Tue Aug 7th, 2012 at 05:24:47 PM EST
Over at his blog, Interfluidity, Steve Randy Waldman has a really interesting post on Wealth as Insurance which operates in a zero-sum game. He proposes that this propels certain patterns of wealth accumulation and employment.
interfluidity » Trade-offs between inequality, productivity, and employment
I think there is a tradeoff between inequality and full employment that becomes exacerbated as technological productivity improves. This is driven by the fact that the marginal benefit humans gain from current consumption declines much more rapidly than the benefit we get from retaining claims against an uncertain future.
Wealth is about insurance much more than it is about consumption. As consumers, our requirements are limited. But the curve balls the universe might throw at us are infinite. If you are very wealthy, there is real value in purchasing yet another apartment in yet another country through yet another hopefully-but-not-certainly-trustworthy native intermediary. There is value in squirreling funds away in yet another undocumented account, and not just from avoiding taxes. Revolutions, expropriations, pogroms, these things do happen. These are real risks. Even putting aside such dramatic events, the greater the level of consumption to which you have grown accustomed, the greater the threat of reversion to the mean, unless you plan and squirrel very carefully. Extreme levels of consumption are either the tip of an iceberg or a transient condition. Most of what it means to be wealthy is having insured yourself well.
An important but sad reason why our requirement for wealth-as-insurance is insatiable is because insurance is often a zero-sum game. Consider a libertarian Titanic, whose insufficient number of lifeboat seats will be auctioned to the highest bidder in the event of a catastrophe. On such a boat, a passenger's material needs might easily be satisfied -- how many fancy meals and full-body spa massages can one endure in a day? But despite that, one could never be "rich enough". Even if one's wealth is millions of times more than would be required to satisfy every material whim for a lifetime of cruising, when the iceberg cometh, you must either be in a top wealth quantile or die a cold, salty death. The marginal consumption value of passenger wealth declines rapidly, but the marginal insurance value of an extra dollar remains high, because it represents a material advantage in a fierce zero-sum competition. It is not enough to be wealthy, you must be much wealthier than most of your shipmates in order to rest easy. Some individuals may achieve a safe lead, but, in aggregate, demand for wealth will remain high even if every passenger is so rich their consumption desires are fully sated forever.
Our lives are much more like this cruise ship than most of us care to admit. No, we don't face the risk of drowning in the North Atlantic. But our habits and expectations are constantly under threat because the prerequisites to satisfying them may at any time become rationed by price. Just living in America you (or at least I) feel this palpably. So many of us are fighting for the right to live the kind of life we always thought was "normal". When there is a drought, the ability to eat what you want becomes rationed by price. If there is drought terrible so terrible that there simply isn't enough for everyone, the right to live at all may be rationed by price, survival of the wealthiest. Whenever there is risk of overall scarcity, of systemic rather than idiosyncratic catastrophe, there is no possibility of positive-sum mutual-gain insurance. There is only a zero-sum competition for the right to be insured. The very rich live on the very same cruise ship as the very poor, and they understandably want to keep their lifeboat tickets.
Now, as suggested in the comments, I think it's probably incomplete. It's not just about insurance against risks, some of it is about status, which is also a zero-sum game. And in some cases it's sociopathic thinking too.
However, it does feel like he's on to something here. One of the great myths of "Econ 101" is that money cannot be "economically dormant," but we can empirically see that is not the case. SRW touches on how this starts to happen as inequality rises...