Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor: The International Perspective!

By James Fallows

This is interesting: a site that lets you enter your annual income and then see where you stand among the world's six billion people. GlobalRichList.png
True, it doesn't appear to be an absolutely precise measurement device. Eg, its upper range seems to be pegged at $250,000 per year -- any income above that, from $250,001 to $10,000,000 seems to rank as the 107,565th richest in the world, in the top 0.001% of the overall income distribution. But (a) below that the gradations are quite fine, and (b) $250,000 is an interesting threshold, since the whole "poor little rich boy" phenomenon started with someone who makes much more than that and feels put-upon.

On the same theme, a reader in Washington DC writes:

A couple of observations:
  • The poverty-to-riches scale expands when you step outside of the US. To an African farmer - or even a low-level civil servant - the complaints of America's "poor", with their cars, TVs, running water, etc., are just as mystifying as the Law Professor's whingeing is to us.
  • In that context, and along the lines of "move to a poor neighborhood": Much of my life, both growing up and as an adult, has been spent in poor countries in Latin America and Africa. I can attest that much of the appeal of the expat life is that you always feel wealthy (and are wealthy, in practical terms - you can afford gardeners and nannys and drivers). I have many friends in international development circles who are reluctant to come back to the US, because it makes them feel poor to live here.
  • Besides the clear point that frame of reference is everything, I'd add the well documented finding that, dollar for dollar, we hate losing assets more than we love acquiring them (cf Loss Aversion, Endowment Effect). The Whiny Law Professor may have a lot, but it's all spoken for; and anything that's taken away will require him to give something up. I'm sure you could go even further up the scale and find millionaires who don't feel like they have any financial slack. Check out The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook. This is a very readable book-length exploration of the money-can't-buy-happiness phenomenon, not only across social scales but historically (increased material prosperity from generation to generation hasn't made us happier).

After the jump, one more in the same vein. Many additional followups in the queue!

From another reader:

In the mid-'80s, a couple years out of college, my girlfriend and I spent 7 months in Mexico and Central America (including 3 months in one city, teaching English part-time) and hardly a day goes by when I don't think back to that time. But of course one of the things that struck me was how well off we 'poor' ex-students (no longer in school, but mentally and emotionally students) were relative to 99% of the people we saw.

So here's what I would propose: send the whiny rich to a less prosperous country where they can a) feel fabulously wealthy, and/or b) gain a little broader perspective on their own (and their own country's) place in the world. It's a win-win: they get to live like royalty, and we don't have to put up with their incessant whining.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/10/self-pitying-wealthy-poor-the-international-perspective/63851/