Private Wealth and Peace of Mind

Progressives complain that most economic gains during the 1990s went disproportionately to the rich. As government's tax and regulatory role has diminished, wealthy Americans have laughed all the way to the bank while working class citizens pick up the tab. Nonetheless, however accurate this picture is -- and I have endorsed it -- it begs an important question. Has the quality of life for wealthy Americans improved along with their wealth?

Wealth may not buy happiness, but at least private wealth ought to enhance one's ability to travel, to enjoy exotic venues, to be guaranteed state of the art health care, and to rest secure in one's home. Yet even before the terrorist onslaught, even immense wealth may have lost its capacity to assure these goods. Indeed, terrorism may have inadvertently exposed growing gaps in public sector goods and services important even to the health and security of the wealthy. These deficiencies may constitute little reason to pity the wealthy, but they should encourage us to take a closer look at the motives for and defenses of its acquisition.

In an outstanding piece in the August 5, 2001 LA Times, Peter Gosselin commented that the '90s boom, unlike that of the '50s and '60s, left us with no "public monuments." The earlier era brought the interstate highway system and universal phone service, but after the last decade of growth, "Americans are twice as likely to own a personal computer. But they're also more likely to run short of the power needed to operate it. They can purchase the most technologically advanced health care on Earth but face a rising risk of being unable to find an emergency room. They can buy Perrier but can't always get clean tap water."

Gosselin's focus on how the wealthy are now affected by these trends is distinctive. Years ago, The Nation magazine reported that Realtors in Los Angeles marketed properties based in part on the quality of the neighborhood's air. Some parts of a metropolitan area still are more polluted than others, but smog now increasingly blankets whole regions. In addition, vacation hideaways frequented by the rich, like my home of Mount Desert Island, Maine (site of Acadia National Park), are at the end of the pipeline for noxious urban air. I wonder how many wealthy visitors to the island last summer found themselves unable to enjoy mid-afternoon tennis or golf during the many days coastal Maine was under a smog alert..

Gosselin's example of Perrier is also telling. Years ago many wealthy homeowners dug wells to avoid the chlorine taste in municipal systems and presumably assure themselves pure water. Yet with the proliferation of large-lot suburban developments and individual septic systems, well water itself became problematic. Bottled water then became the apparent answer for those willing to spend what it takes to obtain safe water. Nonetheless, the bottled-water industry itself is unregulated. Consumers have little more than the promise that such water is safe.

The search for paradise through private affluence and free markets has ended up tainting not only air and water but even vacation travel as well. Urban and suburban sprawl makes inter- and intra-city travel increasingly time consuming and dangerous. States now face the dual problem of ever more roads to maintain coupled with a reluctance to fund the public sector. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that: "One-third of the nation's major roads are in poor or mediocre conditions," which contributes to "as many as 13,800 highway fatalities annually."

Wealthy citizens have historically minimized delays and dangers by hopping on airplanes. Even before the recent terrorism, such individual strategies were becoming ever less effective. Deregulation of the airlines led to increased demand, over scheduling, and hub-and-spoke systems that tax runway capacity. Passenger volume grew 37% in the last decade, but congestion delayed about 50,000 flights a month. There were 429 near misses on runways.

The health of the air one breathes on airplanes has now become an increasing concern. An adequate response to new epidemics may well depend on the resources and training of state-level public health personnel. Nonetheless, the Bush administration continues to oppose federal efforts to assist the states, which face the greatest fiscal crisis since the Depression.

And when injury or disease strikes in the course of travel, even the wealthy now may face unaccustomed challenges. They are not turned away from an emergency room because they lack health insurance, but emergency room capacity has itself often been downsized in response to the relentless pressure for profit maximization.

Wealth can mitigate every one of these problems, but it is hard to argue that the decay of such "public monuments" as quality medical centers, well trained and staffed public health professionals, public transit, clean air, and pure water doesn't take a toll even on the most affluent. Might not their quality of life improve with the tradeoff of a little more in taxation and federal spending for improvement in these public amenities?

If the answer is yes, then one can only conclude that for some, resistance to taxation and the public sector is rooted in something more than economics. Private affluence and freedom from any publicly imposed limits have become the core of personal identity and ends in themselves. Sadly, an obsession with these private liberties may trump even one of their best historic justifications, enhancing the quality of life.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes on labor and environmental issues. Email

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2003 The Progressive Populist