Southern Man

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rich Man, Poor Man

Southern Man keeps hearing and reading that the "gap between the rich and the poor" is large, and widening, and that this is a bad thing.

The truth is, the gap between rich and poor has never been narrower.

What did it mean to be poor one or two hundred years ago? It meant that you had no home; no reliable access to food and clean water; no dental or medical care. It meant that you lived in filth and were generally wracked with disease and vermin. It meant that your toilet was a tree or a hole in the ground. You had no clothes; no possessions; no net worth. Most of the time, you were hungry. If you needed to travel, you walked. Your labor was barely sufficient to provide the basic necessities of your wretched life. Your wife had only a middlin' chance of surviving childbirth; your children, a coin toss as to whether or not they would survive into adulthood.

Now, what does it mean to be poor today? In the United States, the vast majority of the "poor" live in constructed homes, with indoor plumbing, with hot and cold running water, with kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms. They have refrigerators and air conditioners and televisions. Most own at least one car. The majority have cable television and cell phones and access to the Internet. One of the greatest health problems among the poor today is not malnutrition, but obesity - and even the poor can afford to pay others to prepare their meals, often many times each week. "Poor" in the US today is "middle class" in modern Europe. "Poor" in Europe is a standard of living unheard of in much of the world. And all over the world people live far better lives than did their ancestors, with access to good food and clean water and shelter and clothing at an all-time high and increasing yearly. That is not to say that there are people who are truly poor; there are, and Southern Man finds it deeply offensive to be told that so many millions of his countrymen, who live in relative luxury, are "poor" when there are those who still live in what is, truly, abject poverty. Fortunately, that number is decreasing and will continue to do so. The good news about the poor is that never in human history have so many had as much access to so many resources as they do today, and never in human history has the average standard of living been as high as it is today.

That is why Southern Man claims that the gap between rich and "poor" (as defined in the USA and Europe) is narrow; both have about the same access to what we deem the basic necessities of life, and once you have them improvements don't scale with income. Sure, a rich man drives a Lexus while a poor girl makes do with a Chevy - but both drive, on the same roads and burning the same fuel. The rich man's refrigerator preserves food no better than does yours; the flame on his gas stove is no different than yours; his cell phone drops calls in the same manner as yours; his cold water no purer and hot water no hotter. Of course there are differences, but they tend to revolve about luxuries, not necessities. And money can't buy everything. A rich man may have a million times your net worth but cannot obtain food or water or gasoline or chocolate or paint or even health care that's a million times better than yours - or even ten times better. That's quite a contrast to the gap in years past, when the rich had access to doctors and the poor died alone; the rich had homes and the poor did not; the rich rode and the poor walked; the rich ate, and the poor starved.

Those who argue that the "gap" between rich and poor is a bad thing neglect to acknowledge that the standard of living for nearly everyone has risen to the point that
Tim Berners-Lee now claims that Internet access is a human right. Imagine the wealth of a world in which such a thing could be said and taken seriously and remind yourself of what it really means to be poor; and remember that, as Heinlein famously said, poverty is the normal condition of man.


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