The Air We Breathe

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A few years ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance of mine who happens to be pretty rich. I don’t know the exact figure, but his net worth was probably something like $80 million. He was definitely in “ultra-high net worth” territory and quite obviously never needed to work another day in his life.

He was bemoaning the fact that if he hadn’t sold his energy company so early, he would be “a billionaire by now.” My heart didn’t exactly ache for the guy, but his complaint (which these days I think is referred to as a “humblebrag“) made an impression.

I was reminded of this last week, when I was reading in Quora an article about the definition of “success.’ One of the respondents related a conversation he was having with a friend who had $2 billion and was complaining that he wasn’t worth as much as Larry Page, who is worth $15 billion.

What is it about money such that people are never satisfied? Most of us have heard about the study that shows that money does, in fact, correlate closely with happiness, up to a level of income about $40,000 per year (adjusted for your location). After that, the marginal benefit begins to fall off, and after a certain amount, it gets fairly meaningless.

It certainly makes sense that, say, a young adult out of college making $60,000 per year is probably a lot more content and satisfied than someone working at Shake Shack for $25,000 per year. But it also makes sense that an investment banker making $900,000 per year is probably no happier than the person who is making $800,000 instead. Money, at that level, has stopped moving the happiness dial.

An interesting metaphor hit me, which I’d like to offer for your consideration: the air we breathe. Imagine for a moment that we treated air the same way we treat money.

What I mean by that is that air is: what if it was unevenly distributed? Most people would have enough to fill their lungs day to day and get by. Some people might wheeze and gasp, barely hanging on. Others suffocate to death. And a few have stockpiled enough air for fifty lifetimes………or a hundred…….or a million.

How would we, as as race, feel about this? We might witness Mark Zuckerberg breathing freely and without a care, confident that in his secret underground caves, he has a stockpile of the oxygen he requires just in case he lives for the next fifty million years. And yet we walk by on the street the bodies of people who have violently died, having suffocated for want of air.

This, clearly, would be unacceptable, because not only would we be outraged that any human on the planet couldn’t get enough to breathe, but also because, frankly, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need air for the next fifty million years. The air, we would all agree, has to be shared.

But we don’t need to agree to this because, happily, the availability and distribution of air for our lungs isn’t within the realm of human decision-making. It’s widely- and freely-distributed, doesn’t cost anyone anything to use, and not only would it be impractical to “hoard” it, but doing so would be silly. Zuck lives all of three blocks away from my house, and whether he’s panting lustily or breathing slowly during meditation, it matters not a whit to me. I have what I need, as do my family members.

The air we breathe, then, is the idealized expression of socialism. From each his according to his abilities (which, in this case, are naught). To each according to his needs (which are more or less the same). Air is a fair resource, and occasional debates about pollution notwithstanding, it’s something that seven billion people share peaceably.

Now I realize that air isn’t the same as cash, and I’m as fond of the latter as the next fellow. And, let me assure you, I’m not proposing the wisdom of a government making sure we all have the same quantity of assets. That little 80-year experiment was kind of a flop that created untold misery and put the entire human species at risk of extinction. Luckily, we got past it.

But all the same, I can’t help but think of this little analog and wonder to myself if it might help yield some insight as to the foolhardiness of human greed and the limits of covetousness any wise person need pursue. The pursuit of success that leads to creating employment, good jobs, a better world, and all that happy hoo-ha is perfectly good, and if it happens to make you rich along the way, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

But remember that there’s really only so much of that stockpiled oxygen in your caves that you really need, and it might do you some good to share some of it (at your own discretion, not by government edict) now and then. Hyperventilation can’t hold a candle to the good feelings of helping out a fellow traveler here on our little planet.