Sunday, May 18, 2008

Those Darned Joneses

I'm probably going to make some readers unhappy (what else is new) but I've been giving some thought to the financial disparity in Klal and how that seems to be affecting people.

There's a simple scale you can use to measure financial prosperity. On one end of the scale you have wealthy; on the other end you have poor. There are any number of points on the scale between these two.

In the real world goods and services cost money; how much money you have should be the determinant of how much you can purchase of those goods and services. Because we have a sliding scale of prosperity, we also need to introduce the idea of choices when it comes to purchasing goods and services. The more money you have the more choices you can make. Basically, you can't walk into a supermarket with $50 and expect to walk out with goods costing $99. You're going to have to look into your shopping wagon and choose which of the items you are going to buy, just so long as you don't exceed $50. I can just see the face on a supermarket manager's face if a customer walked over to him and said: "Give me the stuff I have in my wagon that I can't pay for because all my friends buy these things and I am entitled to buy them also."

In the frum world, as well as in the secular world, people look at all the people around them and all the things they own and the services they have. They look, and then they say: "I'm a person too and if person X has item Y I am entitled to have item Y too." Wrong. You are "entitled" to want item Y; to actually get item Y you are going to have to be able to afford it. The Declaration of Independence stated that among our inalienable rights were "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Notice that it did not say we were entitled to Happiness; it said that we are entitled to working and pursuing that happiness, whatever that should be for us. And if Happiness has a price tag attached, we have to be able to pay that price.

I don't really care if those with more money then I have own more and fancier "toys" then I do. If they have the money then let them spend it as they want to. If they want a fancier neighborhood and they can afford it, then fine. If they want designer clothing and they can afford it, then fine. If they want Viking ranges instead of GE and they can afford it, then fine. They are entitled to make their decisions just as I am entitled to make my own. But let's be careful when looking at those people.

It's not good for anyone when people play keeping up with the Joneses, play being the operative word. Either you have the money to actually "be" the Joneses or you need to retire from the competition before you get into deep financial trouble. If your happiness depends on having what the Joneses have then you had better be prepared to pursue that happiness by making the money that lets you into the game. If someone makes an elaborate chasoneh and they can afford it down to the last penny, then thank you for inviting me and isn't it nice how well the Joneses are doing that they can indulge themselves this way. But that doesn't and shouldn't obligate those who don't have the Joneses' money to make the same kind of wedding.

I've heard it mentioned on many blogs that wedding costs would go down and weddings would become less elaborate if only a g'vir would first make a simpler wedding so we would all follow them. Nonsense. Wedding costs will go down when people who can't afford what the Joneses can stop trying to pretend that they can. Costs will go down when people spend only what is in their pockets. Costs will go down when we stop applying totally artificial "standards" to things like weddings. There is no "right" way to make a wedding and no "wrong" way either.

Many years ago I had lunch at a friend's house on Shabbos. There were 6 couples at the table. The hostess served what I can only describe as the most awful side salad every to have the misfortune to be served. The ingredients and tastes in that salad were never intended by nature to be married in one dish. Being friendly enough with the hostess I asked her later why she served that particular salad. She sheepishly admitted that she was in a hurry when shopping, bought the wrong dressing and only realized erev Shabbos that she didn't have all the ingredients. She needed to serve something so she improvised. She also admitted to having filed the leftover salad--and there was plenty left over--in the garbage. What is the end of this story? The hostess in question is quite wealthy. She isn't really looking to be a style leader but people tend to look at what she buys and decide that that item is a "must have" for them. That miserable salad became something of a neighborhood "sensation" as people passed the recipe around. No one liked it, it didn't taste good and it got thrown away every where. It cost a lot to prepare and it was real "thrown out money." But if someone with money made that salad then everyone else was entitled to it as well. Jones-ism carried out to the -nth degree.

So yes, if things cost more than we can afford the answer lies with us--don't spend what you don't have. I'll be just a little bit fair here to those who overspend; it's one thing for those on a lower rung financially to be playing the game of Keeping Up With the Joneses; it's quite another thing when the Joneses insist that you play the game. There are among us those who relish the role of "trend setter." They not only enjoy spending their money lavishly but they also enjoy telling others how what they do is the "right" thing to do, the way things "should be" or "have to be" done. Please don't tell me that they don't know that there are other people with less money than they have--they didn't get rich by being that dumb. These people need to soft pedal their public pronouncements. These people really love to play Keeping up with the Joneses, because they are the Joneses and they always win. They are thankfully few, but they are very visible and very vocal.

So, a very simple solution to the financial "crisis" that afflicts many families: stop looking at what everyone else has and buy only what you have money for. If you want more, earn more. Making choices about what to spend on may be hard but that doesn't mean we don't have to do it. Recognize that there always have been and probably always will be Joneses out there with more money than you have no matter what you will do--that is their chalek in life. Getting rid of the Joneses is not the answer. Sameach b'chelko is not just words on paper. There's another saying that applies as well: "Cut your suit to suit your cloth." You can't get a 46 long suit out of a piece of cloth that will only provide for a 34 short.


Anonymous said...

Fair enough for a chasuna where, if need be, you can get married with a bare minyan and a meal of bagels and cream cheese. (This does occasionally happen. Right after graduating high school, my son got a call from our rav at 9:30 in the morning asking if he could come to the shul to fill out a minyan for such an affair.) However, when it comes to the services provided with school and, therefore, the cost of day school tuition (particularly in smaller communities) the market is often driven by the Jones's. You don't really have the ability to unbundle the school services and get the instruction without the fancy building.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes those Joneses are driving the market when it comes to tuition but just as often they are the ones who are paying the full tuition and more so that those who aren't Joneses can have access to the schooling.

Fancy school buildings? Remember the story about how the wine sours in silver containers but remains wonderful in clay ones? Fancy building does not equate to better schooling. It does allow those Joneses who want to show the world that they are Joneses the ability to do so. And we let them.

Anonymous said...

The worst place for this Jones following is with shidduchim making. Everyone has to follow some rules that somewhere a Jones made up. Everyone wants the same shidduch their neighbors got or their friends got. It's coming down to buying and selling products instead of thinking what is right for each individual person.

You think not? Go to a chasoneh and look at the crowds of people. Can hardly tell them apart because all the girls are in the same uniform and the guys too. They walk and talk the same too. Some Jones somewhere is probably laughing.

Anonymous said...

Rae: sure, that's why the schools play to the high end of the market. But there are a lot of people in between the wealthy and those with low enough income to qualify for scholarships who get squeezed very hard.

Ookamikun said...

My wedding had soup and chicken and the chuppah was on the sidewalk. I didn't at all feel bad or worried that someone will say something or think something. It's my party and I couldn't care less what you want.
On the other hand, I enjoy going to weddings with bars and a good variety of food. Instead of making everyone do the same kind of wedding, those poorer should get a backbone and some balls and stand on their own.

Mike, you're absolutely right. Those earning too much to be poor and too little to be wealthy get screwed by both schools and government. By gov't programs, you could be earning $10 too much and you end up getting nothing.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that Kinah is one of those bad traits you are going to get rid of just by telling people that they have to let it go. Otherwise somebody would have thought of it centuries ago. But we do carry it to extremes. Even the kids get in on it. Last summer my fifth grader spent hours on the phone with her friends discussing what type of book bag to get and what color and asking who knew what the 'Jones' in their class was buying. I was a bit shocked by how young it was all starting and even my 12th grader asked me if he and his friends had ever been like that. Yes, they were, but nowhere near as bad.

Anonymous said...

Mike and Moshe,
Good points about those in the middle. We seem to to moving to a point where being in the middle class is going to be a bad thing--not enough money to actually keep up the lifestyle and too much money to qualify for aid programs. It's not even that we can't keep up with the Joneses, we can't keep up with ourselves. It's ironic that you can be richer by being poor in this country then by working but not making globs of money.

Anonymous said...

One keeping up with the Jones area gets disguised as hidur mitzvah--esrogim. I was at my in law's shul sukkos time and I watched the men openly and not so openly comparing their esrog to everybody elses esrog. Then came the questions of how much did you pay. When I heard $600 mentioned I was in shock. I mentioned it at the table and got more shock--plenty of people who pay over $1000 for the esrog. Plenty of those who don't have the money to pay full tuition, who need camp scholarships, who need gemachs, but they are paying huge sums for esrogim, all for hidur mitzvah. Or is it that they need to have what they have seen somebody else have?

Anonymous said...

I think the Jones problem is why parents today have more trouble with their children then was the case many years ago. All a child has to say is that his friend got something and that child's parents are already running out to get the same thing. No one wants their children to "be behind" other children.

Keeping up with the Jones could be reduced a lot if we all just learned to say NO.