Attitudes Demeaning Financial Success are Fishy

A man from our country goes on vacation and sees a boy fishing.

“Why aren’t you in school?” he asks.“Why would I go to school?” the boy replies.“So that you can get a job.”“Why would I want a job?”“So that you can make money.”“Why would I want to make money?”“So that you can buy things and retire someday.”“Why would I want to retire?”“So that you can do whatever you want—you could fish every day if you wanted to.”“But I already fish every day,” says the boy.

He has a point. That is, if he would be satisfied catching fish every day, eating fish every day, and living in a house made of fish every day.

The standard Pomona College diatribe against making money—“all those people are just going into consulting to make money”—is no more sophisticated than the fish argument.

If your ideals—your fish—matter more to you than your future family, your future mortgage, your future costs of living, then by all means go build your future house of fish and ideals. But you have to live in it.

Keep in mind that your classmates who “sell out” and make money can still have their fish (and eat it too!). The difference is that they can spread their fish around when they fund the charities and non-profits and research institutes that provide fish to the public at large.I recently went to an art exhibit: “Looking for Something Bigger?” There was a quote from a student that said, “The typical Pomona rant against consulting is bullshit. Looking down on making money is also a form of privilege.”

I agree. It is easy to look down on material success when you have less responsibility than you will ever have for the rest of your life and when you are being provided for.

That is certainly a privileged position, and the ensuing disdain for money and materialism is an act of and an assertion of that privilege. (For a campus so painfully aware of privilege, how easily we overlook it when it’s ideologically convenient.)

At the most basic level, money eases burdens. It provides happiness by providing the services and conveniences that differentiate life in the first world from life in the third.

The boy fisherman is living at subsistence. When you go to the grocery store, you are privy to the happiness money most certainly provides. You didn’t have to grow that food yourself. You didn’t have to raise that hamburger, milk that cheese, bake that bread.

And while you weren’t doing those things, you were enjoying the freedom to choose how to spend your time—not just surviving, but living well. Maybe you were spending that free time getting an education. And here you are.

The typical counterargument is that while money may ease burdens, it is nevertheless wasteful and wrong to spend it on so-called luxuries.The value of money is not measured in luxuries per capita, however. Its value is in what you do with it.

Whatever you may think of Bill Gates, the Gates Foundation has funded causes that literally no one else could afford to. We can argue all day about the Carnegies and the Vanderbilts and the Sontags of the world, but we can’t argue about their ability to support causes.

Whether or not you agree with their causes, if you earn well, you gain the means to financially support your own causes and values. Making money does not lead inexorably toward moral bankruptcy.

Isn’t the whole point of a liberal arts education to develop thoughtful, well-rounded students, academically, socially, and morally, who can apply that solid foundation to whatever field they choose to go into? Wouldn’t it help the greater good to have I-bankers and CEOs that took an ethics class? PR reps that understand social justice? Nonprofits that understand economic theory?

What it comes down to is this: why shouldn’t people do whatever makes them happy?

“Because they only think those luxurious things make them happy because “the system” tells them so! They’re not really happy.”

This is an intellectually lazy argument. The person making it claims to have objective knowledge of happiness, even though happiness is an inherently subjective feeling. No one has privileged access to the knowledge of “real” happiness and its causes.

The fact of the matter is, every single person on this campus is an individual with an unique experience. The particular circumstances of our upbringing, our schooling, our finances, our health, our history, our sexuality, our religion, our friends and acquaintances, our neighborhood, city, and state—these innumerable factors have shaped who we are and how we view the world. No one has developed a more decidedly correct world view as a result. All you can have is a different perspective: for example, what happiness is to you, and why you are happy.

The biggest problem with looking down our noses at financial success is that it begs the question when is it ok to be successful? It implies that there is something ignoble about parents who are able to pay full tuition. It implies that well-paying work is incompatible with social justice. It implies that wealth ought to entail guilt.

Being poor does not engender moral superiority. It’s time to drop the holier-than-thou attitude about making money—it’s fine if you want to live in a house of fish, but don’t judge your peers if they prefer an insulated one.

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