If you've worked hard and been shrewd enough to make a lot of money, or if one of your ancestors did the same so that you inherited a lot of money, shouldn't you spend it any way you want?
Christianity and secular conservatism offer different answers to that question. The Wall Street Journal is thoroughly conservative on its editorial page and in its business reporting, although not always in its political coverage. But what I want to draw attention to here is its Saturday section called "Pursuits," which instructs business readers on what to do with the money they make from Monday through Friday.
One section this spring, typical in its ads for very expensive houses and cars, led off with a lengthy article on "Power Trips for Tots" that showed how "extreme family vacations are becoming a status symbol for parents seeking an edge for their kids." The lead depicted a Tennessee mom receiving last year a Christmas card showing a friend's two girls, ages 4 and 6, playing with Indian children in the Brazilian rain forest.
The card-receiver suddenly felt shaky about taking her kids only to Florida or Canada, so this year her family is keeping up by heading to Brazil. Others are going further, to sub-Saharan Africa or East Asia. One 3-year-old already has been to South America, Europe, and Asia, with his parents bragging that the experiences are favorably shaping his personality. Evidence: In his gymnastics class some children were pretending to fly to Florida, but the brilliant child said he was heading to Paris.
Is this nutso? I'm all in favor of travel for teens and beyond, but why take a small child to France when his main interest is French fries? Travels afar are wasted on small children and might develop in them the same ennui that enveloped Marie Antoinette: "nothing tastes." The Journal article quoted a bored 10-year-old who traveled to Tanzania: "After you see the animals, it's not that exciting to see them again."
And if it's not nutso, it's conspicuous consumption, as a spokesman at Saint Andrews School in Boca Raton, Fla., acknowledged: "Everyone wants to one up each other." A New Jersey dentist's wife boasted of a $12,000 one-week trip to Hong Kong with her husband and two children: "Our other friends go to the Caribbean, they go to Florida. That's as adventurous as they get."
The Journal reported that the 8-year-old on the trip decided against a shark-fin soup meal and didn't like being stared at by local residents: "It got really annoying." But at least she got to visit a Hong Kong Toys"R"Us and purchase Nintendo games and rubber balls decorated with Disney characters.
And how about, for a small child's birthday, a camel safari in Kenya that includes presentation of a gag "birthday cake" made out of frosted elephant dung? Cost for a family of four, not counting the pricey airline tickets: $31,400.
Hmm. On the one hand, he who has it can spend it any way he wants, right? And yet that $31,400 would help to support 82 children in Kenya for a year, given the going rates at Compassion International. Some people, of course, may spend that amount on a trip and then give an equal amount to Compassion International. I know of one well-traveled Christian family that does even more. But that stewardship principle, found among Christians, is rare elsewhere.
Of course, those who have or make huge amounts of money and think largely of themselves will spend it in some way. The travel article in the Journal ended on page P5, and page P6 featured an article on sunglasses as "entry-level luxuries." Luxury handbags now run well over $1,000, so a pair of sunglasses for only $350 seems a bargain. If such consumption isn't sufficiently conspicuous, some buy sunglasses for $1,350, $10,000, or even $20,000. Maybe it's better to spend the money on travel.
But maybe, just maybe, it's better to live simply but comfortably, to tithe or more-than-tithe as you go, to save enough to pay for old age, and to have some to give away when you die.