The local high school is collecting electronic waste this weekend. I am jettisoning two old Windows machines that have been shoved under my desk for a few years.
As I removed the hard drives (to protect personal data) I thought about the advance of technology and our relative sense of value.
My first personal computer was a Zenith Z-89, purchased by my partner and I for our Miami PR firm. At the time Lanier, Wang and IBM sold stand-alone Word processing machines for $15,000 and up.
We bought the Z-89, a line printer and a copy of WordStar for $7,000. This was so cutting edge we were featured in the Miami Herald business section. “Local PR firms buys computer” was the headline. This was 1981.
The computer had one large floppy drive (8″ and truly floppy) and 48k of RAM. To write a document, we had to insert the floppy, boot the computer and load WordStar, then swap in a floppy to save our document. After a few minutes of writing and saving, we’d get prompted to re-insert the WordStar disc so it could fetch some code, then switch back.
We loved this machine. It saved us the cost of a typist.
My latest Windows machine cost $800, came with 12 gigabytes of RAM and a 2-terabyte hard drive.
In between came various computers, each faster and more capable. Those I’m giving away are ten years old. Ten years ago, I reveled in their power and functionality. There is nothing wrong with them. They can still do the same work.
And yet they are junk to me. But what about someone in the Third World? Might not a 10 year old Pentium computer, compared to having no computer, be a great blessing? It sure was to me at the time. I wish I could deliver my junk to them.
We measure things in relative terms. My junk computers are only junk compared to my newest machine. In absolute terms, those old computers are not junk at all. They are orders of magnitude better than the Z-89, the machine that thrilled us in 1981.
Progressives apply the same approach to “social justice.” In relative terms, I am dirt poor compared to Warren Buffet or Michael Bloomberg. So what?
In absolute terms, a poor person in the USA today is wealthy by international standards. And he’s well off compared to American standards of just 50 years ago. Yet by progressives’ relative yard stick, he’s to be pitied.
Progressives focus on gaps. Gaps between the 1% and the 99%. Gaps in wages. Gaps in technology (remember the fretting about the “digital divide?”) Gaps in access to broadband.
This has its place, I suppose. But if we only evaluate ourselves based on what others have, we’ll always feel poor. Politically this is useful. In 2012 Obama demonstrated the power of stoking and exploiting a sense of grievance.
But if we’re not careful, we can make ourselves miserable. For most of us, someone will always have more money and better stuff. There’s wisdom in the adage that poverty isn’t a matter of what you have, it’s about what you still want.