Last week, I got into two separate philosophical arguments with two of my best friends over whether it was wrong to spend a lot of money on materialistic things. The arguments were prompted by an anti-religion Facebook attack on a Houston pastor living in a $10.5 million house.
Neither of my friends thought it was wrong for people to spend boatloads of money on themselves, although one friend who was brought up in the Catholic/Jesuit tradition believed such spending was inappropriate for a man of the cloth. And the other friend, more of an Evangelical guy, begrudged the Houston pastor as a charlatan.
I disagreed with both of my friends on the general practice of spending lots of money. I don’t recall when, but at some point in my life, I came to the opinion that it was sinful to use an inordinate share of the world’s resources.
I guess this philosophy started with my Catholic upbringing. We were taught that it was admirable for priests to take a vow of poverty. Then a few years later during high school and college in the 60s and 70s, I was taught the evil of conspicuous consumption. Although that concept had been around since the 19th century, it reached the height of ridicule in the 60s. And finally during law school in the late 70s, there was an oil crisis with long lines at the gas pumps and talk of rationing. During that time, a person did their civic duty by self-restricting their use of gas, and many even considered this a patriotic duty because of our nation’s reliance on imported oil from the Middle East.
In the past few years in San Antonio, my philosophy have been reaffirmed in the context of water usage. Because our city seems to be continually on some sort of drought restrictions, there is community pressure to reduce water consumption. The local paper, the Express-News, does its part by periodically doing an article that exposes the biggest private water users in town, with headlines shouting that the profligates are using 10 to 20 times as much water as a typical household. Not surprisingly, those exposed are apologetic and promise to do better in the future.
Because of all of these life’s experiences, I have gradually settled into a position that ethical people shouldn’t feel entitled to deplete an inordinate amount of resources, even if their income or inheritance allows for it. It isn’t just oil and water that are limited resources. Our entire economy produces a limited amount of resources, and in that context it doesn’t seem fair or just to consume 10 or 20 times as much as a typical household.
So, what are successful people to do with their good fortune? Obviously, they could use it to help others, but if philanthropy is not in their nature, they can retain the capital as productive assets. As Thomas Piketty pointed out in his classic book, Capital in the 21st Century, the world economy remains out of balance with too much labor and not enough capital, so increasing our savings rate will help everyone. Plus, with a healthy estate tax, larges estates will provide government with a relatively painless way to fund the necessary governmental services.
In Downton Abbey, the aristocratic Dowager Countess haughtily attempted to justify her use of servants:
- “An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer.”
In her mind, providing employment to servants was a noble thing for aristocrats to do. I love Countess Grantham in the TV show, but her thinking is outdated. Employing a slew of servants to wait on you is, not only demeaning to them, but also corrosive to you. As Jean Knight sang a big hit in 1971, “Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?”