Why Rich People Shouldn’t Shop at Wal-Mart

A lot of people in our neighborhood are thinking about money right now. Development. Property values. Social Security. This might be a good time think about money and what we want from it. There are many folks in our neighborhood, of course, who are struggling just to get by. They know what they want from their money — a roof over their heads and food on the table. But there are some in our neighborhood who have various levels of discretionary income. If we have that discretionary income, we’re in “the game.” Basically, money is the counter in “the game” called Economics. It’s a game about who gets what. The rules most of us play by today go something like, “The one who dies with the most stuff, wins.” We’re scoring on volume. Before the Industrial Revolution it made sense to score on volume, at least over the long term. It was hard to come by a big pile of stuff, because there simply wasn’t that much to be had. The winners then had enough stuff to make them comfortable. But there’s no history of anyone needing a “storage castle” to keep his extra stuff. However, today stuff is cheap and easy to acquire, so there’s little real satisfaction in owning it. Volume isn’t a challenge any more, so volume doesn’t make us happy. What, after all, is the point of winning a game? We don’t want victory for its own sake. We want to win, like we want anything else, because we think winning will make us happy. If we’re playing a game where victory makes us miserable, leaves us frustrated with the clutter in our lives and dissatisfied with what we have, maybe we’re playing by the wrong rules. But if we’re not going to play the volume game, what should we do with our money? Should we put it in a big pile and sit on it? This seems especially pointless. Should we give it to financial institutions and corporations in hopes that they can make it grow? That merely delays the question. There are other options. For example, there’s something called a “Gift Economy.” Unlike our economy, in which we keep score by how much we have, a Gift Economy keeps score by how much we give away. According to the precepts of the Gift Economy, what we ultimately want from wealth is prestige. In our culture, the super-rich automatically receive prestige, but the moderately comfortable need to chase it. We consume to excess in the hopes that others will see how much we have and respect us for it. Since we also have a cultural taboo against conspicuous consumption, against flaunting what we have, we try to do it subtly, often not even aware of it ourselves. But because stuff is cheep, it takes an awful lot of it to gain any major dose of prestige. If what we’re really after is prestige, could we get it without accumulating piles of stuff? After all, how many televisions can any one person watch? How many cars can we drive? Can we gain prestige without falling into the conspicuous consumption we so despise in others? Conspicuous philanthropy is nearly as despised as conspicuous consumption, so there’s no answer there. Perhaps an answer lies in choosing precisely what we consume and where it comes from. For example, consider the distinction to be gained by patronizing skilled craftspersons. A mass-produced chair purchased from Wal-Mart (the often maligned multinational conglomerate that gets to play the devil in our morality play) offers only intrinsic, volume prestige: if I buy four Wal-Mart chairs, I get the prestige of four more chairs. On the other hand, if I buy a handcrafted chair built by a master, it carries three kinds of prestige. First, it carries volume prestige like any other chair. Second, it carries wisdom prestige: it demonstrates that I know how to find unusual things. Third, it carries individuality prestige: I own something unlike anything else in the world. Wisdom and individuality prestige are harder to come by than volume prestige, which everyone in the game is collecting, so my gains are miles ahead of where the mass-produced chair would place me. Even if the handcrafted chair costs far more than the mass-produced one, I’ve scored more points. So, what’s your game? We live in a culture with lots of discretionary income. A lot of us have at least a few of those game counters we hold close to the vest and wait our turn to play. Which way will you throw yours? America Masaros is a graduate student at UWM. Her fields of study include mathematics and game theory.