Poor Tim

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My interest in how wealth is distributed has grown over the years from non-existent to almost obsessive (check out the SocialTrade stack dedicated to Wealth Distribution). It’s particularly on my mind these days for two related reasons: (1) the staggering surge of wealth, particularly since the financial crisis; (2) the proximity of that wealth to me personally, since I am surrounded by Silicon Valley zillionaires.

I used to be very naive about money. In my teens, I thought it was a fairly accurate representation of one’s abilities and intellect……….a scoreboard of the meritocracy. Suffice it to say I don’t think like this anymore. In some societies, it is little more than a measuring stick of dumb luck or criminal abilities, whereas in others it is, at best, a very crude approximation of the value one has created in their lifetime.

From time to time, I reflect on my own very middle-class childhood. In those days, during the late 1970s, there was a much larger middle class, and the gap between rich and poor wasn’t so vast. In my neighborhood, if your dad earned $35,000 a year, your family was doing just great, and if he made $50,000, you were “rich.”

I think back to some memories of privation during those days. To be clear, I was not impoverished, and the feelings of “want” weren’t acute, such as those felt by the hungry. But even in those days of a societal wealth basis that was fairly evenly spread, I felt the sting of something lacking.

One specific example was my trumpet. One of my older brothers was quite good with the trumpet, and I got his hand-me-down trumpet when I entered the 7th grade. I had no aspirations of being any kind of musician, and my trumpet skills were mediocre, but I’ve got to tell you, I was embarrassed. The brass on the trumpet was largely worn away, looking somewhat like a car whose paint coat was gone, exposing mostly primer. The other kids had gleaming new trumpets with pristine coats of unblemished brass. Mine looked like something from the Sanford & Son salvage yard.

My family rarely discussed money, and out of a sense of familial esprit-de-corps, I avoided asking my parents for anything. But I do remember on more than one occasion bringing up the idea of having the trumpet refinished with a fresh coat of brass. It wouldn’t cost as much as a new instrument, and frankly I really just wanted to put an end to the teasing. But they always said no.

The year before, there was a more subtle “poverty” that I remember. Once a month, Scholastic Publications would accept orders from our 6th grade class. There were a variety of paperback books and magazines that kids could order – – the kind of brightly-colored, garish stuff that kids like to read (I think Scholastic’s own kids magazine at the time was called Pizzazz). Here again, not wanting to ask my parents for any money, I never ordered anything. Most of the other kids did. We’re not talking big money here. I suppose most of the orders were for five or ten bucks. But I never ordered a thing.

The hard part for me was when the box arrived. The teacher had it behind her desk, and about fifteen minutes before the closing bell, she’d open it up and distribute all the goods. I felt like Charlie Bucket at the very end of Willy Wonka’s “Candy Man” song, where he’s watching through the window at all the other kids who got cool stuff, and he got none.

Good heavens, this is starting to sound terribly maudlin. I want to stress again, it’s not like I was a Dickensian street urchin, roaming hungry through the streets of Louisiana. Far from it. But I definitely got a strong sense of what it felt like to want something and not have it. Go through this enough times as a kid, and it sticks. It might even stick for a few decades, and push itself into a blog post.

I suppose the “purest” form of this kind of thing was when kids would try to compare the salaries of their fathers. This was back in the 70s, and it was a close equivalent of “my dad can beat up your dad”. It seems terribly quaint now, since the figures were so much smaller, and the spread between rich and poor was so much tighter, but I distinctly remember telling a friend of mine that my father made $30,000 a year. His instant response was that if my dad made $30,000 a year, his dad made $40,000 a year. And I believed him, because they had a maid, and pure white wall-to-wall carpets, and everything always seemed so clean and perfect.

I hate that kids have any awareness of class. But what gnaws at me is that in the 1970s, wealth was actually as evenly distributed as it had ever been in the United States, and all these little stings were nothing compared to what people must feel today. I abandoned my own materialism a long time ago. And as for jealously, I am largely shed of it. If I weren’t, I would lose my mind in a place like this.

We are a very ill society, and, at times, a sorry race. Kindness and generosity are the only antidote. I try to conjure up both in myself, because it’s the only meaningful answer to those menacing memories of the past.