Friday, June 17, 2005

Ready to forego comfort and security for status?

Fascinating. From Gary North's Reality Check, Issue 455, June 17:
In the United States, it is not considered good form to enquire about another person's net worth. One does not ask his neighbor, "How much are you really worth, after you subtract your debt?" It never has been acceptable.

Yet men want to find socially acceptable ways to express their status. So do their wives. In every Western society, where you live conveys this information. Your neighborhood, the size of your home, and the magnificence (or age) of your furniture all convey this information.

The exception: a neighborhood occupied by a specific immigrant group, whose members rarely move out. These are voluntary ghettos. They are rare.

Americans have always been willing to exchange comfort for status. Back in 1870, rural people who lived in "soddies" -- dirt homes -- in the Great Plains moved into conventional wood homes whenever they earned extra money.

These wood homes were poorly insulated. Residents sweltered in summer and froze in winter. This was not true of a soddy, where thick earthen walls kept out the heat in summer and kept out the cold in winter. But a man who made money and who remained in a soddy would never hear the end of it, short of the ultimate soddy: his grave. His wife wanted out of the hole in the ground.

Anyone could live in a hole in the ground. Poor people had to live there. So, up the status hierarchy they climbed. They paid to have wood hauled in for hundreds of miles to build a stick home. Then they had to find a way to heat it in winter. They could not cool it in summer.

They had to paint it every few years. It got blown away in tornadoes. There was always the threat of fire. None of this affected low-status soddies.

I have no doubt that they justified the move by saying, "This is a long-term investment."

They could have compromised. They could have built brick homes. They could have built two-layer brick homes with walls insulated by straw. They didn't. Why not?
Status. Anyone could live in a straw-insulated brick home: less status. They bought status with misery.

In those days, misery bought status. In our day, we have added debt: even more misery.

Before I read this, I would have never thought I would be willing to forego comfort and security for status. Why would anyone do such a thing? . . . But now I realize North is right! . . . We humans will do all kinds of strange things that make no sense!