Peter Buffett has a spot-on op-ed in the New York Times today, in which he calls out the complicity of philanthropy in a culture of exploitation and inequality, by which the right hand gives a little philanthropy as a sop to problems the profit-mongering left hand has created.
Especially relevant to the mission of FAIR Money is his indictment of philanthropic financial services to the poor:
“Microlending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?”
Buffett says he is not calling for an end to capitalism, he is calling for humanism.
FAIR Money has started talking about what it takes to empower people (of all levels of income) to participate financially on their own terms. In Buffet’s words: what does it take to stop feeding the beast? I hope we can arrive at an answer using a thoughtful, inclusive, participatory process.
If you think the pursuit of happiness is essentially a private affair, then recent research findings regarding the impact of inequality will make a hash of your most cherished beliefs. A Greater Good article summarizing the research on inequality points out that people are happiest and most compassionate in countries with the least inequality. And it’s not the poor who are short on compassion, but the wealthy. People who are significantly wealthier than others, it turns out, are not only less generous but also more apt to drive over hapless pedestrians who find themselves in a crosswalk when the wealthy come barreling down the street. People who are given an obvious advantage in games of monopoly still think they are brilliant and deserving when they win. Food for thought.
A.O. Scott has an article about recent movies celebrating luxury goods, which offers an explanation of some of the behaviors we have seen in our research. Scott doesn’t offer any of the knee-jerk judgments about materialism that we are all prone to, at the same time that we feel the lure of beautiful things. Holding back the judgment is undoubtedly key to defining and building structure around what we want and may not be able to afford. The piece also reminded me of the work of Daniel Miller, who has studied the meanings of our stuff for a long time and concludes that the ability to find meaning in things is strongly connected to our ability to find meaning in relationships to other people. In The Comfort of Things, he writes “All my academic studies have shown that the people who successfully forge meaningful relationships to things are often the same as those who forge meaningful relationships with people, while those who fail at one usually also fail at the other, because the two are much more akin and entwined than is commonly appreciated.”