RESTON, VA (Sept. 16, 1999) -- From where I sit, Hurricane Floyd is turning out to be a dud. But then, most things you fear turn out to be not as bad as expected.
Which is not to say that Floyd was gentle to everyone. I would imagine that the guys in the weather station at the Freeport, Bahamas airport who found all of their weather tracking equipment destroyed, and who had to sit and watch their cars float away might take exception with my "dud" remark.
Another remark in that same National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast really got me to thinking. Eric Ward, operations manager of jazz station JAMZ, Nassau, mentioned that some of the housing in the out islands was substandard. This is not because they didn't expect to be hit by a hurricane at some time (that was pretty much a given), but because many of the residents couldn't afford hurricane-proof housing.
I grew up in Florida and have sat through quite a few hurricanes in safety and even comfort. In my callow days, I actually thought of them as fun. No one I knew ever got hurt, and if a tree caved in an occasional roof, well, that was what insurance was for. That was before my worldview expanded.
So this NPR report got me to thinking about wealth. What is it about wealth? If you are reading this article, personal wealth is probably something you aspire to, even if you call it something else, like financial freedom, a good retirement, or just being "comfortable."
Why do we want wealth?
These days wealth is equated with glamor, lifestyle, "stuff." Pursuit of wealth has become a national pastime. We are even willing to invest in something with a silly name like the Foolish Four if we think it will mean eventual financial freedom. Surely we aren't chasing mere glitz. No, I'm certain we aren't. What are we really after? And why are we after it with such passion?
Which brings me back to the Bahamas. Not the high-rise hotels, but the out islands, a paradise where many of the poorer people live in housing that can't stand up to a hurricane. (I hope they all reached a place of safety, but there were reports of loss of life.)
At its most basic, wealth is survival. We are dealing with a basic human instinct here that, at its core, has very little to do with glitz. Like many of our basic instincts, it is often manifested in strange ways. So the instinct to reproduce manifests as $50,000 weddings and Internet porn. The instinct to eat manifests in agribusiness and food courts. We do manage to complicate things, don't we?
Our instinct to survive and to ensure the survival of our offspring can manifest itself in many, many ways, but the accumulation of wealth is certainly one of them. Wealthy people are unlikely to drown when a storm surge hits their houses. They might be in harm's way from choice or accident or stupidity, but rarely from necessity.
But in a very real sense we are already "wealthy." If you are reading this, you are probably living a better lifestyle than 99% of all humans who have ever lived. Last year I toured one of those old colonial Virginia mansions and had two amazing revelations. First, the "mansion" was nice, but not that much nicer than the tract homes that are springing up all over Fairfax County. Of course, Fairfax County is known as the wealthiest in the country, but you see those houses everywhere. An average middle-class home is the equivalent of a previous century's average mansion. Upper middle-class homes in Fairfax County are palaces by the standards of any previous century.
We also toured the slaves' quarters. What a contrast -- small, dark hovels with dirt floors. However, the docent said something that really gave me pause. She said that this cabin was no worse than what 90% of the population of colonial America lived in.
The point wasn't that the slaves were treated as well as most other people, but that most people lived at a bare subsistence level. The average housing couldn't have been any less and still sustained life.
Permit me to generalize a bit:
You may not (yet) be a person of independent means, but compared to history and compared to the rest of the world, you are rich. If you actually own the computer you are reading this on, you probably live better than most royalty. You have better health care, better and cleaner clothing, a far more comfortable house, and better entertainment. You will live longer and suffer less. Your children are less likely to die or suffer, your parents are more financially independent, and you have access to the kinds of knowledge that no one a generation ago would have even dreamed possible.
So yes, pursue wealth, but don't forget to appreciate the wealth you have.
Fool on and prosper!