Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Is There a Direct Correlation Between Money, Corruption, and Exploitation?

A few days ago, Tread discussed the idea that "money and happiness are contradictory forces in life, that 'simplicity' trumps 'wealth' to such a degree that a fat wallet dooms one to misery and dissatisfaction."  The focus of her ruminations was the myriad ways in which we spend money unthinkingly, and thus miss out on the happiness that that money purchases for us.  But I was intrigued by the position of her artist friend "who insists that to find herself suddenly a millionaire would be an unfortunate state, because to have money in this world directly correlates with corruption and exploitation."

It is true that there are some millionaires, though assuredly not all, who gain their millions through corruption and exploitation.   But her hypothetical isn't talking about that; in her scenario it's is as though a million dollars appears out of thin air and falls on her head.  To her, merely possessing a million dollars worth of deferred purchasing ability would be negatively transformative to her self-actualization.

My first reaction to this statement was something along the lines of "She's crazy - I'll take a problem like that any time."  But on further reflection, I can see her point.  I still don't agree that there is a direct correlation.  I do, however, see some correlation to the extent that money is viewed as a proxy for anything besides delayed purchasing ability.  If you view money as a proxy for power, or status, or love, or anything besides the amount of material things you can get in return for handing it over, it can create great unhappiness for you and all those around you.

I have known a few people who were moderately wealthy (think 5 to 15 million dollars).  For various random reasons that I won't go into here, I have known the actual state of their personal finances, not just what possessions they chose to display to the world, so I know that they were actually wealthy, not faking it on credit.  In this small subset of people, I have seen money purchase happiness both in the form of immediate things, like luxury cars and foods, and long-term things, such as the ability to quit a job and pursue art full time.  I have also seen money purchase misery with the exact same items.

For instance, luxury cars purchase happiness when they are bought and enjoyed for their aesthetics and features.  They purchase misery when they are bought and enjoyed for the real or imagined jealousy of the guy next door or the people who mocked you in high school.  If there's a hole in your psyche, buying a lot of stuff to fill it doesn't work any better than eating a lot of food.  Buying experiences won't help either; no matter where you go or what you do, you can't get away from yourself.  You can't use money to purchase feelings of self-worth, and corruption and exploitation seep in when you try.

The saddest situation is where people attempt to use money to purchase love and respect. Corruption and exploitation run rampant, because neither can be purchased, no matter how much the purchaser wishes it were so.  You can purchase a simulacrum, and of the person simulating the feelings is good enough, it can feel very real, for a time.  In my experience, though, people can only delude themselves for so long.  Why do you think famous, wealthy men tend to go through so many gold-digger wives?  It's not just a desire for ever-changing arm candy; they could get that in a way less costly transaction than marriage.  It's a desire for true intimacy with another person, which they discover over and over again that money cannot purchase.

So what relevance does this have for those of us who aren't going to have a million dollars materialize any time soon?  I think that, wherever we are on our financial journey, we need to continuously  examine the role that we give money in our lives.  I see a lot of PF blogs with "millionaire" in the title, either as an aspiration or as a boast.  To the extent that "millionaire" is part of your self-definition, what does that mean to you?  If you are working hard to get there, what do you think will happen at the end of the journey?  Can what you aspire to be bought with money?  Is accumulating money the most efficient way to your aspirations?

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