Monday, May 21, 2007


We’d all like to think that people get rich because they deserve it, but is that really where it comes from? “Just deserts?” (I’m talking about money wealth now, not the “equivalents” like good will or talent.) I’ll try making a list.

1. Inheritance. This might be the easiest way to “make” money but the evidence seems to show it’s a poor way to enjoy, preserve and increase it.

2. Hard work. The problem here is that the work may interfere with whatever enjoyment the money might bring, unless one really enjoys the work. Then the money is just extra.

3. Talent. Depends on a talent for what and the circumstances. A talent for playing the piano is no good if the piano hasn’t been invented yet. But perhaps the talents necessary for piano-playing are also good for something else. Let’s say manual dexterity. But then if one’s hands are amputated or damaged, the part of the talent that is in the brains, ears and heart will have to struggle to find a new expression.

4. Sought ownership. Like accumulating the works of a fine artist or land with rising value, so that one buys low and sells high.

5. Accidental ownership. It is one of the great wealth ironies that Indians were assigned to “worthless” land which often were discovered later to have huge natural resources: oil, uranium, water.

6. Cruel ownership. Slavery. Pimping (same thing). Exploitive wages or money saving on safety measures in something like mining or meat processing. Not paying people their entitlements, like the government never paying the Indians interest on their own wealth while they starved.

7. Paper constructions. The stock market or futures or many other speculative “bets” on statistics in buying and selling. “Rights” to production or art copyrights are along these lines. One could argue citizenship or certifications like education degrees. Permission to build casinoes on reservations.

8. Laws that impose requirements. My favorite example is the requirement that all bodies be embalmed, a regulation passed by undertakers. Or how about the requirement that all drivers must have insurance, though that hardly prevents the uninsured from driving anyway -- only prevents their victims from being compensated, an advantage to the insurance industry.

9. Regulations or Administrative Rules. These are sneaky because they are often below public consciousness or approval. This is the level that lets Bush sign a law, then write out a refusal to comply. They are sometimes capricious, unreasonable, and “waived” via bribes, another source of wealth.

10. Plain ordinary luck. “Found” money or advantages.

11. Good marketing. A man in Canada found a pocket of baculite fossils that still had their nacreous mother-of-pearl covering. These were marketed as “the most precious organic jewel in the world,” set into jewelry with diamonds. It happened that the timing was during the Banff Olympics. He should have made a LOT of money. I’ve bought the same fossils in rock shops for $10 or so. If they had had historical use as “buffalo stones” treasured by Blackfeet (rubbed with paint and put into cases), they would have been worth hundreds of dollars.

12. Cultural currents. Think of the careers created by television talent shows or survival contests. Could heavy metal rockers make money as ordinary singers? What about “modern art?”

This is probably not an exhaustive list. But you get the idea. Now add the swirling, dynamic quality of civilization -- much neglected when I went to school in the Fifties because everything was understood to be cut into stone except for some minor progress like the invention of vinyl records. Now sound reproduction has gone wild, roaming the airwaves and digital devices so quickly that I hesitate to invest in CD’s or an iPod. But at the same time, it circles back so that suddenly my father’s huge collection of ancient 78 rpm classical records -- that my mother sold for pennies -- is worth real money! This is the unexpectedness that caused a lot of “old worthless tribal debris” to suddenly become internationally valuable enough for Indians to seek entitlement. (And when the US government entered into and ferociously enforced a law concerning the feathers of eagles, which was meant to conserve a species being destroyed by DDT, they created a gold mine in trunks across every reservation and a whole new black market that drove up the prices of eagle feathers.) Think of the poor abortionist when abortion became legal or the bootlegger when drinking was legalized.

The dogma in the Seventies and Eighties was that the scarcity principle would drive up the value of art work so some aging and needy artists who seemed to be in poor health but really needed money were badgered by opportunistic art dealers who talked down the value of the work to their customers and stashed it. When they died, the next question for those dealers was how and when to market what they had stored up in warehouses, reversing their former strategy. Some did it by creating a kind of consensus cartel, maybe publishing a book illustrating and praising the work. Giving collections to noted museums. Creating a mythology about the artist him or her self. The actual quality of the art mattered very little since most people, including dealers, don’t really know “good” from “bad,” and anyway the main criteria is whether the stuff sells.

Right now medicine in the larger sense (including pharmacy) is on the upswing because the media has made us so conscious of the many capricious ways (and self-destructive ways) people die. The movies show terrible tragedies and miraculous recoveries until we all want to participate in such dramas. Likewise, the romanticization of travel causes people to lay out huge amounts of money in order to stay in dubious accomodations and walk up and down the streets and museums of places they know little about. Every summer here we make a lot of money from tourists who zoom through on the roads declaring the rez to be “depressing” and mountains to be “beautiful” -- all without knowing anything about them but the map of interstate highways. Of course, there’s always sex, the most built-up and most susceptible to disappointment of human activities.

The most intriguing dynamic of wealth is that it can be accrued both by being bad or by being good. This is the source of many books. Does being bad and rich eventually reveal to the person that the only real virtue is giving it away? Or does being good and poor cause one to eventually be rewarded like David Copperfield? I’m talking extremes here. No one’s very interested in people who just go along and have “enough” which they manage in a constructive way.

But it’s pretty clear that evil comes from sudden gradients between wealth and poverty: the development of Wyoming natural gas is destroying what used to be one of the wildest states in the Union, not excepting Alaska. The constant diminishing of Rocky Mountain glacial snowpack and headwaters streams it fed is causing the loss of family farms and the intensification of racial hatred.

One of the uses of government is to transfer wealth in an attempt to balance the scales. Unfortunately this leads to hysterical outbursts about what’s “mine” and who are getting undeserved “welfare.” If the gradient is allowed (as in New Orleans), the risk is social disorder that destroys everyone’s wealth -- riots, domestic terrorism, infrastructure collapse, the cessation of commerce. If the gradient is addressed clumsily, a sense of injustice undermines order. The task of legislators is to find the balance, and this is not a task they are necessarily able to understand or address.

These thoughts are prompted by late-night reading of “The Raj Quartet,” especially the chapter about Hari Kumar’s father.

1 comment:

Lori said...

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