Saturday, May 29, 2010

Want and Need

It is human to confuse the distinction between what we want and what we need.
If things were free, we’d all live in mansions, drive luxury sedans, and watch giant HD televisions. We’d have giant tennis courts in every playground and basketball courts under air conditioned domes. Our children would go to the best colleges and wear perfect new outfits every day.
But things aren’t free. Things cost. And that raises problems.
First is opportunity cost. If I spend money on one thing, I can’t spend that same money on something else. Opportunity cost is easy to overlook; to see it, try this exercise. You’re about to spend a hundred dollars on a golden widget. Stop and ask yourself: if I suddenly found myself with a fresh new hundred dollar bill, what would I spend it on? If the answer is not “a golden widget,” your opportunity costs may be too high.
With a need, opportunity cost doesn’t matter. A need is something we can’t do without. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s a very short list. I definitely need food, but I merely want steak.
We’ve had a growing national problem with the want/need thing in recent years. We define need based on what we used to have, or what other folks have. “Can’t live without” is defined as “not used to living without” or “nobody else is doing without it.” Many of us have convinced ourselves that we need things we can’t afford. Many businesses have made big bucks from enabling our spending spasms. And our leaders have set mighty bad examples.
No political side owns the high ground on this issue, though both like to claim it. DC has been spending money we don’t have on “essentials” for a while now, and the only thing that faux liberals and pretend conservatives disagree on is what we’ll insist is necessary. One decided that grabbing some big glob of government health care for (mostly) every citizen is necessary, no matter the cost. The other decided that a war for pride and oil was necessary, no matter the cost. And both decided that the US needed to own industry and banking. (And it’s not just as US thing—see Greece).
All parties concerned will offer the same defense—we absolutely needed the thing that we bought. And certainly that’s the judgment we all make—what do want to classify as a need. (Voters are part of the problem—no politician has ever won election by telling voters, “You don’t really need that, so stop asking for it.”
Setting priorities is fine. I decided years ago that books and music are more important to me than really nice shoes. I decided that paying most of my kids’ college costs was something I wanted more than any number of nicer toys. How much I wanted the nicer toys doesn’t matter, because here’s the second thing—there’s only so much money, and no amount of want nor need changes that.
That’s why it’s important to know the difference between wants and needs—because when the money gets tight, you can’t just get everything on both lists.
Sometimes a real need comes along, like a round of cancer or a giant exploding oil well. The irony with most so-called natural disasters from the Johnstown flood to the Titanic to the most recent coal mine deaths is that they are frequently the result of humans deciding that something (like, say, lifeboats or a way to plug up the sub-oceanic hole they were digging) wasn’t really necessary.
Sometimes it’s not our fault that we can’t afford the things we want. Nobody plans on losing their job or coming down with an expensive disease. Here in Venangoland, we’re insulated from most real estate sticker shock; if we lived in a metro area, most of us couldn’t afford the houses we live in now. Complain all you like about real estate tax rates; moving to a place where your house drew half the millage rate but cost six times as much would not save you money.
Whether it’s our fault or not, individually or collectively, we can’t afford what we can’t afford and we don’t need what we don’t need. I’m not saying it’s easy to figure out our limits or sort out our wants and needs, but a good first step would be to admit that we need to do the figuring and sorting. I need shelter; I don’t need the Taj Mahal.

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