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Actually, Americans Are All Pretty Much Rich

The recently passed Christmas season gave me many opportunities to reflect on the year and my life and direct that reflection towards God in thanks. One of my besetting sins is envy, which I find best combatted by remembering the blessings I have and stopping myself short when I notice an impulse towards coveting and comparing myself with others. Envy isn’t just my problem, it seems. It’s apparently a growing American problem. An article from Kevin Williamson in the latest New Criterion brought that thought to mind. He writes:
I noticed a fellow at the recent Occupy Wall Street protests carrying a sign reading: “They eat filet mignon. I eat the dollar menu.” …I sympathize: Earning the New York minimum wage, he could report for work at 9 a.m. and by noon have earned enough to have a two-inch thick USDA prime twenty-one-day-aged filet mignon for lunch… If he reports back to work at 1 p.m., he must then work until 3:15 p.m. to pay the rent on his modest New York City apartment…and then until about 3:45 p.m. to pay for his monthly subway pass or to make the lease payment on his Kia… The money he earns between then and 6 p.m. ought to be sufficient to cover his other meals and incidentals, if he’s thrifty, though he’ll probably need to put in a few extra shifts a month or get some overtime to keep current on his taxes. Filet mignon every day, a private car, an apartment of his own—Mr. Minimum Wage is not only living better than most of the people currently living and 99 percent of the people who ever have lived, he’s also living substantially better than a typical American middle manager did a generation ago, to say nothing of a workingman… his tradeoffs are between having an automobile of his own or taking the subway and having a cell phone.
Have you ever been overseas? Once people learn you’re an American, they automatically assume you’re rich. You know, based on observations like these, they’re actually basically right. It’s like that famous internet picture: Orange juice price vs. jugo de narania The Wall Street Journal had a piece up the other day, making a similar point.
The greedy tycoon played by Michael Douglas had a two-pound, $3,995 Motorola phone in the original “Wall Street” movie. Mobile phones for the elite—how 1987. Now 8-year-olds have cellphones to arrange play dates. In 1991, a megabyte of memory was $50, amazing at the time. Given its memory, today’s 32-gigabyte smartphone would have cost $1 million back then, certainly an exclusive item for the wealthy. Heck, even 10 years ago, 32 gig cost 10 grand. But no one could build it—volume was needed to drive down both cost and size and attract a few geeks to write some decent apps. So it wasn’t until there was a market for millions of smartphones that there was a market at all. I just bought a terabyte drive for $62 to rip all my Blu-Ray movies, and with Dolby 5.1 sound we all have private screening rooms too.
This isn’t to trivialize poverty. It is to say that America’s economic system has utterly changed the meaning of poverty. “Poor” people have smartphones and eat at McDonald’s. Now, that may be yet another form of poverty—not knowing how to cook your own food, or eating mass-produced food in spiritual isolation—but at least the physical needs, the simpler ones, are largely covered. Perhaps that’s why we’ve turned to envy. Since we’re not working the fields sunup to sundown and forced by such living to pray hard the creek don’t rise and that baby doesn’t die of cholera like the last three, our minds have the space to fill with envy and blasphemy. I’m not sure erasing electricity would solve that problem, though. “So why do we feel so poor?” Williamson asks. Perhaps because of our hearts. And that’s something money can’t fix.