The richest of all have just enough

I think “poor” people around the world have this misplaced idea about wealth. My friend Aaron is feuding with his housemates over money. He gave them all of his and they stopped giving him an allowance for food and travel, because they assume he must have more and doesn’t need the $3000 he invested in their shared project. Truth is, he’s flat broke. They think he’s lying, because America is so rich.

You can be a poor begger sitting on the footsteps of a palace and the passers by will think you’re rich too.

They say that all the nutrients in the rainforest are in the plants, and not the soil, yet we keep chopping down the trees and planting in poor soil that doesn’t support life. Their misconceptions about American wealth are just like that. America is wealthy, but our wealth lives in our institutions, our social contract, our public parks, our personal amenities – and not in our pocket books or bank accounts. Underneath all this public wealth is a mountain of debt. As individuals we have little, but as a society have much, much more. Our prosperity is social.

Kenya is different. There is no social contract, weaker public institutions, little security, but many Kenyans have personal wealth in the form of land and houses they own outright. I have a Kenyan friend who pays no rent, no taxes, and only needs $1 a day to live. He works 4 hours a day to earn $2 then spends the rest in leisure, perhaps thinking about how not rich he is. Meanwhile, “rich” Americans work a 10 hour day and imagine how much richer others are than they. Both extremes are psychological poverty of a sort.

I’m richer than most Americans not because I own anything, but because I owe nothing. That economic freedom from debt is all I need to travel the world and seek out meaningful work.

Happiness is waking up one day and realizing you are rich. All of us with enough free time and just enough money to pursue what is important in life are the richest men and women in the world.

Some Kenyans see America as a land of wealth yet don’t see that the basis of our wealth is our social contract that yields social prosperity.

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2 thoughts on “The richest of all have just enough

  1. From Hasti, a reader:

    In terms of your points, all valid, but i respectfully disagree on a few points:

    1) while i completely understand your point about the misplaced idea of wealth, and that much of our wealth comes from our institutions, social and public ammenities- i think it’s easy for us as Americans to opine about Kenyans misplaced attitudes about what makes life rich. When i was in kenya, i flushed the toilet by getting a bucket of water and throwing it in. Lots of houses don’t have running plumbing right? comparatively, i could see how Kenyans might look on the internet and see some of the poorest Americans living in Shelters- and they have beds and running water and electricity and a toilet. it can’t compare.

    2) we also have resources. and assets. even if some kenyans own land, how much is the land worth and what other assets do they have to build on that land? some of us whities in america may also have assets handed down from generation to generation, and comparatively African Americans may not have that because they were not allowed any wealth prior to the civil rights era. what about educational resources? we’ve got more of that here too (dependant on what school district you live in i guess), even though in reality our education system is pretty sub-par to other “third world” countries. Like Iran for example.

    3) totally agree on your last point. we work our butts off 10 hours a day and live in mansions and can’t retire and work and then die. pretty much. i have family in Italy- they do not live like that and they think it’s kind of strange and funny that we do. but tis the american life and dream.

    4) “That economic freedom from debt is all I need to travel the world and seek out meaningful work.” agreed. but you came to have the intellectual assets to allow you to seek and be competitive for work that is meaningful to you. maybe others don’t have those same opportunities?

    I’m just playing devils-advocate here. I am in no way an economist and I haven’t been to Kenya since 2006 and i had a pretty privileged upbringing.

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