
Wednesday, August 8th, 2007
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