Some things cannot be considered out of context. “This means war!” has a different context to four teenagers playing Monopoly than it has to countries in which factions have decided that the only resolution to a disagreement is conflict and the inevitable death of innocents who would just like to carry on trying to live, thank you.
While superficially it may seem that our word (for yesterday, at this point) is not so larded with meaning, I thought differently (as did girlwithatripod and perhaps others). A few years ago, I became curious regarding relative income around the world. Google rapidly directed me to the World Bank website. They make a huge amount of data available gratis to anyone who is curious enough to visit and has some cursory data mining/spreadsheet skills.
I grabbed data on 2014 adjusted net national income per capita (ANNIpC) in current US$ (a description of this concept can be found here). I chose 2014 as it was the most recent year with the largest number of countries reporting their data (156 out of 196 total countries), so these data do not include 40 countries, some of which are wealthy and a bunch of which are not. What you see is a graph of enormous discrepancies. Easily two-thirds of the graph is occupied by 112 countries in which the adjusted net national income divided by the number of citizens is lower than $10,000/person. For one-fifth (31) of the countries, the ANNIpC is less than $1,000. For 12 countries it is less than $500. Malawi citizens pocket a cool $196 per year each, while Norwegians, Swiss, and Qataris net $77k, $67k, and $62k (rounding appropriately) a year. Americans net out about $47k/year.
So, what is a luxury? For a Malawian, is it a full meal, or repairs to a roof, or a regular visit to the doctor – if there is one available, or clean water or new clothing or sleeping mats once in a while? Is it a child that lives through infancy (Malawi’s infant mortality rate is 46 infant deaths/1,000, ranked 42nd in the world; Afghanistan is 1st at 115 deaths/1,000 and the U.S. is 167th (5.8 deaths/1,000) out of the 224 places listed, some of which are administered as parts of other countries)? Is it access to medicines that treat the inevitable maladies that afflict any population? And if these are appropriate metrics for luxury, what could a luxury possibly be for people at the upper end of the graph? All of the items I list for Malawi are baseline expectations in the top countries and many things that were considered luxuries in the mid-20th century are now common – TVs, washer/dryer, dishwasher, clean water delivered to your faucets, toilets, showers/baths, safety, sufficient food, beds, clothes, pets, schools (social benefit or for-pay), books, music, art, holidays, fixed work days/weeks, health insurance or guaranteed free healthcare, electricity, phone, internet, environment-controlled home, multiple modes of transportation. The list of what many of us in the “first world” take for granted and would miss if they disappeared can go on for a long time, but you get the idea. So what is a luxury when so many things are common place? For an American or EU citizen it may be that it is a day at the spa or a mani/pedi (I am told this is a thing) or a new car that is more silent or has softer seats or goes faster or a new, larger diamond or a season pass to all games for a favorite sport or dining out whenever the notion strikes or eating only free-range, grass-fed, organic meats that are steroid and antibiotic-free, or eating only locally sourced heirloom vegetables and grains or binge-watching as much entertainment as your eyes can endure or having your own fleet of enormous SUVs clotting up your ten-car garage or jetting off to Vegas and blowing a cool $1k (or $10k or… whatever because does it really matter?) on a weekend while pie-eyed and surrounded by your bros. The notion of luxury scales as the capacity for spending increases. Of course. Makes sense. In a way.
In virtually any country, there are people who do far better than the ANNIpC and people who do far worse. Can you imagine subsistence on less than $196/year, for that it simply the net national income/national population, adjusted for taxes and services, etc.? Is everyone in Malawi having a difficult time? Probably not. Is everyone in the U.S. jetting off to Vegas and dropping a bundle on a whim. Certainly not. But why do the discrepancies exist in the first place? That is, as statisticians and scientists say, a multivariate problem. And what would the world be like if the curve up there was flatter? Well, it is not particularly deep to say that the people at the upper end might whine more and the people at the bottom? Safer, better fed, more children would grow to maturity, go to school, have a job, have all of those “luxuries” that we take for granted. But would the earth’s resources sustain that shift? I’m not sure that it would. Quite a quandary!
This is a rich topic deserving of much thought. But I leave you with this. If any of us in the top third can do something definite and constructive to move a bare necessity into an expectation for the countries in the bottom third, shouldn’t we? Isn’t it a moral obligation to try?