03 May, 2007

The Rich Get Richer - Not All Bad

People get very worked up about haves and have-nots. Mostly it doesn't matter. If you drive a $200,000 Merc or a clapped-out old Honda, you still go at the same slow crawl through the city traffic. Someone who uses a BIC ballpoint rather than a Montblanc 'writing instrument' still manages, somehow, to scribble down their thoughts. And a $15 jumper from Kmart keeps you just as warm as the equivalent offering from Dolce & Gabbana at twenty times the price – and often looks much better too.

So it is with mixed feelings that I note that the gap between rich and poor in the West has now widened so much that we are back to levels not seen since 1937.

On the one hand, this kind of concentration of wealth is inherently disgusting. Consider how the surpluses of the West's richest few percent could alleviate so much suffering for even our own desperate poor. The fact that BMWs and garden pools and Cartier jewellery can be seen as a kind of 'ego tax' on those rich enough and stupid enough to buy them, effectively nullifying their excessive wealth by making them pay hugely more for goods and services that are essentially similar to the ones everybody else can afford, does not negate the fact that this excess wealth, if spent on socially beneficial projects, could feed starving people and care for the sick.

Every BMW Z4 that someone buys, trying to impress beyond the capacity of their unadorned self, would pay for a medical team for a year in a third-world country. Every pool extension that some bored businessman with more money than empathy decides to have built, would feed several starving families for a year. Every million-dollar – or multi-million-dollar – folly that an overpaid manager buys to satisfy delusions of grandeur way beyond their taste, could send a handful of poor kids through university.

Yes, it's nice that they waste their money on Rolex watches instead of Timex ones and just exercising. It massages their little egos, redistributes some of their wealth, and prevents them doing anything really nasty with their money. Yet, how much nicer it would be if they spent their surplus on doing good. Or, better still, if society was arranged so that such inequities didn't arise in the first place.

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