Crying poor in a rich country

Having to re-stock my house with food, furniture, electrical appliances and other conveniences after moving back from Singapore, I sometimes found myself feeling a little guilty to be spending so much money. I had to remind myself that, thanks to spending far less than I earned while working in Singapore, I have more than enough money to cover a house full of furniture, and, what’s more, not much else to spend it on since I don’t plan to live any more extravagantly in Australia than I did in Singapore. Perhaps it’s wise to be aware that such spending might eventually bring me undone if continued for too long—and people even wealthier than me have bankrupted themselves through poor investments or undisciplined spending—but I’m sure a lot of it comes from having frugal habits and being unused to spending so much money at a time.

More generally, I sometimes wonder how it comes to be that the news is full of stories about how much everyone is struggling with the cost of living, or being crushed by the weight of our taxes, and such like, despite modern Australians being (collectively) amongst the wealthiest people who have ever lived. How has two hundred and fifty years of economic growth—and Australian commentators especially like to point to twenty-six years of strictly positive growth in Australia—left us complaining about how poor we are?

Adam Smith identified one reason even before the Industrial Revolution had gotten properly started: as a society becomes wealthier, the amount of wealth required to live in a dignified manner in that society also increases. What might be considered great finery in a hunter-gatherer society seemed quite rude and primitive compared to the mundane shirts and trousers of Adam Smith’s day, while the house that Adam Smith lived in probably looked quite rude and uncomfortable compared to what one would expect to find in a modern housing estate.

Of course not everyone in Australia is equally wealthy, and by all accounts significant numbers people do genuinely struggle to meet the standards of food, housing, and so on, expected in modern Australia. No doubt many more news articles are written about these people than about comfortable middle-class people because the plight of comfortable middle-class people is neither very interesting nor in need of much attention (except insofar as advertisers and lifestyle writers urge them that they can become even more comfortable).

I am sure that there are innumerable other possible explanations, not all mutually exclusive. Perhaps we fear our wealth might disappear if we aren’t extremely careful with it. Perhaps it suits politicians, advertisers and other influence-peddlers to keep everyone in such a fear. Perhaps we’re doomed to be forever unsatisfied with what we have, or we feel that our lives really do lack for the absence of teleporters, cures for cancer, bigger televisions, and other wonders that might be accessible if only we had a bit more money. Or maybe, like me, we just haven’t gotten used to the idea that we’re rich.

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