On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What About Wants Anyway

The question just keeps circling around this week: what's the difference between needs and wants, and how much right do we have to get our wants met when other people aren't getting their needs met? It started with a discussion between my son and his soon to be brother-in-law who were discussing justice relative to the way a certain Catholic school was paying its staff. Was it right that parents of children in that school were driving luxury vehicles and living an opulent life style when the school couldn't afford to pay its staff a living wage (some of the summer staff are being paid only $8.50 an hour). The question of needs and wants entered in as well as the rights of people to a proportionate amount of their income.

Then on Sunday our new priest talked about the difference between needs and wants and pointed out that while shelter is a need cable TV is only a want. Today there's a discussion going on at Danielle Bean's site as to whether women should get their wedding rings upgraded when their financial situation improves.

Clearly, we are living in a time when some people, including some Catholic people, have a lot of disposable income and other people don't have enough money to live on. We don't happen to quite fall into either category. We're mostly just scraping by, although I'll admit we do have a satellite dish and DSL, which both fall into the category of wants, not needs. We drive older cars, we heat our house with wood, we wear clothes until they wear out, not until they go out of style. We try to practice charity, and we try to be good stewards of what we have. I watch a lot of people really, really struggling right now. Either they are unable to find jobs, or the jobs they can find are inadequate to pay for basic needs as well as being jobs that don't tap their actual abilities. Meanwhile, other people (generally not quite so young) are being paid exorbitant amounts of money, and frequently have their jobs not because of their ability, but simply because they happened to know the right person, or be in the right place at the right time.

So, are we entitled to keep all the wonderful extra money that falls in our laps, or should we be funneling that extra money to people who don't have enough? Should we perhaps be helping create worker cooperatives that can pay a just wage, or giving more money to our parish school so that they can pay their staff a just wage? Some people would say that as long as we are giving an appropriate percentage of our income to the Church, we can do what we'd like with the rest. I'm just not so sure about that, but I'm also uncomfortable about what sometimes gets defined as needs. Clearly, what most people think of as needs now, are socially perceived needs, not actual needs. People need shelter (including heat - which threatens to be VERY expensive next winter), they don't need cable, they don't need air conditioning, or matching furniture, or a dryer. All of those are nice conveniences, but since my grandparents managed to raise 15 children between two families without them, clearly they aren't needs.

Clothing is also a need, even reasonable looking clothing is necessary in order to find and keep a job that will pay for your other needs. However, an extensive fashionable wardrobe is a want. There is some justification for paying more for clothes, if it means you are not subsidizing slave labor in China, but to do so probably means having very few outfits, and perhaps buying your clothes at the consignment shop.

Food is a definite need, but chicken breasts, instead of legs, strip steak instead of ground beef, high priced prepared foods, expensive restaurant meals are wants. The foods that used to be celebratory foods have become ordinary fare and most everyone thinks they are entitled to them. There are ways for most people to keep a food budget under control, and eat within their means, but often that means that someone has to eat things that aren't their most favorite items (perhaps tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches instead of grilled chicken breast Caesar salad, or egg salad sandwiches instead of deli meat). Some families are surviving only because of community food shelves, but often, even there, people are rejecting some of the offerings because they don't like them. Truly hungry people eat a lot of things that sort of hungry people don't think they should have to eat.

The rich have a responsibility to be just with their workers, to be charitable with their excess. The poor have a responsibility to not envy, and to be sure to identify their true needs rather than their wants. All of us have a responsibility to encourage just wages for all workers (not just the ones in our own backyard) and to be responsible stewards of what we have. There will be moments for celebration at which celebratory foods and dress are appropriate. There will be times when abstaining from celebratory foods is appropriate.

We live in an era where people think that sexual desires are needs not wants. Hence the horrible percentage of couples who are already living together when they finally make the trip to the altar. Of course part of the delay also comes from "needing" an expensive wedding. Part of the reason that some couples are delaying children, or keeping the mother in the work force is that they are still paying off that expensive wedding. An expensive wedding is a want, not a need. It is possible to have a very nice wedding on a budget, although we've found it is a challenge to do so. However, better a simple ceremony in street clothes than a marriage that begins on the wrong foundation.

There is something somewhat obscene about the Mc Mansions that have sprouted up on Spear Street in Burlington. They are houses that could easily provide bedrooms for 10 kids, but probably don't house more than 2. They are an example of conspicuous consumption, a way of telling everyone around that the owners have made it. Americans are really good at conspicuous consumption, would that we were as good about ensuring that everyone had a living wage. I would challenge anyone thinking about a purchase that's really just a way of demonstrating your wealth, whether it might not be better to contribute the money you're about to spend on jewelery or a luxury car or a more opulent house towards making it possible for someone else to have their basic needs for clothing, transportation, or shelter met. It's nice to appreciate fine things, but our appreciation needs to be proportionate. It doesn't seem fair to be paying a lower tuition to a Catholic school then you would to a posh private school, and then driving a luxury car while the staff at the Catholic school often can't afford to drive at all. I'm not so much in favor of big government give aways as I am in favor of people being paid a just wage from top to bottom (which may mean the people at the top make a whole lot less and the people at the bottom somewhat more) and jobs enough so that no one would be without one who needed one. I'm also in favor of an economy which makes it possible for babies to be cared for by their own mothers rather than parked in a day care center for 9 + hours a day. I honestly believe that babies need their mothers, that it is not just a want, but a genuine need, for the best physical, emotional, and mental growth. There's something wrong with a society that puts the wants of adults above the needs of babies.

Now I realize one person's decisions to spend conspicuously or not probably don't impact things all that much. However, each person's decisions do contribute to an overall climate. Each time we say yes to conspicuous consumption we are helping define who we are as a society. We place more and more pressure on everyone to conform. There's a reason why the young mom in my neighborhood is working instead of staying home with her toddler. She could live on her husband's income, but she couldn't dress her daughter in a fashion that would keep her among the best dressed in her kindergarten class. She wouldn't be able to provide the dance lessons that the wealthier families provide. So in order to keep her daughter in the social race she leaves her toddler at day car for 9+ hours a day. She's bought into a media sponsored lie about just what her daughter needs, but every time families make the decision to have their child wear designer clothes, or the newest toys, they put pressure on the less well off to try to "keep up with the Jones's." No one wants their child to feel left out. No one wants to be poorly thought of, but the cycle of conspicuous consumption creates a monster where people attempt to get fulfillment from things.

Jesus had a radical message: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. His message to the rich is equally radical: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to inherit the Kingdom of heaven. We don't need to all be vowed to poverty like St. Francis, but we do all need to be aware that we should be laying up treasures in heaven, not on earth.

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