Keeping up with the Gates

How addicted are you to thinking you need to be "positionally good"?

Consider this selection from the book "Human Compatible" by Stuart Russel:

"If Bob envies Alice, he derives unhappiness from the difference between Alice’s well-being and his own; the greater the difference, the more unhappy he is. Conversely, if Alice is proud of her superiority over Bob, she derives happiness not just from her own intrinsic well-being but also from the fact that it is higher than Bob’s. It is easy to show that, in a mathematical sense, pride and envy work in roughly the same way as sadism; they lead Alice and Bob to derive happiness purely from reducing each other’s well-being, because a reduction in Bob’s well-being increases Alice’s pride, while a reduction in Alice’s well-being reduces Bob’s envy.


Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned development economist, once told me a story that illustrated the power of these kinds of preferences in people’s thinking. He was in Bangladesh soon after a major flood had devastated one region of the country. He was speaking to a farmer who had lost his house, his fields, all his animals, and one of his children. 'I’m so sorry—you must be terribly sad,' Sachs ventured. 'Not at all,' replied the farmer. 'I’m pretty happy because my damned neighbor has lost his wife and all his children too!'"

Do you focus on your absolute wealth or well-being (for your needs), or on how it compares to others?

This is a trap. There's no deep satisfaction there. There's no freedom. You can never have "enough" looking through those glasses. 

If you're going to compare yourself to others, at least compare yourself in a way that makes you feel great about who you are and what you have now.

The wealthiest winners in all of history were impoverished compared to most of the poor in the USA today

Let's take a look.

  • Cosimo de' Medici, Italian banker: $129 billion (USD equivalency today), a bit behind Gates' $145 billion.

  • Basil II, Byzantine emperor: $169.4 billion. Basil and Crassus are well ahead of Gates.

  • Marcus Lucinius Crassus, Roman general and statesman: $169.8 billion.

  • William the Conqueror, King of England: $228 billion. This guy left Gates in the dust.

  • Jakob Fugger, German merchant and banker: $277 billion.

  • Mansa Musa, ruler of the kingdom of Mali: $412 billion.

  • Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol empire: more than $1 trillion.

  • Augustus Caesar, Roman emperor: $4.6 trillion.

  • Empress Wu, empress of China during the Tang Dynasty: 22.7% of global GDP.

  • Emperor Shenzong of Song of China during the Song Dynasty: 25-30% of global GDP.

See The Richest People in Human History (as reference).

But in the world of, "I've got it as good as or better than you," they were the kings and emperors in all of history.

The poorest people in the USA today are much richer than the wealthiest above because...

  • They would not likely have their children die before them. Consider Great Britain's Queen Anne. When she died in 1714 at age 49, she had outlived all five of her children. 

  • Before 1877 no one in the world had access to recorded music. Today, even the poorest can listen to just about any of the greatest musical creations, both of living and dead musicians. Add to that all the greatest and not-so-greatest acting performances.

  • Anyone living before 1876, including all those mega-rich listed above, could not carry on a voice conversation with anyone else in the world unless that person was less than 100 feet away. Today even the poorest in America could speak with me real-time here in China for free.

  • Anyone living before 1830, no matter what their power or influence, could not travel faster than a horse could run. And even then, it was a pretty bumpy ride.

  • Anyone living before 1867 (for antiseptics) or before 1928 (for antibiotics), no matter how rich or powerful, could and did die from the simplest scatches or infections that even most poor people in the USA today have the ability to nip in the bud.

  • Anyone living before 1803 had no access to painkillers. Augustus Caesar, with his $4.6 trillion was a pauper compared to the poor person in the USA today when it came to getting relief from some severe types of pain.

  • Also these men and women who could afford pharaonic opulence could not use or enjoy...

    • The radio (not available before 1920).

    • TV or video (not available before 1941).

    • Flying (not available before 1914).

    • Air conditioning (not available before 1904).

    • Electric lighting (not available before 1880). While France's Louis XIV could snap his fingers to summon servants to light his chandeliers' candles, each of us, with mere flips of our own fingers, get better, cleaner light more quickly than was available even to the Sun King.

    • Trains (not available before 1830).

    • Automobiles, buses, motorbikes (not available before 1886).

    • The simple bicycle (not available before 1817). 

    • Paved roads (not available before 1824).

    • The flushable toilet (not available before 1596).

    • General public sanitation (not available before 1600).

    • The refrigerator (not available before 1834).

    • A clock with a minute hand (not available before 1577).

    • Wearable glasses for seeing better (not available before 1250).

    • Pencils (not available before 1832).

    • Ballpoint pens (not available before 1888).

    • Mechanical calculators (not available before 1642).

    • Electonic calculators (not available before 1967).

    • Electric motors (not available before 1834).

    • Photocopiers (not available before 1938).

    • Photography (not available before 1826).

    • The bra (not available before 1889).

    • Reliable birth control (not available before 1960).

    • Clean drinking water (not reliable before 1900).

    • Toothpaste (not available before 1850).

    • The vast varieties of foods and spices (not available before 1500).

    • The dictionary (not available much before 1600).

    • The thesaurus (not available before 1852).

    • And many other things were not available to those mega- and tera-rich!

Even in having some day-to-day useful knowledge, most of the USA poor today rank above those former mega-moguls

  • Taking simple sanitation precautions

  • Being able to read and even write

  • Knowing that witches and demons are unlikely to be around every corner

  • Knowing that bloodletting is not a good idea

Yes, there are a few ways those mega-rich of olden times were "richer" than the USA poor today

  • As men, they could either rape, enslave, dominate, or buy as many attractive women as they wanted for sex or whatever. They could also afford to support as many offspring that they might want.

  • They could enslave, dominate, or buy others to do whatever they wanted for themselves or for others they cared to favor, given that it was humanly possible at that time.

  • Their immense wealth and power made them largely immune from others retaliating or speaking publicly against them no matter what they did to others.

Except for these "benefits" the average USA poor person today is vastly richer by any other measure than these of yesteryear with those Brobdingnagian bucks.

Don't compare yourself negatively to others in any dimension, but if you do...

Ensure that the comparison serves both you and your relationship with that person.