To Have or Have-Not in the 21st Century

Until Sunday, 2018-06-10, I had never heard of an American crime drama/ soap opera television series, currently stretching over six seasons, titled, The Haves and the Have Nots.  Perhaps that says something about my priorities in life. I don’t own a television. The reason for this discovery was that I googled the phrase, to find out how people use the term. How do we distinguish between these two sets of people? Is there a middle ground that is neither have, nor have-not?

Can wealth (or its lack) be used as a criteria? It is an easy matter to calculate the income or net value of assets, and to argue that a specific percentage of people should be in one or the other group. Are haves only those included in the top 1% or 10% or 80%? Conversely, are have nots found only in the bottom 25% or 50% or 99%?  Using wealth is tempting, because in this toxic world, wealth is an important power vector. The haves are those with economic power. It is more difficult to specify a limit, because even lowly consumers can brag about their purchasing power. Those without liquidity can use credit cards, or payday loans.

There are other criteria to distinguish haves and have nots. Many are related to possession of consumer durables: cars (early 20th century), televisions (1950s), second or third cars (1960s), colour televisions (1970s) and computers (1980s). The haves are engaged in conspicuous consumption.

Much of our understanding of this comes from the thoughts of Thorstein Veblen’s (1857 – 1929) sociology. He developed the terms invidious consumption, to refer to an ostentatious consumption of goods, designed to provoke envy, and  conspicuous compassion, the use of charitable donations to enhance social prestige. His book, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899), puts consumption into a nineteenth-century social and historical context, that makes an interesting reflection on twenty-first-century values. Today, we simply mash the two terms together.

One of our friends tells the story of life in Northern Norway anno 1972. His father (we will call him Dad) was a fisher, who had used the same fishing boat throughout a fifty year career. When he retired, the boat was sold. With some of the money from this sale, Dad purchased a car (a new Talbot), and a driving license. Yes, purchased is probably the correct word, because the driving license definitely wasn’t earned. Dad never really got the hang of driving a car, because he wanted to steer the rear end of the vehicle, rather than the front end, just like a boat. Fortunately, he seldom ventured further than the local coop.

Yet, this new vehicle, upset the balance of power in the community. No sooned had Dad purchased his car, than his neighbour wanted one too. Neighb also lacked a driving license, but that didn’t matter because the car he purchased also lacked an engine. It was placed at the entrance to Neighb’s property as a symbol of arrival. Neighb  was also among the haves.

Undoubtedly, humorous stories could be told about numerous possessions, but many stories are far darker. Seventeen year-old  Xiao Zheng, in Hunan Province, sold one of his kidneys in April 2011, to buy an iPhone 4 and an original version of the iPad. This undoubtedly earned him status as one of the haves, at least until the iPhone 4s arrived in October 2011.

Possessions are gradually losing their significance as markers of havness.  Why buy a limosine, when it is cheaper to use Echelon Lyft? (See: ) As the age of autonomous cars approaches, there seems little utility to a garage stuffed full of unused vehicles.

Another approach to being one of the haves, is possession of assorted certificates, printed on paper complete with logos, seals and signatures, suitable for framing and to hang on walls, or their digital equivalents, to hang on personal websites. Certificates may serve a dual, some would say triple, function. First, they state class membership. Second, they serve as a rite of passage. Third (and optionally), they may indicate that a person has obtained a certain level of competence: theoretical knowledge, or practical skills.

In education, the mark of a have has been subject to inflation, so that a master’s degree is needed for what a bachelor’s degree could buy earlier, replacing the infamous high school diploma. Naturally, it is not so much the certificate in itself that is important, but the prestige of the school issuing it. The haves can afford to send their little darlings to private schools, followed by Ivy League universities like Princeton or Yale or Harvard or even Leland Stanford Junior University. The have nots learn on the street. In-betweens make do with institutions that are close by, public schools and public universities.

Other certificates can also indicate haveness. South Dakota was the last American state to require drivers to have a driving license, in 1954. Originally, driving licenses were simply a source of revenue, since there was no test or competence required to obtain one. Today, there is no prestige in having a driving license, and many millennials can’t even be bothered earning one.

A better indication of belonging to the haves can be found with a pilot’s license. The beauty of this approach, is that there are so many opportunities for one-up-man-ship. If a private pilot’s licence isn’t impressive enough, then one can always add twin engines, floats, jet engines. Somewhere near the top is a multi-rotor helicopter license.

In my own more nautical world, I have fonder memories of obtaining a Pleasurecraft Operator’s Certificate (1965), from the New Westminster Power Squadron, than I do of obtaining my car driving license the same year. Yes, I found it absolutely thrilling to power a fairly large (motor) cruiser up and down the Fraser River, avoiding tugs, barges, fishing vessels and snags. With this experience, I definitely felt that I was among the haves.

This positive experience, contrasts with my experiences obtaining a Scuba diving certificate some years later (1973), where I met a large number of people obsessed with  diving depths, and who had motorcycle driving as their primary hobby. Here, I felt out of my class, especially when it came to discussions about financing expensive motorcycles, with crime an acceptable means of obtaining money or parts. Interestingly, participating in this diving course and becoming certified was part of a college physical education requirement, that had been outsourced to a local dive school.

In the twenty-first century, haves can ostentate (yes, I just made up the word) by taking a series of Royal Yachting Association courses, provided by wannabe haves, on their highly mortgaged sailing cruiser.

As we progress further into the twenty-first century, with a service economy increasingly overtaking a possessing economy, the distinction between the haves and the have-nots, will be less detectable, but increasingly more important. The minority haves will have indirect control over artificial intelligence agents. The majority have nots will lack any form of control,  simply be required to obey the whims of these agents, and their overlord handlers. Of course people will not feel their oppression, the haves will use post-modern equivalents of bread and circus to pacify. With neural networks living a life of their own, it may not be possible for even the “haves” to exercise direct control over their agents.

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