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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

The Red Herring of Wealth

Not the money; the attitude.

What is that attitude, exactly?  Money-focused, selfish, competitive, functionally fixed?  Entitlement is our favoured slur when referring to 1%-type people.  The sense that one has a right to spend other people's money.

Here's where it gets interesting.

Because that's exactly what everyone else is supposed to be wanting - get paid more by other people (customers, taxpayers, either way your funders) to get more stuff.  That's what the capitalist system is designed to encourage.

As Ian Troop rightly stated, his folk were functioning within the parameters of their operating budget (though he also added "You follow your policy, but sometimes you don't realize that common sense sometimes has to intrude.")  I'd take it a step further - they were acting exactly as the free market would have them do.  They're taking an inch, maximizing their Return On Investment and only considering that maybe they should back down when there's an equal and opposite reaction.  Capitalism is all about maximizing personal profit, right?

Except here's the thing - I'd bet dollars to Tim Hortons' doughnuts that these high-paid executives are wasting their personal money in much the same way as they are their operating budgets.  The reason I say this with confidence is that I've seen it again and again - high-paid consultants who will aggressively push for contracts (and sometimes get in trouble for some of the work they do) completely ignoring legitimate expense claims, to their own loss.  Firms that charge by the hour will fritter away thousands of HR hours by not aligning and sticking to meeting times.  Perhaps profit-oriented isn't the same as financial-management oriented.

Think about it for a second.  Successful people with money don't peruse discount flyers - they don't care.  It's the middle-to-low income people that actually pinch and save around the margins.  Rich folk take beach vacations, same as anyone - their beaches are just further away.

What other sorts of things will rich people spend money on?  High-priced clothes.  Fancy cars.  Houses that are bigger than they can use.  More cars.  Overpriced food.  Access to other important people.  Exclusive conversations.  Drinks for peers or, occasionally, people they don't feel are in their class.  Exclusive items.  Note the trend?  It's not really about dollars in the bank or material wealth - it's about having and doing things other people can't.  

Let's go back to the entitled expenses again for a moment; people charging what common sense would suggest they not.  Why?  I'd say it's the same phenomenon as Wall Street refusing to clean up their act or billionaires envying zillionaires; it's not about maximizing profit, but reaffirming the competitive strength of being able to get more than the other guy.

We define wealth as lots of money, but that's not accurate.  When you get down to it, wealth is about having more than other people and being recognized for that position through status symbols.  It's the same story from Corporate America to the Egyptian pyramids (status symbols) to the Kula Ring.

In short, money and stuff is the how - respect and status are the why.

It used to be that land ownership was the thing that conferred status - lords and title, etc.  Now, you can be ridiculously wealthy and live in a condo.  There was a time when owning the means of production (the ability to make things other people needed or wanted) was the signature of success.  The stuff you could afford from being bourgeoisie was the social equivalent to a peacock's feathers - you can afford to be ostentatious with your resources, because you're that well endowed.

Big property is still a sign of status, as is the ownership of means of production, both technological and human.  Clothes and things of limited access to the majority are also still important, but there's something out there that confers even greater status on its owner and presents a greater challenge to the competitive folk who want to be #1:


You can own islands and not be original.  You could own massive machines, yet not have the capacity to innovate new ones.  You can partake in exclusive conversations in leather-chaired rooms, but if you're not witty, you won't spark as much interest on social media as will someone with something to say.

People with one or two ideas will promote them extensively, spending money on marketing to fluff up their brand; they might even be dismissive of other ideas, because it's easier to downplay competition than it is to keep coming up with new ideas.

In the polycultural justin time marketplace we want new, different, multi-purpose and yes, exclusive.  But with iterations happening so rapidly, you have to run to stay in place.  The ability to manufacture innovations is now desirable, the thing we're willing to invest in.  And those who come up with ideas, like true artists, retain a special place in the pantheon of social status.

Wealth is a red herring that doesn't produce the recognition it once did - big money is like a law degree, it's currency has been reduced by its increasing frequency.

Innovation, however, will never outgrow its value.  The funny thing about innovation is that, by its nature, it is collaborative, failure-reliant and problem-solving oriented (rather than material goods-oriented).

Whereas money used to be the thing that entitled one to attitude, it's now the right attitude that will earn you the money.

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