All neighbors are anxious to get stuff that is as good as the Joneses. If you don’t, you worry about getting isolated from the neighborhood. That is the middle-class America that was in the cartoon “The Joneses,” which appeared in American newspapers starting in 1913, by cartoonist Arthur Momand.
The Joneses described in the comic strip represented the middle-class consumer orientation. The Joneses are a mysterious family who are never actually seen in the strip even though the other neighbors always refer to them. “Keeping up with the Joneses” even made became an entry in the English dictionary describing a neighbor-conscious consumption tendency.
Economists call it the neighbor effect, which refers to a tendency to evaluate oneself in terms of the wealth or consumption level of peer groups -- to wit, friends or neighbors.
H.L. Mencken summed it up that the term wealthy refers to the person who earns more than your brother-in-law.
What matters as the real metric of wealth is not the absolute amount of income but the relative income compared to one’s close acquaintances.
Karl Marx also observed early on the relative deprivation caused by the neighbor effect, mentioning that a small house which never made its residents feel uncomfortable would turn out to be a deteriorating shack once a palatial mansion appeared next to it.
Charles P. Kindleberger, the American economic historian, rather sarcastically referred to the same effect: Nothing confuses one’s sense of well-being and judgment than when a friend becomes rich.
He insinuated the stark feeling of loss one receives when one’s friend, whom she thought her peer in capacity, suddenly becomes wealthy.
Surveys done by a statistical research institute clearly show the neighbor effect in our society.
A total of 26.6 percent of those who earn 5 million won ($5,400) per month said they belong to the lower class, while only 5.1 percent of those who earn 4 million won per month thought likewise.
Among those who earn less than 1 million won per month, 61 percent evaluated themselves as being middle class and only 36.5 percent of them perceived themselves as lower class.
Happiness is not ranked by school achievement scores and does not seem to depend on a person’s income level.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jong-soo [email@example.com]