When we say wealth…

…we mean security. Wealth is a stockpile, it’s more than you can spend all in one go (without getting pretty creative). Accumulating wealth is to accumulate more and more of a sense of security. But it’s not, because one can only feel secure up to a certain amount. There is no such thing as unlimited exponential growth in security. Security, like most things, is a sigmoid curve:

Figure 1, sigmoid logistic curve

Meaning security (y-axis) can be improved by, for example, having excess wealth; but only up to a point (up to a level of 1 on the above graph). Wealth, however, can be piled up ad-compound-infinitum, as below:

Figure 2, exponential curve

Why the difference? How much incremental security can a person feel from additional money in the bank, fortress islands, and personal guards? Marginally less and less as additional security measures are in place. One still has to accept death, heartbreak, and randomness as key components of life, inextricable. One also, in one’s obsession with security, is likely thinking about it too often past a certain point (right around 2 on the x-axis of the sigmoid curve in figure 1) and then experiencing diminishing marginal security benefits (i.e. paranoia-based security reductions) from additional security actions. Wealth, on the other hand, can be accumulated through contractual and equity ownership, in addition to the actions of other people. Gold can be piled up until there isn’t any gold left (and then there’s always alchemy) and money can be piled up until governments and commercial banks stop creating it (the latter is not likely to happen anytime soon), particularly if you’re the owner of a company that has become self-replicating (see Amazon). Doesn’t Jeff Bezos keep getting additional security benefits from all the money and Amazon stock, you might ask. I’ve observed that the answer is definitively no. Sure, he has a very safe private plane, the best cyber security experts keeping tabloids from hacking his phone (again) in the future, and he’s working on getting human civilization to move beyond Earth’s orbit. But I don’t have to get on a plane ever (since I’m not running an empire or managing an exponentially accumulating wealth pile), the tabloids don’t know who I am, and while I’m worried about climate change and the single threaded critical path that is the Earth, my lack of large government level wealth means I can only choose where to live wisely and try not to drive very much, and beyond that it’s out of my hands. Without long interviews with several exponentially wealthier & wealthier people, I’m not sure if you could say definitively if wealth is lowering security past a certain point (though I expect for some it does), but the difference between having enough money in a bank account to live for a year and enough for the entire state of Delaware to live an upper middle class lifestyle for a year, I claim, makes only a marginal impact on one’s feeling of security (though likely there are extra-Zen/secure-feeling billionaires, and extra-uncertain/insecure people with very full 401ks).

So. If wealth is for security, and security can only be secured on a sigmoid rather than exponential basis, might it be more reasonable to accumulate wealth on a sigmoid curve as well? Sure, the rewards for building infrastructure and selling things people buy in society and being an effective contributor may scale to match the contribution, but need they scale in Zuckerbergian ways? Perhaps if organizational pay bands and tax structures created sigmoid earning and wealth outcomes for each member/citizen, rather than exponential outcomes for a few and flat/not-quite-subsistence outcomes for many (not going to find a graph to represent a flat line, sorry), the outcomes that are desired from wealth could be achieved in greater volume across the entire population. This is not the same as a planned economy or communism, though people on or expecting to ride exponential wealth curves to Mars will argue vociferously that it would represent the slipperiest of all slippery, Stalinist, Maoist, horror-show, anti-economist slopes. One would do well to hear their arguments and remember Upton Sinclair’s bitingly accurate comment:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.


And here we arrive at the crux of the exponential wealth accumulation issue. Extraordinarily wealthy people have so much money that a tiny amount of interest from bonds is plenty to pay their “salary” for security and whatever else a human could ever want (yacht fuel). However, for the administrators of businesses that deliver the extra returns that equities promise to the owners of stocks, their salaries depend absolutely on the continuous exponential accumulation of wealth by their organizations. The salaries of business leaders go up exponentially if they create exponential growth within their organization, and they get fired if they do not. Therefore, it might be said that business leaders are required, in order to maintain any security, to accumulate wealth exponentially. You might be thinking, well, why don’t they just stop when they have enough saved to live the rest of their lives well? Good question. Expensive places to live, fine wine, and the other trappings of invidious comparative living that pervade the executive upper branches of companies mean that if a salary goes to zero for too long, actual financial insecurity could follow shortly behind. But these business leaders, even those who did not come from money, are shrewd savers and have up-to-date LinkedIn profiles. So they will likely not experience privations or even a reduction in a feeling of security if their current exponential growth project fails, because they’re invested in and full members of the exponential class, unlike those for whom additional wealth means access to previously unavailable physical well-being needs-meeting.

Therefore, my statement at the beginning must be re-examined. Wealth is not equivalent to security for the wealthy and specifically-educated (computer science), even though it may be for many other people. What is the purpose of exponential wealth accumulation beyond the sigmoid upper bounds, then, if the salaries of the wealthy are not dependent on it and it does not increase security? Connection and meaning. Exponential wealth accumulation is a game today, and many of the players inhabit a series of clubs & places of “worship”. These clubs involve discussions of cash flow, what to do with all this excess wealth, and golf. The places of worship involve the philosophical project of justifying the exponential accumulation of wealth (Harvard, the Financial Times, the New York Times, and Fox News each preach a different flavor of justification; contractual veritas, the always financial contact lenses, big city hypocrisy finery, and the vicious celebration of accumulative freedom). Join the club, go to the places of worship, and you’ll get to connect with other game players, your fellow exponential wealth accumulators (EWAs). Connection is great, leading to longer lives and happier people. But what about purpose? How does an EWA make sense of life? Designing, leading and selling wealth accumulation machines (companies) meets many meaning-oriented needs (identified from this list of human needs):

  • Creativity
  • Contribution
  • Challenge
  • Competence
  • Discovery
  • Efficacy
  • Growth
  • Hope
  • Learning
  • Participation
  • Self-expression
  • Stimulation
  • To matter
  • Understanding

So we’ve moved well beyond wealth as security. Wealth accumulation is now looking more like a group art project or sport, as least for those who have risen beyond the possibility of failing to meet physical wellbeing needs. The problem is that people who are not wealth accumulators for sport are used as horse, hound, and fox for the fox-hunting EWAs (and their salaries depend on being loyal in these roles). When a self-described painter shouts at someone holding a brush to use more yellows and less purple, they’re just someone yelling and the real painter is the person holding the brush (even if the brush-wielder is paid $14.99/hour and their name doesn’t go on the art).

So what is a person to do? Security seems to be desirable, as does meaning and connection. And some wealth, wealth stability, and wealth growth seems to be instrumental in being on a path of security, meaning, and connection. Instead of treating exponential wealth accumulation as an end in itself, consider the level of (and necessary continuous stream of) wealth for meeting each of your needs. The amount may grow over time, as your taste in coffee becomes more refined, you become more health-conscious (or refined) in your eating, and your need for medical attention increases (aging is guaranteed). But the need for wealth probably won’t grow exponentially (as long as you can afford health insurance, climate change doesn’t ravage the place you live, and wars don’t engulf your life). So manage wealth (and salary levels) on a sigmoid curve, rather than exponential, and get comfortable moving a little up and a little down the curve as your needs demand; wealth is not an end in itself, it is merely a tool & technology. Spend your energy connecting with people, enacting meaningfulness, and considering what security looks like in your life (beyond being a billionaire). And if you are a billionaire, consider how much more secure you might feel if you weren’t.