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How Green Is My Valley?

Green Valley

I saw a really good movie this past weekend, 3:10 to Yuma. Four tickets cost me more than $40. Popcorn and soda came to about $20. Parking was free, though. But I digress.

The movie is a super-macho shoot-em-up based on an old short story by Elmore Leonard about a classic confrontation between good and evil in the old West. There's a lot to recommend it, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

One line in it got me thinking. A Pinkerton, played by the gracefully aging, well-chiseled Peter Fonda, has been hired to guard a payroll shipment destined to be the target of the ultra-smooth and charming bandit, Russell Crowe. Someone is extolling the toughness and tenacity of the Pinkerton, who has been gut-shot but is still walking around. "That's why they pay them $18 a day," he says.

Eighteen dollars a day. Top wage in the late 19th Century, I guess. Elsewhere in the movie, you see signs that offer a meal for two bits, i.e. twenty-five cents. The meal probably consisted of a steak, potatoes, bread, some strong drink, stuff like that. Pretty good deal. Except most people were making a couple bucks a day, so maybe not. Maybe that was more than some could afford. In any event, it compares favorably to the $245 my son and I spent at Peter Luger the other night for basically the same fare. But then, I make more than $18 a day, I think... although in 2007 dollars? Who knows?

I've always been fascinated by what things cost, what they used to cost, whether what they cost now bears any relationship to how currency has changed, shifted over the years. When my dad parked cars for a living in the 1930s, he made $24 a week. Later, as a tenured professor at a major university, he made closer to $40,000 a year. For that wage, plus some income he picked up on consulting on the side, he was able to afford a big house in the suburbs. Of course, that house was purchased in the mid-60s for $34,500. Last year we sold it for a whole lot more than that.

Housing has gone crazy in my lifetime. When I was growing up, there was an entity in the very poshest spicy neighborhood in the county. It was called "the $100,000 house," and, since it often sits on acres of land, it now goes for between five and ten million dollars.

Then there's the automobile. My first car was a Ford Maverick, which came in a color called St. Louis Blue. It cost me $1999 fully loaded. At that time, the most expensive car you could get was a Cadillac, which retailed for about $6000. I don't have to tell you what even the cheapest vehicle comes in at today, although it's my perception that prices are now moderating a bit. Like, you can get a pretty good car for less than $40,000 now.

Don't even start on the price of the gasoline that goes into them. When I was in college, which is not all that long ago, ladies and gentlemen, you could get a cheap gas called Merit for 25-cents per gallon. But you don't have to go that far back to be shocked. Before the oil industry discovered that we'll pay just about anything to keep driving -- before Hurricane Katrina -- people were discussing whether the $2.00 gallon was very far away. Many people said that was impossible. Now we know differently.

It's not all about inflation, though. It's just fascinating to ponder what money is worth, here and everywhere. I just read an article about life in Poland a few years ago, where some author was trying to purchase a house for several hundred million zlotys, I think it was. That's a lot of zlotys for a very small house.

In the works of 19th Century English authors -- where the value of money is a huge subject, by the way -- individuals are often judged on the size of their income. A very, very wealthy aristocrat in the works of Anthony Trollope may be worth several thousand pounds a year. A perfectly respectable gentleman may, however, get by quite nicely on several hundred. And a cleric may subsist on sixty or seventy. How is that possible? Has the pound shrunk in value so dramatically? Certainly, it's been devalued several times since 1860, but to that extent? And how much does a person need to make right now to be considered wealthy?

Are you wealthy? I'll bet there are people who think you are. But could you, like a mogul I know, afford to have a fleet of 15 gorgeous cars simply because you like them? Could you, like Google's (GOOG) Sergei Brin and Larry Page, go flying around on your own jumbo jet? Or are you rich because you can pick up anything under $500 without thinking about it? Or because you're the only one with three cows in your village?

I do okay. But sometimes, well, I just don't know. Last weekend, for instance, I went to a party out on the west coast. The hosts were a couple who made some money in hedge funds and real estate. Their ranch sits on about 100 acres in the middle of a Northern California mountain range. They have a barn and a bunch of stalls. They just finished building their home in the Italianate style, stucco, yellow brick, that kind of thing. There's an infinity pool in the back. This is one of eight homes they own around the world. Our host said to me, "We're doing okay, but we're not as well-off as the folks we know in Jacksonville, Florida. Those people are really loaded!"

I'm sure the people in Jacksonville, by the way, feel the same about all those rich folks hunkering down in, say, Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe or the Amalfi Coast. With an entry-level Maybach sedan clocking in at more than $335,000, it's possible that nobody has enough money to make ends meet these days.

41 Comments Add Comment

Right on just like beauty, being wealthy is very subjective.I think greed is the only factor which controls how wealthy one need to be. Is there is a limit for greediness? No, sky is the limit.

When you die, somebody gets all your stuff. So everything is rented. Some people just pay a higher rent. I hope this makes you feel better.

I spent most of the first 20 years of my career working for the government. It didn't pay all that great, but I didn't complain because I had everything I needed. I would often get into heated conversations about taxes with a great friend from high school who had gone on to corporate riches but didn't think he was rich (he thought he was getting unfairly soaked, I thought (and still think) he was getting a great deal). After we had yelled at each other a bit, he finally came out with this golden nugget, which I have treasured ever since: "anyone with more friends than enemies is a rich man." The fact that he recognized it convinced me beyond all argument that he is, indeed, a rich man.

to quote Thoreau "a man is rich in those things which he can afford to leave alone".

It's said if your on a then you have made it in life.

I think it's how you manage your money. My boyfriend makes roughly 12k more a year than me but I seem to have more money and be less broke than him all the time. He is always complaining about being broke and worrying about bills.

I like to think about the same subject(s) concerning money. I wonder how the cleric earning 60 or 70 per year felt about Trollope's arisotcrat. I have concluded that some of the people I know are unhappy about their very high incomes because others have much more, while some people have relatively small incomes but are very happy, not caring about what others have.
Rich? If you can pay your bills with a little left over and have no debt, you are probably rich but you may not know it. Some days, I feel rich because the sun is out, my health is good and I have monsy in the bank.

Wealth is tricky. I think we should figure out a way to measure happiness and use that to keep up with the "Jones'".

John has 400 happy points, but Billy has 10,000 happy points. John is a hedge fund manager who makes the average salary of $627 million for those folks. Billy is a homeless guy who just enjoys life.

Just a crazy random Monday thought.

Using an inflation calculator, your 2 bit dinner in 1880 would run about $5.22 today. Better stick with Ponderosa.

You right. But when you make 150k a year and can't afford house that's just tell you how much everything changed:)

In the 90s, at the age of 26, I hit $175k a year and had a porsche, a townhouse, ate at $100 restaurants, and took my high school friend to Nice. I was rich, right? Not so much, I had several friends who were stock option half-millionaires, and they had boats and built-in home theaters and condos in Majorca. And many of them were younger than me. What can you do?

It's easy to be greedy today. While I don't envy them, eight houses seems like alot. But after all, it is their money, their life. Sounds almost sad. Do you think their eight houses make them happier than just one or two? Are the Jacksonville friends even happier? The guy that won the $300 million plus PowerBall lottery didn't seem to find much happiness in his money.

I thought this was a good article; it points out many symptoms related to the value of money. But it stops short of explaining the reason, which is pretty simple. We use money without a basis in intrinsic value, i.e., a commodity money such as silver and gold coins or certificates representing the coins. For example, the 90 per cent silver 25 cent (quarter) coin purchased a gallon of gas in the late sixties/early seventies. The silver quarter exchanges today for about $3.40 in base metal quarters, enough for a gallon of gasoline in most areas of the country. About twenty Federal Reserve Note "debt-dollars" purchases a one ounce $1.00 U.S. minted legal tender Silver Eagle coin. there a difference in the purchasing stability of commodity money versus paper money/electronic digits that can be increased at the central bank's whim? You bet. Those "dollars" being used in 3:10 to Yuma were 90 percent silver, podner, about $324 a day in today's exchange rate! Gold-backing exited our money supply, domestically, in 1933 and exited Federal Reserve Notes used by foreign countries' banks in 1971. Silver exited our money supply in the mid-sixties. Fiat (by government decree), unbacked, debt-based money (in the form of Federal Reserve Notes and U.S. minted base metal coins) will always return to its true intrinsic value which is near zero. The amount of time for this process to evolve toward zero (hyperinflation) depends on the rate of inflation of the money supply.

So basically, you could have summed this up in three little words. It's all relative. Try to remember that when you are out enjoying your $100 steak and I'm questioning a $5 sandwich.

On the way in, I heard some conservative talk show host say that Democrats claim $80,000 is poor and children need to be paying for health insurance instead of getting it for free from the government. Well, I make 74,000 and I am POOR. I NEED government assistance. My health care premiums are outrages. My money barely makes it into the next payday. I also read an article on the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on how the Honululu local paper blasted this weeks show since the people being helped made $100,000/year. Well, 100,000 year there in 51,000 in Ohio.

It does not matter how much you have, it also matters where you are.

The value of money has always been a relative thing. We could easily have 2-bit steaks again simply by lopping off a couple of zeroes with a revalued currency and reflecting the change in all the prices and wages. However, this would no doubt result in riots and civil unrest. People would be glad to see the 25 cent steak and the 3 cent gallon of gas, but would rebel at the corresponding 50 cents per day minimum wage. The Catholic Church ran into this psychological conundrum once in the middle ages when it corrected counting errors in the official calander by simply fast-forwarding it a few days. The peasants rioted because they were convinced the Church had shortened their lives. But I digress....

Is there a point to this article?

Is Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes ghost writing for you this afternoon?

In 1963 I took a Mediterranean cruise. It lasted over a month, leaving NYC. Lisbon, Tangier, Majorca, Naples (side trip to Pompeii and Rome), Cannes, Monaco, Nice, Gibraltar, Maderia then back home. Base price $418, with all extras $623. Best of all...a shipboard romance that didn't cost a dime!

"’s possible that nobody has enough money to make ends meet these days."

So true.

Ten million dollars really isn't enough to live a comfortable life with.

Well I to think about how wealthy I am. But being so middle class I just want to hang on to what I have. I can't even think about if I had millions of dollars because I haven't and I won't have in the future. I had a cancer scare not so long ago and you know what, nothing I had made a difference. It was my health I was concerned about. And I thought, "you just have things so what." The two great equalizers in life are old age, providing you get there, and death. So what is the big deal about things? I remember the doctor telling after me after he told me I didn't have cancer, "Never buy green bananas." You know I like that one. Chuck.

Rich seem to indeed be a state of mind. That last comment from the 100 acre farm people made me chuckle. I guess by some peoples' standard we are well off since we live a a 500,000.00 home and drive luxury cars - Mercedes and Lexus respectively. But we watch every penny we spend and usually eat at home all the time. I really do not consider us rich by any means. If I did not have to work I would consider myself rich.

Prices will continue to escalate so long as we use FIAT currency printed out of thin air. We are simply no longer grounded by reality. If you want to see what your dollar is worth, look at the price of gold, the universal money. You can't lie to her.

Real wealth is about being thankful for what you do have and realizing that there are those who are far less fortunate than you are.

what is it that drives us to gain wealth? is it the cost of health care or the greed of those controlling health care? Or is it just our own desires to have more? or is it our own lack of self control that gets us in financial trouble no matter what expensive region you live in?
When you consider the hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in this world that have near nothing even the "poorest" amongst us is wealthy.
I have alot of credit card debt and now my 22 yr daughter has several hundred in debt also. I have been driving it upon her to get rid of it. So, I feel the more you can reduce your debt the more you will have. Consider how gratefull the banks are to you for your debt.

I appreciate all your comments. And I agree that wealth is actually not a fixed property, is relative, is actually in the heart and mind of each individual. Did you know that according to polls taken recently, Mexico is the happiest country in the world, per capita? It is certainly not the most wealthy. Something to be considered there, huh?

I remain interested in how a cleric in Victorian England could live on 60 pounds a year. True, room and board were taken care of. But still... how could he afford sneakers?

I make about a $100k per year and live in a $450,000 house in South Carolina. I grew up in an $11,000 house (and never went hungry). Without a doubt, I am rich...filthy rich...richer than 99% of the people who have ever lived on this earth. I'm ashamed to whine about what I don't have (although I, too, do it at times). I never have a single thought about whether I'll be able to eat today, clothe my children, sleep in a sheltered place, or get adequate health care. I feel blessed beyond measure. When we pray with our children, we still thank God for going to sleep in a home that's warm, safe, and dry. Peace...

On comparing what money will buy, we have to remember to measure the AVAILABILITY of money. Who cares if a loaf of bread was 25 cents and whatever wages were. Our grandparents didn't have the cash anyway. As my grandfather said, "We were a society without money." And that is how most of the world is today.

When I was a kid, a massive financial setback forced my family to move from a nice house in a nice suburb to a tiny apartment (now Section 8) in a much nastier place. It was traumatizing at the time, but it taught me a lesson I feel very grateful for now: Even if you're doing everything you're supposed to be doing, your money and your stuff could disappear at any time.

So now, in my adult life, I concentrate on my spouse, friends, family, and health, because they're what make me happy and satisfied. (Don't get me wrong, I would LOVE to have some more money... but it would only make me feel more secure about tomorrow... not happier about today.)

I'm not sure you are speaking about money as much as you are - happiness. I think most people have a tendency to look around them to see "where they stand." And from what I've read, its choosing to try and keep up with the person perceived as "doing better" that can often cause a lot of grief. My advice - choose to look around carefully and see those outside your immediate world - those without food, etc. In essence, choose happiness...

Rich is relative; my wife and I make about 200% of the median income for our area. Our home is about 50% above the median for the area (for SFHs, it's just barely above the median). We're young and just starting out. Our house is larger than any we've ever lived in before. We save for retirement and enjoy ourselves - we're very rich in our own eyes.

Great article! Amen! Does anyone have enough of anything these days. Yes we do until our neighbor drives up in a nice shiny new car!! Oh well!!

Discussions about wealth always seems to center around what is now considered standard: new luxury cars, large houses, exotic vacations. Establish those as the benchmarks and anyone can feel poor. But affording a good, used car, a modest house and a domestic,drive-to vacation for some reason is considered poor. People can live within their means on 100k a year and not be poor. It's only the advertisers that set the idea that it's not good enough. Who's controlling whom?

Ok, that was not supposed to be a smiley face in my last post -- I was going for "Section Eight."

In reading your article and also everyone's ( so far) posted comments, I feel that the issue being touched on here is comfort vs happiness.

On the one hand, you admit that you believe you are doing OK financially but also admit that you'd like more. What most people don't understand is that happiness and comfort are not the same thing.

You can be comfortable but not happy as your wording suggests (ihmo). You can be happy but not comfortable, but I've never seen someone like that. You can be both and you can also be neither. I've seem most of those combinations.

Those that are uncomfortable usually do something about it. Case in point, you don't like getting shots so you put off doing to the doctor and when you are there, you flinch as the needle gets closer to your skin. (I do have a problem with shots in general but that's another argument for another time) Those are actions designed to do something about the associated pain from the shot. Few are happy to go see the doctor.

Most people are comfortable but not happy. They look at their neighbors and people they'd like to be and see them driving new cars and living in big houses and waring nice clothes. Since they are comfortable, they take little action to get to what they believe would make them happy. They make up excuses as to why they don't have those things too while others resent it. The latter we call class envy and it's very destructive.

You can't become rich and powerful if you resent the rich and powerful. But regardless of how much money you have or what you have in your life or where you live or what you drive, none of those things will make you happy. Only you can make you happy.

I've noticed in a number of posts where some have told us what they make or how expensive their homes are. While I'd like to have a $450,000 house in SC, I don't. I'm not sure what I'd do with such an expensive house. Compared to this guy, I'm probably poor, but compared to some others, I'm probably rich. The one thing I won't do is sit here and think that his guy got his house by some illegal or unethical means. He's not the yard stick I measure myself by nor is anyone else.

If you are unhappy but don't seem to be taking action to "better" yourself, ask why. Are you comfortable? If you are comfortable but unhappy, then maybe you should make yourself uncomfortable. When you are uncomfortable, you are more likely to make plans, set dates, have status meetings, review the plans, setup change controls and follow them, take action.

I think this article is about happiness, as a previous poster noted. I am a diplomat, on my third posting in a third-world country. In my world travels I have come to understand that I have more wealth, opportunity and control over my own life than 99% of all the people on earth, just because I am an American, and a college graduate to boot. I am right in the American middle class in terms of income and wealth and I have no complaints whatsoever. If you want to truly treasure what you have, and even what you CAN have if you work for it, go and live overseas for a few years (only not Paris, London or Tokyo). We have a great country. If you can't be happy in the American middle class, you are beyond hope.


According to, 60 pounds in 1860 was worth about 3,905 pounds in 2006, the latest year available. At current exchange rates, that would be about $7,800. Your cleric would have to buy his sneakers at WalMart, to be sure. I guess, as a man of the Lord, his reward (and Nikes) would come in the next life.

Monetarily speaking, I believe wealth is hit when you have enough capital to live comfortably off the interest and ride out the ups and downs in the economy. It is relative to your environment and the area in which you live. $1,000,000 can provide $50k per year in a ING savings accounts. So, in some areas of the country $1M is wealthy, others you may need $2M. Then again to ride out ups and downs, one may need $3M. $3M is my personal goal. With compounding interest and an early start and a simple comfortable life-style, it is not out of reach.

Having money is a relative thing. However, if you need to steal, cheat or lie to have have exactly ZERO! Make all the money you think you need, but, make it honestly.

people didnt spend money on things like insurance, medical care, internet access for their mobile devices or glossy magazines while sitting at airports waiting to jet around the world when they were earning their 18 dollars a day. Scary thought - a lot of the world has to survive on a lot less than that today .

A cleric could live on 60 pounds a year since those pounds were pounds of sterling at the time not the worthless paper which comprises british currency today. As 60 pounds of sterling is equivalent to about 875 troy ounces of silver or around $12,000 at today's spot price, it was enough to afford quite alot of things I imagine.

Wealth is relative. I think if you had 10million dollars on hand anywhere in the country you'd be doing fine. Maybe not keeping up with the Jones' who have a hundred mil, but you're doing fine. I think I won't be monetarily satisfied until we can own a home. We are doing pretty good, make better than the median income here, but owning a single-family 1000 sq ft home is still out of our reach. My concern is that my salary will never catch up with the cost of living, or that I'll be laid off or undergo some health crisis that will prevent me from working or put me in destitution. So more money might make me more secure, but besides that I'm pretty happy. I think if you enjoy your work, feel respected in your day to day life by the people that matter, and have enough to eat and occasionally do the things you love you can consider yourself a made man/woman.