Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Cobbler and the Rich Man

Today as I was out walking at lunchtime I found myself thinking about one of the moral tales that formed part of our primary school reading.  It goes by various names including The Cobbler and the Rich Man, The Cobbler and the Financier or The Cobbler's Song.  This story was first made popular in Europe by Jean de la Fontaine, a seventeenth century French author, although it is much older than that and may originate on the Indian sub-continent.

In this story a poor cobbler works in his shop each day, and as he works he sings loudly and cheerfully.  This singing is intensely annoying to his neighbour, a wealthy financier who lies awake all night worrying about his money and then is unable to sleep during the day because of the cobbler's noise.  Eventually the rich man hits on a plan - he gives the cobbler a purse containing 100 gold pieces.

Immediately the cobbler's peace of mind is shattered and he ceases to sing.  Instead he lies awake at night worrying that someone will steal his gold, shifting it from hiding place to hiding place as he deems each one too unsafe.  He can barely eat for the stress, begins to waste away and spends his days in misery.  His neighbour, meanwhile, has the silence he needs to gain much-needed rest.

Eventually, the cobbler confides the whole story to his wife, who immediately solves the problem by advising him to return the gold to his neighbour.  He does so, and his happiness is immediately restored while the rich man, in the version I read as a child, is "forced to move to somewhere where cobblers do not sing so cheerfully".

The moral of the story, of course, is that money doesn't buy you happiness and that in fact it may do just the opposite.  Is this really true?  Well, it seems so, although the evidence is a little ambiguous. For instance, in 2010 Kahneman and Deaton surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that there was a correlation between income and happiness up to an annual income of about $75,000, after which average happiness plateaued.  However, in 2013 Stevenson and Wolfers conducted a similar survey with a different methodology and found that wellbeing continued to increase as income rose.

The relationship is not simple.  Much depends on what you do with the money.  Accumulating more and more possessions provides little or no extra happiness or wellbeing.  However, having good experiences (which money can facilitate) does make us happier.  These experiences can involve all sorts of things - it may be fun holidays or activities, but it is also spending time with people we love and doing good for others, including giving away part of our wealth to those who need it more than we do.  Wealth does not bring happiness, but it may make it easier for us to do happy things if we are wise enough to discern what these are.

Of course, we should not be fooled by the cobbler's tale into glorifying poverty.  The cobbler is a particular kind of poor person.  He has somewhere to live.  He is married to an intelligent and sensible woman.  He has meaningful work to do, which he clearly enjoys.  He has good health which enables him to do physical work all day.  He has friends who come to his shop to enjoy his singing.  All these things are the conditions of his happiness.  If he was homeless, unemployed, alone in the world, surrounded by enemies or in constant pain he would not sing so cheerfully.  He has achieved the happy medium which the wise man Agur prays for in Proverbs 30.

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

This is a very important story for the situation we find ourselves in right now.  There is abundant evidence for anyone who is willing to look that our current way of life is unsustainable.  Our wealthy Western societies cannot go on amassing wealth and consuming resources at the rate we are now.  Oil is running out, we are on a path to climate disaster, the pressures of poverty and war are creating millions of displaced persons, and an unconscionable proportion of the world's population lives in absolute poverty.  Something has to give, and that something is us.  The only way out of this dilemma is for our societies to give up part of their wealth.

Of course the hero of The Cobbler and the Rich Man is neither the cobbler nor the rich man, but the cobbler's wife.  She is the only person in the story who diagnoses the problem correctly and is able to solve it.  Wealth is making both her husband and their neighbour unhappy.  The difference between the two men is that only her husband is able to accept the solution, which is to have less.  He instantly feels the weight lifted from his shoulders and recommences his singing.

Their rich neighbour, on the other hand, is unable to take this step and instead retreats from the situation into a privatised silence.  We don't know what he does there, but it seems unlikely that he is genuinely happy.  At best he will be able to snatch a little sleep during his daylight hours because he has found a place where his unhappiness is not constantly highlighted by the happiness of his neighbour.

He could serve as an analogue for our entire society.  Our politicians continually tell as that our problems will be solved by "jobs and growth", but they won't.  The message of Brexit, Trump's election, the fences barring refugees from travelling westward into Europe, Australia's fierce commitment to indefinite detention of asylum seekers and the resurgence of protectionism is that we will go to any lengths to hold onto the wealth we have.  The thought of a correction, of giving up some of our riches, makes us afraid.  It makes us feel physically ill.  It stops us from singing and makes us toss restlessly in our beds at night.

Our wealth is not making us happier or healthier.  Levels of depression and anxiety continue to climb upwards.  Obesity - surely the clearest possible sign that we have too much - is on the rise and public health measures are making little difference.  Our public life is disintegrating into a shambles of competing factions without the skill or willingness to forge any kind of consensus.  We are beset by anxieties at every turn, not least the anxiety that someone will steal our hard-earned (or hard-inherited, or ill-gotten) wealth.

We should listen more carefully to the wisdom of the cobbler's wife.  It is not merely that we can get by with less - although this is clearly true - but that we will be a lot better off if we do.  The danger of our current predicament is that as we reach the limits of our current trajectory it will be the poorest people of the globe who are asked, or forced, to give up more.  This will lead to untold suffering.

This would of course be a shocking and unforgivable outcome for them, but it would also be a very bad one for us.  Not only their wellbeing, but ours also, requires us to give up some of our wealth.  Only if we do this can more people around the globe (both in the developed and the majority world) achieve the cobbler's happy medium and be able to return to singing cheerful songs as we work.


Hermit said...

I dunno. If some of us get less, we will lose our little houses, and returning to renting is a horrible thought.

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, I feel the same way, especially with the current state of the rental market. On the other hand, if my house was 30% smaller and I lost three quarters of the books that line the shelves which I never read, I probably wouldn't suffer at all, and if I gave up my car I would survive just fine with a little bit more travel time now and then and probably a bit less middle-age spread. The golden mean is such a delicate thing.