Money as a yardstick

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I read this interesting article on Slate the other day and it reminded me of some things I have been thinking about for a while.

The article discusses why computer technology in general and the Internet in particular have not done much for the US economy.  Median wages have grown very slowly over the past 40 years and declined over the past 10 years.  Amazingly, productivity has not increased significantly either.  As economist Robert Solow said in 1987, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

On the other hand, if you look past the issue of money, it is hard to argue against the fact that the normal American enjoys a much higher standard of living today.  Consider music for example.  Can you imagine what your parents might have thought 40 years ago if someone had told them that they could essentially have a custom radio station just for them?  Today, Pandora does exactly that and at a much better quality than FM radio.  Or, would they have been able to imagine that they could listen to all the music they wanted to in a year just by paying Rhapsody $75?

Today’s American may not have more money to buy music but they certainly have access to more music for the same money.  See the difference?  And that is why the Slate article suggests that money may not be the right yardstick to measure a standard of living.

Christians of course already know that money is not a measuring stick for anything, though we often have a hard time living that way.  But it is interesting that the world at large is picking up on that.  I never thought I would see the day when it would be cool to live in a small house, drive an old car and brag on Facebook about coupon shopping.  But that is where we are, and I think it is great. 

Another thing I think is very positive is that today’s younger generation seems less interested in money than the generations before them.   They seem more willing to accept the message of David Platt’s Radical than Robert Kiyosaki’s Poor Dad Rich Dad.  They appear to understand that there are greater goals in life than money and that money does not guarantee security.  They are not as materialistic.

But while I am happy to see the devaluing of money as a yardstick for living well, I do think a legitimate question is what we are replacing money with.  My fear is that materialism is being replaced by an equally dangerous “ism”–hedonism (pursuit of pleasure).

While the average person does not make more money today than 1970, the opportunities for entertainment are exponentially greater.  On-demand music, TV, movies, and gaming are now available for basically free and the quantity and variety is staggering.  We have more time available for leisure than ever before both at work and away from it.  It is no wonder that productivity has not improved when you consider how much of a typical employee’s time is wasted on Facebook, games, texting, and surfing the web.

In short, we are so rich in entertainment opportunities that we can become consumed by them. It is great that money is losing its appeal.  But we need to be careful to avoid hoarding our time and entertainment in the same way some have hoarded money.