Thursday, March 10, 2016

IPhone IS a luxury.

Several years ago Israel was swept by the "Social Protest", hundreds of thousands of people went out of the comfort of their house and attended dozens of demonstrations throughout the country. Since the rallying cries were sometimes approximately "Everything is so F-ing expensive - WTF?!? This really sucks. Let's do something about it!" - they were easy to relate and united people of various political orientations. 
Disclaimer: even I suspended my normal disbelief in politics and attended a couple - until the harsh reality of how futile it was hit me in the face. You see, one of the major reasons a movement that got ~15% of the population on the streets ended up failing to produce any fundamental changes was that "social justice" means very different things to different people. 
Some were marching because the rent in Tel Aviv was too high for them (it really is very high - but that's not unusual in Capital/metropolitan cities). Some were thinking about raising the social security handouts to a level slightly above starvation if it was someone's only income. Some were talking about rotten crony capitalism. A friend of mine, who's the head of a communist movement section in Jerusalem, saw it as an opportunity to strengthen the status of the labor class vs. the "ownership class". Everyone was right in a sense, wrong in a different sense, and most of the crowd's demands were actually contradictory, despite being very catchy (who wouldn't want to pay less taxes, get cheaper goods and help those in need - all at the same time? All you have to do is vote for the "social justice" party...).

I read quite a bit of different views and articles about the whole situation during that time, but the only thing i can clearly recall is a headline: "IPhone is NOT a luxury". It basically tried to answer some of the criticism that was directed at those demanding lower rents in Tel Aviv and the like. Basically: "if it's too expensive for you - bugger off and live somewhere else", "you can't talk about social security with a smartphone in your pocket" etc. The natural culmination of such arguments seems to be that unless you live in a cave and collect food from the dumpsters you aren't "entitled" to complain. 
You have to be *this miserable* to ride the "demand rollercoaster"....
The article tried to say that there is a certain level of living that a "normal, working, educated, middle-class" person should expect - and that level isn't a "luxury", and you shouldn't be embarrassed about "demanding" it.

Instead of going into a political debate about who's "right" (no one :) ) or what exactly "middle-class" means - let's talk about "luxury". The origin of the word is "luxus" (Latin) - meaning "excess" - but excess only has meaning in comparison to a certain baseline of need: I need 1 screen to use my computer - the second screen exceeds the minimal requirements so it can be thought of as luxury. 
But wait - isn't the first screen a luxury? Who said I "need" a computer at all? 50 years ago personal computers were basically non-existent so obviously people can survive without them. Come to think about it - any modern electronics didn't exist 100 years ago and your great-grandparents survived somehow - they didn't "need" an IPhone - clearly a luxury. 
Ok, but what about "basic needs"? They should be, by definition, something you "need", something you can't live without. A common inclusion in such a list is basic healthcare. Even lower class citizens of first world countries can get better medical treatment than kings and nobles just a few centuries ago. Aspirin? Luxury. 
So let's take the most basic need of all - water. One of the hallmarks of "third-world poverty" is lack of clean running water. We really don't appreciate enough the miracle we all have in our shower - we turn a nub and water pours out of the wall! Even Moses had to strike the stone to get the same miracle... Anything considered a miracle can't possibly be a "need" - but today we're outraged that humanity can't provide this "basic need" to every single person on Earth. 

You know what? We're right to be outraged.

Yes, we used to live in caves. Yes, anything beyond the life of a monkey in a jungle can be considered "luxury". So what? This is one of the problems with conservatists - they think that if it was good enough for your great-great-great-grandad - it's good enough for you. Not only does it stifle progress - but it also really isn't good enough.
Why shouldn't we update our expectations? Why shouldn't we want more for ourselves and for others? Why shouldn't we strive for more? Why shouldn't we imagine a future where no one has to do anything unless they want to - and our descendants will look back on us the same way we look at the caveman, thinking "I'm so happy I don't live in that awful time when you had to work for food and smartphones"...

Until next time, may you be grateful for what you have, but strive for more nevertheless.


When looking for a fitting caricature, I stumbled upon this picture. It can be interpreted in several ways - depending on your personal attitude and political views - making it "statistically neutral" in a sense. It also reflects best my own views on the subject: I'm not really sure.
<Personal story>
I was raised on social welfare handouts. My parents had a very hard time immigrating and rebuilding their life in Israel - despite being very well educated and most of the time busting their ass. If we lived in an extremely libertarian country, chances are I would literally starve. Years past, I got all sorts of education and eventually got to be a high tech employee. Even if I'll fail to create anything meaningful for the world and become a code monkey for the rest of my life - the income taxes alone will return the government's investment in me many times over. Even if we ignore morality, keeping me alive was a good financial investment. Stories similar to my family are fairly common - especially among immigrants.
On the other hand, I am aware of welfare abuse - and the danger of a society that views relying on handouts for a living as a valid strategy and an accepted social norm.
Unfortunately, I don't see an easy way to separate the 2. And so I remain undecided.
</Personal story>


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