Thursday, June 22, 2006

Simplify, Simplify ...

Recent readers will note that I've been going thru a kind of late-life crisis -- s sort of mid-course correction phase between entering middle age and senior-hood. Part of it is because I finished my Ph.D. a couple years ago. Part because of my father's passing. Part because of some uncertainty in my job.

Nothing like a little flux in your life, eh?

One of the issues that's come up is how much "stuff" I use. It's a kind of think globally, act locally issue at this point, but it comes from an ongoing conversation with my friend Donal. His recent thinking is about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor -- a kind of "how much is enough" question. The issue is one of personal ethics. The basic question is "What kind of mind set says that it's ok to earn $30,000,000 a year (or more) when there are people in your company that earn $30,000 (or less)?" Is this ethical? How about moral? How much is enough?

Which got me thinking about my personal situation. Is it right for me to earn what I earn when so many earn so much less? I'm not in the $1million range by a long shot. Even with two incomes we aren't going to make a million in a year, but we have a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. I think we've made good choices -- we have a modest home, low credit card balances, only one car loan at a time, and some retirement savings. We're far from extravagant altho we have our guilty pleasures -- my wife collects anime cels, I have my computers.

Which gets back to consumption. On an average day, our family of four burns 40kwh, about 3 gallons of gasoline, and 3 cu ft of natural gas. The water meter says we go thru 10,000 gallons a month (a number I find horrifying). We're spending as much on food as we are on mortgage every month. So, turning my own question back onto myself -- how much is enough?

Global income figures say that 1/7th of the world population -- about 1 billion people -- lives on less than $1/day. In the US median income is someplace around $45k and the "poverty" level is about $30K depending on family size. Look at that again. Remember that "median" means half the people make more and half the people make less. Notice the narrow margin between 45K and 30K. One other significant number is that the mean income (the average of all families) is about $70K. With a mean above the median, a lot more people are below the mean than above.

Call me a bleeding heart, but that seems wrong.

The question is what to do about it? The "clean your plate because children are starving in Asia" rationale is a bit ... feeble. Cutting back to save money is, perhaps, a viable notion. If I can save $40 a month on a salary of $4000, is a 1% reduction in expense significant if it causes significant inconvenience? What about an ethical argument?

Is it ethical for me to consume even one more gallon of gas than I need to simply because I can afford it? Am I weird for considering that I may not be entitled to it?

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