A Healthy Discussion about Wealth (and Billionaires)

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The question of “How Much is Enough?” isn’t just the title of an excellent book by Edward and Robert Skidelsky, but has come to be at the forefront of political debate. We are finally discussing such topics as a wealth tax and openly questioning whether there should be billionaires altogether. At the same time we are being treated to the spectacle of one billionaire flirting with a run as an independent candidate for the US presidency and another taking to Medium to fight extortion by a publication. All of that is a good debate to be having including for billionaires themselves.

Why? Because this question has been and is at the heart of what it means to live a good life as a member of a civilized society. People aspiring to be billionaires (who actually does that?) would do well to think about Schultz and Bezos and themselves whether that appears all that appealing. I had an interesting conversation with a billionaire a couple of years back, who quite openly admitted his frustration with not being able to buy certain things, such as the instant ability to fluently speak a foreign language. Now you might say, maybe one day money will be able to buy that or something even more precious, such as immortality. The moral of the story though is: there will always be something that it can’t buy and hence beyond a relatively low limit (far below a billion) your mental state is far more determinative of whether or not you are leading a good life than how much money you have.

And from the perspective of society, it is an important question to ask what money should be able to buy. In particular, how much political power it should translate into is a crucial question if we want to live in a well functioning democracy. The question of just how much influence money buys in politics is hotly contested but it is eminently clear that if anyone who is not a billionaire or mega celebrity declared interest in an independent run nobody would bother to pay any attention. And very large foundations have long been shaping policy in crucial areas such as education and healthcare outside of the democratic process.

In World After Capital, I write extensively about how we have become confused about the difference between needs and wants. And how digital technologies are resulting in power law distributions which are amplifying luck.

The best time to be having this discussion would have been ten years ago, the second best time is now.