Thursday, 10 February 2011

Some thoughts on money

Milly is asleep and I, unusually, am not, so I'm writing this and it's about money.

I'm having a long-term, on-off debate with Annikki about whether money is worthy of desire. She holds the firm opinion that it is not. She has known, she says, several properly wealthy people, and their money hasn't made them happy in the slightest. She would like everyone to live in identical houses, so long as she is allowed to paint hers a different colour. She feels that none of the things that really matter in life can be bought, so why waste time and energy scampering and drooling after cash?

Obviously, I disagree.

I don't mean obviously I disagree because her views are ludicrous, (they aren't) or obviously I disagree because I'm middle class and we're all money-grabbing social climbers, mainlining aspiration like it's heroin, (we're not) and I don't mean obviously I disagree because I'm a Tory and we like to lick money (mmm, tasty money). I disagree, obviously, because I wouldn't be sitting here at half eight in the morning writing this post instead of snoozing with my daughter or re-reading The Jane Austen Book Club if I didn't think there was a strong and woefully underused argument for the other point of view.

And it is woefully underused, because to admit to wanting more money, lots more money, in your life is to draw, at least, raised eyebrows from your crowd, and, at worst, to label yourself as a materialistic cash-junkie with no sense of what's genuinely important in life. "She wants to be rich?" people mutter to themselves, "How SHALLOW!" I protest that I'm not shallow, I just think I'd be better off being, well, better off. "She thinks money will bring her happiness!" they then exclaim, quietly and with a touch of smug. "How DELUDED."

Well, I'm neither shallow nor deluded. I just want to be rich. There, I said it, bold-faced and brazen. Judge me if you dare. I want to have a choice of lovely houses to buy from, with many large rooms and a huge garden for Milly to run about in, rather than gloomily checking Rightmove every day to see if something has miraculously appeared in the £170-180,000 price bracket that has more than 2 square feet of garden and a living room you can actually fit a sofa into. I want to go into a car showroom and choose a nice little three-door for Milly and I to tootle about in, instead of looking on Autotrader for sixth-hand old bangers that actually we can't afford anyway. I want to cook with wonderful ingredients, and go to the opera and the ballet, and do Open University courses, and take foreign holidays staying in luxury hotels with spas I can afford to use. I want to buy Simon tailored suits for his birthday and have the option, the OPTION, of sending Milly to private school when she's older. I think these things would make me happy.

It's too easy, too tempting to diss wealth. Of course there are unhappy rich people. There are even people who appear to be palpably suffering for being rich. On the TV last night I saw a clip of a reality show about super-wealthy American teens in which a sixteen year old girl was presented with her $67,000 Lexus at what was, apparently, the wrong moment. She threw the biggest strop I've ever seen, swore at her mother, shrieked "I can't believe you! You've ruined everything! The party's off!" and stormed out in floods of tears. Clearly unfettered access to the best of everything was taking a heavy toll on this child's soul. But it needn't have been like that. The girl's money gives her access to education, travel, people, places; it's not money's fault her parents are jackasses who don't know how to say no. It's also not money's fault if people have bad marriages, or are weak or mean or distant parents.

It's a con to blame money. It makes you think you'd be crazy to want it, which is useful if you're never likely to get it. It makes you think you're breaking free of the class system by rejecting the very thing that puts some people at the top and others at the bottom. But that's the biggest con of all. Have you ever seen any of those films or TV shows where an 'ordinary' family suddenly come into ooodles of money? They live their lives, and they squabble, and bitch, and bicker, then the cash appears like magic and for a while there's a wet dream of conspicuous consumption and everyone has what they always wanted. But wait, what's this? Cracks start to appear, the bickering starts up again, this time over who crashed the Audi in the martini glass-shaped swimming pool. The family starts to implode as integrity becomes corrupted and values disappear. All looks lost until the money somehow vanishes as easily as it arrived. "We were better off all along!" the family cry, tears of enlightened joy in their eyes. "Money made us miserable!".

Bullshit! Money didn't make them miserable, it was what they did with it. You never see people in these dramas using their sudden wealth to access the arts or education, to broaden their horizons, you just see them going crazy for gold-plated Ferraris, like apes in a banana shop. That's because a drama about a family who suddenly get money and become happier, better people for it doesn't make for much of a story. And because the real message of these things is that you, Mr and Mrs Poor Person, you can't handle money. You don't know what to do with it, so it drives you crazy. So back you go, back to where you belong, lesson learnt. Breaking free of the class system, my arse. Like I said, it's the biggest con of all.

So I say hurrah for wealth. It may make stupid people stupider and mean people meaner, but poverty doesn't have such a great track record in that department either. There's nothing shallow about wanting to have better, nor is it deluded to suppose that having it will increase my already quite substantial enjoyment of life. Aspiration is a beautiful thing, so let us aspire to have more and to be more. Come stargazers, come climbers, come dreamers, come doers, come builders of ladders and stairways and rockets. Come, my friends. Onwards and upwards.


  1. If you are determined to be miserable, it is surely better to be rich and miserable than poor and miserable, and if you are happy, there are many things you can do to spread that happiness around if you have lots of money. Anyway, it is the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. If I had more money I would buy lovely Debbie Bliss and Nori yarns for my knitting instead of trawling the internet for discontinued bargains. Dream on!

  2. for me, the optimum amount of money would be the point where i didn't have to worry about it. however, i suspect that when you (collectively) have it, you worry it will disappear.

    what would be truly lovely would be a society in which money is not what gets traded. i appreciate it started out as a shorthand/gesture for real trading, and in some cases that's still true, but i think in banking terms it's got slightly out of hand. people actually think it's real, where it's little more than a concept and is in fact entirely based on confidence in its abundance. how weird is that?

    so, do i want more money? dunno. i'm doing ok, and i don't really want 'stuff', so my money is spent on the basics of living. do i wish i didn't have to have money to live comfortably? yes. do i think the general obsession with money and 'stuff' is collectively unhealthy? yes. do i think that me even having an opinion on it when i live in such a privileged part of the world, with all my education and wits behind me, is completely irrevelant? yes. you and i don't know what it is like to have extreme wealth or extreme poverty, and all of us would be much better served by being grateful for what we do have.

    end of sermon. ;-)

  3. To quote yourself (although, you said this to Bea after she had successfully warbled her Japanenglish at Milly more loudly than either of us could have imagined a baby would be able to speak) I shall say "some very salient points made"... and to add another rung to the ongoing ladder of debate about the money issue, it is the sacrifices that are made in order to acquire money that twist a knife in my Champagne-Socialist's heart. The sacrifices all too often being made by the people of the third world, whose natural resources are being robbed by those morally maligned but socially celebrated power player business men that fund all the political parties in the west. How many wealthy people can put their hands on their hearts and say that every one of their many pennies has been made without just a little bit of cheating, tax evading or sheer cold, hard, ruthlessness? Then there are the sacrifices made by the children of the people who work ludicrously long hours in order to be sent to public schools, and given the best of everything...when in fact all a child really wants or needs is their parents' time, because, as a parent and a teacher, I can promise you, that children equate the time you give them with how much you love them.
    And I could go on but Bea is tugging at my hair which is the international bsby sign for "play with me mummy I'm bored". So I shall, because time, is love.

  4. Mum: Dad said to me once was that it was better to be poor and miserable than rich and miserable because if you were poor and miserable then you could always hope that one day money would come along and solve your problems, but that if you were rich and miserable there was nowhere else to go, as it were. An interesting adjunct to that idea is that it suggests that we don't necessarily address the root of our problems. It's easy to look at someone, say the bored alcoholic housewives in the Sunday Times magazine a couple of weeks ago, who 'have it all', and say that money hasn't made them happy. That's true, but it isn't making them unhappy either. They clearly have issues that neither they or we are willing to address because we'd rather shake our heads primly and say "well, see where they're 'having it all' has got them", and they'd rather blame the emptiness of their perfect lives than look at why they allowed their lives to become so empty in the first place. I agree with you that the love of money is what makes people behave badly, rather than money itself. Money just exists.

  5. Which leads me to Sarah: As you say, odd to become to obsessed with something that has no value in itself, but huge value in terms of what it represents. There are people who have expensive art who care about it only because it's expensive, rather than because it's beautiful art. But it's equally odd to blame money for the way people behave rather than the people themselves. I suspect that if there were no money in the world then the people who behave badly because of it would behave badly anyway. Whenever I hear a story told about how ancient civilisations become corrupted by Western influences such as money and drink and sex, I always wonder if they were really so idyllic in the first place, and if the people who succumb to bad habits were really so wonderful before. I think it's quite possibly power, rather than money, that is the corrupting influence. Money, of course, is a path to power, but without it other paths would be found and used.

    As for our opinions on this being irrelevant? I disagree. We're intelligent, educated individuals, and even if we weren't we'd still be entitled to an opinion. Just because we don't know what its like to be extremely rich or extremely poor doesn't mean we should fold our arms and say 'Well, it's none of my business." I don't know about you, but the world is my business. If we restrict ourselves to only thinking about or debating subjects in which we have personal experience we would all think in very narrow lines.

    As for being grateful, I don;t believe that wanting more mutually excludes being grateful for what we already have. Cathy Hudson was saying to me on Facebook that she's jealous of my baby and that she'd like one of her own. She then felt the need to follow this with a whole thing about how she's obviously extremely grateful for Sam and she appreciates she's lucky to have him and some women don't have even one etc. The thing is, I didn't for a second assume she wasn't grateful for Sam or that she wasn't aware of the plight of poor women struggling to get pregnant even once. I didn't judge her, but she clearly judged herself, just for expressing a desire to have more than what she has. And we do that, we judge people for wanting more, as though it's somehow a blasphemy, as though wanting clear eyesight is wrong when there are people who have no eyesight at all, as though wanting clear eyesight is an insult to those with no eyes. We use the concept of wanting more as a stick to beat people with, to imply they're shallow or heartless, to push them back down into their place, but wanting more than what this life just naturally offers can be an amazing thing. Wanting more is how we have cars, the internet, heart surgery, space exploration, land exploration, electricity. Wanting more is how we know America's there, and China, and Australia, and New Zealand, and Greenland. Wanting more is how we have paintings that fill entire ceilings, and books that aren't The Bible. Wanting more is how civilisation becomes civilised, and how it evolves. Otherwise we're just stuck in the Dark Ages.

  6. Annikki: You do bring in another rung by talking of the sacrifices made by others, which isn't something I covered in my original post. I have found 'Smile' on the bookshelf so remind it to lend it to you so you can read 'Empire Building'. As I mentioned when I told you about it before, the story concerns a man who places achievement in society above all else, supposedly for the benefit of his wife and son, but to their emotional and physical detriment. I'm not interested in money or being rich at the expense of my time with Simon or his time with Milly. A balance has to be struck, as in all things. When I say I want to be rich I'm expressing a fantasy, similar to wanting to be able to sing incredibly well, or write a nobel-prize winning novel, or have magic powers (or at least some kind of cool X-Men mutation, but not one that messes with how I look). The reason I wrote this blog in the first place was that if I express any of those other desires then no-one bats an eyelid, but if you say you'd like to be stupidly rich then people act like there must be something lacking in your soul to want something so vulgar and so steeped in corruption and misery, and that you must clearly be someone who therefore DOESN'T CARE about other people and how they suffer, and I wanted to put forward a defence both of being rich, and of wanting to be rich. I CARE. I just want to do it wearing diamonds.

  7. (Apologies for using the wrong 'its/it's' in Sarah's reply, and also a semi-colon instead of an apostrophe, and any other mistakes and typos in any of the posts.)

  8. (And the wrong 'they're/their' on Mum's answer. Goodness me, sorry, people!)

  9. I think we are still in the Dark Ages. We just have more stuff. :-)