Monday, April 26, 2010

Being Wealthy

The Tanzanians regard all foreigners as being fabulously wealthy. Relatively speaking, we are. A manual laborer here may make about U.S. $3 to $4 per day. Our dollars do go a long ways for certain items such as locally grown food, transportation, domestic help, and hand-made items.

But I think the Tanzanians are only focused on the money in our personal pockets. My feeling of being wealthy, as an American, arises not from what I possess as an individual but from other kinds of tangibles and from many intangibles.

There are the things that could be called "public assets". These include an extensive and reliable power grid; water supplies that provide clean, potable water out of the tap; sewage systems; garbage collection and disposal; and paved streets and roads. There are hospitals and clinics; fire departments; health departments; and parks, playing fields, and zoos. Then there are the intellectual and cultural resources: public libraries; museums; and colleges and universities. All of these come from what we envision, maintain, fund, and value collectively as a society, not individually.

And there are the intangibles such as civil rights and political freedoms. I remember living in Taiwan in 1971 during a time of military dictatorship. I was stunned to learn that newspapers and magazines were strictly censored; that only a few people were allowed to have passports and to leave the country; that a police officer sitting outside a movie theater could stop me for having hair that was too long.

I feel wealthy not because of the modest amount of money that Diane and I have managed to earn and save (which would not go far in the U.S.) but because I benefit immeasurably from what I have inherited from a developed, democratic country in the latter half of the twentieth century. -Earl

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