Thursday, May 24, 2007

More arguing about wealth...

I was writing this in response to something Will Shetterly said in his blog - the response started to get long enough to feel like a blog entry in its own right. What Will said was this:

But I will quibble with one thing: The rich do the dividing by taking the lion's share for themselves. Perhaps my seeing the world in terms of wealth is as invalid as ktempest seeing it in terms of race, but I think having a billion dollars while people are homeless is more meaningful than the melanin in your skin or the shape of your nose.

But I still haven't a clue how you get the rich to share. It's kind of the antithesis of what you need to be rich.

See here's the thing: the rich aren't taking the lion's share for themselves. Well, some are, but for most, the lion's share just came to them. They aren't necessarily sharing, that much is true, but as often as not, they didn't try to take the lion's share for themselves - it just arrived at their doorstep.

Consider my case. You very generously exempt me from being one of the mean non-sharing rich folks, but here I am. When I was in India last year, the locals treated me like a rock star. The waiter who took care of us at the Shangri-la hotel hung around our table and didn't want to go away. There were people who we met, who took care of us, who earn less in a year than we spent there in a week. People hassled us on the streets because to them we looked like bags of money.

On the road to Dharamsala, at an intersection in north Delhi, there was a lady with a baby who came up and banged on the window and demanded that we give her money. And I didn't, because I was afraid that if I opened the window, we'd be mobbed and overrun - there were at least a hundred thousand people there at that intersection, and not one of them was someone who made as much money in a year as I had in my pocket.

So you can't say I'm not rich. You have to admit that I'm rich, even if by American standards I'm middle class.

So then how did I get this way, and why don't I share? I got this way by accident. By pure luck. I happen to have developed an interest in computers when I was a kid. And then I ran into someone who's made a name for himself in the business, and he asked me to do something, and what he asked me to do wound up being important, and so I got famous in my tiny little microcosm. And now here I am. I didn't plan it, or expect it.

And when someone in need came up to me on a road in north Delhi, I didn't share my wealth with her. So I am one of the mean rich people you're talking about.

Okay, Bill Gates has billions. He's richer than I am. But he didn't get there by screwing anyone either. He got there by luck. The owner of CP/M-86 didn't have time to talk to IBM, so Microsoft got the deal. And Microsoft took the money and did something useful with it that made them even more money. And Bill had a ton of Microsoft stock. So now he's the richest man in the world. And despite how much I despise Windows, and I do truly despise it, I can't say that Bill screwed me to get rich.

So the corollary to that is that Bill is no more a bad guy than I am a bad guy. Bill gives away more money than I will earn in my entire life every single day of the year. I suspect he gives away a larger percentage of his wealth every day than I do. So if you are saying that Bill is a bad guy, be honest: you're saying I'm a worse guy.

And this is why I think that approaching the question of rich and poor as if the rich are screwing over the poor is nonfunctional. I think it doesn't work. Yes, there are rich criminals, and that's maddening, but there are poor criminals too. What's wrong with both is that they value their happiness over others' sufficiently that they take what isn't theirs. The problem with both of them is that they hurt us. They are more alike than they are different.

The problem with Bill is that everybody isn't as fortunate as he is. It's not that he's rich. And that's the problem with me, too. And if I could fix it, I would. And in fact that's why I practice Buddhism: because I have seen the world, and how it works, and I know that I can't make the world a better place simply by reaching out and tweaking it. We need works, it's true. But we need something more than that - call it faith, call it insanity, call it synergy, but don't call it beating up Bill Gates, because that ain't going to work.


Blogger Will Shetterly said...

I mean to answer this at length, honest! I'm just so wrapped up in race and class right now.

How about if we start with a question: How do you think the middle way applies to what you do with your money?

And if that inspires you to make a new post, I'll happily put my next response there.

Saturday, May 26, 2007 12:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

There is an important principle here that I think I should point out.

There is not a single fixed pool of wealth in the world. Wealth can be generated, and wealth can be destroyed.

When a person takes a pile of sticks and makes it into a chair, the world becomes wealthier by one chair. When a person takes a chair and smashes it, the world becomes less wealthy by one chair. If a person spends a month and writes a computer program that then saves thousands of other people time and effort, the world is richer. If a person burns down a neighbor's house, the world is poorer.

Everyone who works at something productive is increasing the wealth of the world just a teeny bit every day. The effect is cumulative. Over the course of thousands of years, we've started with nothing and built nice houses, computers, cars, hospitals, production lines for antibiotics, etc., etc.

The important thing to realize is that life is not a zero sum game. The world is not zero sum. You can make it better (often for many people), or you can make it worse. If you become richer, by building a chair or a house, that does not necessarily make someone else poorer. Indeed, people who come by their wealth honestly do so only by improving the wealth of others as well.

I should explain what I mean here by that. Imagine that two people stand in a market and trade a bunch of bananas for a scarf. The person with the bunch of bananas values the scarf more than the bananas and thus willingly engages in the trade. Afterwards, that person feels better off, perhaps because they have a banana tree and have plenty of bananas but nothing to warm their neck at night. The person who started with the scarf feels wealthier after the trade, because although they perhaps had a loom and many scarves, they did not have any bananas and felt hungry.

After a free transaction entered into without coercion, both parties feel better off than they did before, and the net wealth of the world has gone up.

If you build a chair-making machine and spend all your days after making chairs, trading them for things others want less than they want chairs, and eventually have a nice house to live in, you have not taken anything away from others, you have made their lives better. You have increased the wealth of the world. Before people had to sit on the ground and now they have nice chairs to sit on. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such activities.

Where is there shame? There is shame in engaging in transactions that lower the wealth of the world -- in stealing, in destroying the hard work of others, in trying to force others to trade with you by force. There is no shame in selling cotton, but there is much shame in using slaves to pick the cotton instead of people you freely employ. There is no shame in selling computers, but much shame in convincing the government to drive your neighbor who also sells computers out of business so you can charge more.

One of the greatest shames in the world right now is that many third world countries have much to trade with us in the developed world, and we shut the door to them. They have the products of honest labor to send to us in exchange for things they want more, but we use force -- which we call other things like "import controls" or "tarrifs" but in the end the means are still based in violence -- to prevent them from doing so. We intentionally keep the world poorer to benefit a few people like large agribusinesses. There is a lot to be ashamed of in that, but very little to be ashamed of in living well from the fruits of honest, non-violent and productive labor.

Sunday, May 27, 2007 5:28:00 PM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Perry, I agree that creating wealth is wonderful. It's only hoarding wealth that troubles me. You've inspired me to a longer response on my lj:

Monday, May 28, 2007 3:30:00 AM  

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