Money (and Somerset Maugham)

As I recall, Larry, the protagonist in Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” is a vagabond spirit, a backpacking nomad with friends of all classes on different continents. At one point, a rich friend who enjoys philosophical discussions with Larry offers him a job at a high salary with little or no actual work. He is surprised that Larry turns him down. How could he resist such an offer? Larry responds succinctly:

“Money to you means freedom; to me it means bondage.”

He says this, as I recall, with no arrogance but a genuine appreciation of their differences. That pretty well sums up the two key viewpoints on money. Most everyone’s attitude can be placed in relation to those two poles. And if I got some of the context wrong, well I haven’t read the book in a while. That’s the way I remember it.

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“Standard of Living ” vs “Quality of Life”

If you’re like me, sometimes those phrases blur together in the gray matter, and you need a reminder that they are entirely different things. My most recent reminder came from spending some months in Mexico, after which it struck me that the standard of living is higher in the US but the quality of life is higher in Mexico. I.e., in the US everyone has cars, people have more expensive things in their homes, etc. But in Mexico – at least in my experience living in Guanajuato and visiting a number of other towns – there is more day-to-day human content. I could walk down my street any time of day or evening and there were people everywhere – families, street vendors, buskers, teenagers. If I walked a mile or more, I would likely run into at least one person I knew, and given the pace of life, we might stop for a drink or poke around in an open mercado. How many times did I stumble upon an impromptu art opening or free movie night?

In Mexico, I spent hardly any money, had no car or nice “things,” but when life is full, nice things are superfluous. And when people live their lives out on the streets in the community, life may have ups and downs, but it will almost certainly be full. There is more life, more beating heart, in Mexico. At least for me. I do not want to generalize – at least not about quality of life. The standard of living is more quantifiable, and I can generalize that it is higher in the US. Quality of life is more subjective and certainly varies from place to place within those two countries (and varies from person to person). So I can’t really conclude that the quality of life in Mexico is irrefutably higher than in the US. It’s just that for me, Mexico was my reminder: standard of living and quality of life are two different things. You might have a different reminder. But it’s nice to reflect on that once in a while for perspective.

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