Essays About


When I plan my budget each January, I lose whatever excitement I once felt for money, for I see how little goes to pleasure and how much to mere administration. Mortgage payments, car repair, insurance premiums, taxes, prescriptions, utilities—for these we stain our souls with the sin of greed? The money I earn from continuously working does not accumulate into wealth but dissipates into bills. I am a conduit of the economy, funneling money from the company that pays me to the companies I pay. It is not so much pleasurable to have money as unpleasurable not to have it.

Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.

A notable fact about the Gold Rush is that, except for a few lucky firstcomers, no one got rich from mining gold, but many got rich from selling supplies to the miners. One sees this pattern repeated constantly. People are never so foolishly willing to part with money as in the hope of making money. In any bookstore, countless bestsellers advertise the secrets to instant riches. Did any such book ever make its readers rich? Rather, its readers make its author rich. Most financial advisors fail to beat a simple buy-and-hold investment strategy, but by charging hefty fees to their clients, they ensure outstanding returns for themselves in bull and bear markets alike. States with lotteries fill their treasuries with the last pennies of the poor. (Those who can least afford to gamble are, for just that reason, most tempted to.)

Someone should write the first legitimate get-rich-quick bestseller: the easy road to riches is by preying on others' hopes of easy riches.

The poverty line has risen throughout history. The tenants of modern trailer parks live in more luxury than early Sumerian aristocrats, whose mansions were reed huts with dirt floors. The motor scooters of unemployed college students travel faster than the horses of medieval lords. Civil War generals communicated by courier, but now every private has a mobile phone. Progress impoverishes the past. Complaints lose power when you think of your ancestors. We decry the cost of health insurance, but a century ago, there existed neither health insurance nor cures for it to pay for. I grumble when my air conditioning breaks in summer, but in ancient Egypt even Pharaohs had to sweat.

Consumers live by the fads that marketers make up in the shower. Every consumer must have, as essential to his being, what until recently did not exist. Advertisers portray the new as indispensable, and consumers mistake their greed for need. Nothing can be a need that most of humanity lived without. Nor unless you think of it by yourself, without the aid of advertisements.

Christmas is not so much the season of giving but of trading. Commerce is nearer our nature than charity, so we strive to exchange gifts of precisely equal value. We resent the friend whose gift is unexpected, forcing a late run to the mall to reciprocate. Like accountants, we must settle the books and rid our balance sheet of debt.

Often, lest we surprise each other with unwanted gifts, we tell each other what we would like: in brief, we run each other's errands.

Since, in exchanging presents, everyone's net gain is null, I prefer the more efficient gift of not giving.

Perversely, gift-giving has a bias toward the useless. Specialty electronics, imported bath oils, and time-saving tools that require more effort to operate than they save have an air of extravagance and luxury, while useful gifts like bread or cereal or coins for parking meters seem thoughtlessly uninspired. Thus we clutter our friends' attics with products no one would purchase for himself. We give our most useful gift, money, to corporations.

At holidays we make donations to the economy in each other's honor.

Everyone seeks their soul's good, even in seeking their body's pleasure. Hedonists hope their material enjoyment will reach inside and touch the marrow of their being. Is this not what saints are seeking, by alternate experiments? A middle-aged rich man in a red convertible, cruising the Amalfi coast with a model half his age, is merely another kind of monk, whose spiritual discipline is indulgence. Every mall is a monastery where the initiates seek beatitude, not by selling everything before they enter, but by buying everything before they leave.

Have things taken such a turn that the animal, whose reason gives it a claim to divinity, cannot seem beautiful to itself except by the possession of lifeless trappings? -Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

A lady wears a diamond around her neck, and because of it she feels beautiful. Yet what would a diamond be without a lady? All matter is uniform and worthless until humans give it value. Consider the life history of that lifeless stone. Forged by earth's forces and inner fires over many millennia, before any human being walked earth's crust, the diamond came to rest in a bed of subterranean rock, covered with meters of dirt, in pitch darkness. Bacteria grew around it. Silent eons passed. Eventually, in these latter days, miners dug a shaft to it and chipped it free, a craftsman carved its edges until it shone, a man spent a month's salary to buy it, and now it hangs on his lover's neck.

Lady, your jewel does not make you beautiful, you make your jewel beautiful.