We moved from New York City to the suburbs of Philadelphia in June. Over the past 8 months, I’ve run a variety of different routes around my house in order to get to know the area. What I’ve discovered is that, depending on which route I take, I can get very different impressions of the place.
Running through town and along some of the streets, there are a lot of smaller, older homes. Run a different loop and I go past several old Main Line castles (for lack of a better word), gated estates featuring driveways that loop in front of the house to display some sort of sleek black or silvery luxury car. There are also several newer McMansions, erected on smaller lots which I imagine used to house some of the smaller, older homes before the new owners, enamored with the location, elected to tear the older homes down.
Humans are social creatures. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that how we view our lives has a lot to do with where we land in the heap. We spend more on positional goods that others can see than on those they can’t, we give more credence to status symbols than we probably should, and we prefer to be the best paid member of our reference group, rather than the least, even if the latter is actually a higher dollar number.
But all this then makes my choice of route very important. Because who, really is my neighbor? Who is the right reference group? If I look one direction, I can think I live in relatively modest circumstances. If I look another, I would think my house is rather grand. Perhaps this is why some ridiculously high percentage of Americans claim to be middle-class. There’s always someone with more. And there’s always someone with less.
Of course if we really want to feel rich, we can try looking at humanity as a whole as a reference group, rather than the slice in any particular zip code. Because even the smallest, oldest house on any of my running routes would be a castle in, say, a Delhi slum. And in a globalized world, increasingly, the whole of humanity is the right reference group. The median household net worth in the US is around $120,000. The median wealth of the world is about $2,000. Now that is quite a gap between rich and poor.
(photo courtesy flickr user andrew_j_w)