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On the diminishing marginal utility of Stuff

There's a concept in economics called the diminishing marginal utility of money. Loosely put: if you give a £20 bill to a homeless dude, it will make his day—it's worth a bunch of hot meals or a hostel bed for a few nights. If you give £20 to an average wage earner, it's nice but not a game-changer: it's worth a couple of cinema tickets or a round of drinks at the pub. And if you give £20 to a billionaire they probably won't know what to do with it—they have employees to carry the money around for them, and anyway, they earn more in the time it takes to open their wallet and stash the bill than the £20 note is worth. They're losing money by taking it!

Money. The more of it you've got, the less useful any additional increment becomes. And you don't have to be a millionaire to get a handle for this.

These days, I'm in the weird position where almost all the stuff I would want to buy with any additional income is either stuff I can simply buy right now ... or it isn't available at any price.

Leaving aside cars, yachts, or private jets (I'm not very interested in these) and the other expensive toys of the hyper-rich, most of the stuff I want is stuff that should cost pennies, but which is unavailable at any reasonable price.

For example, I would really like a stem-cell treatment that can fix the 50% peripheral retinopathy in my right eye, please. (Don't worry, I'm not going blind: it's dormant, and has been so since my early twenties or earlier.) Unfortunately, while there's promising research in the lab, nothing is going to be available for many years (especially not for people like me, who are sufficiently well-sighted to make the risk/benefit trade-off unappealing). If it was available I could budget for it. But short of throwing a billion pounds (which I don't have) at the problem by way of setting up a medical research institution, there's no way of hurrying up its availability; and even that might not work.

Another example: the late Steve Jobs. Doubtless he received the best medical care that money could buy—but it wasn't enough to save him because a cure for his pancreatic cancer didn't exist at any price. When he needed a liver transplant he was allegedly able to keep a Gulfstream jet on standby, fully-crewed, for a dash to three different institutes in different states where he was registered and in the queue for a matching organ—but he was still in the same boat as anyone else with the same condition and insurance cover to pay for treatment, insofar as he needed a liver transplant in the first place and had to wait for a donor organ. No magic wands came out of the closet to treat the billionaire.

So once you hit a certain threshold at which you are not hungry, cold, in debt, and short of pocket money, a weird gap opens up between that which is available, and that which we desire. Even the hyper-rich can't have what they want unless they pour vast amounts of money — and, more importantly, time — into making it.

So why do the rich keep trying to acquire more money, long past the point at which it can make any noticeable difference to their lifestyle?

I have three answers. One: it becomes a habit. You don't generally get to be hyper-rich without many years of continual effort; after a decade, just about anything becomes an ingrained habit. Two: it becomes a game, a way of keeping track of how well you're doing at whatever it is you want to do. And three: you're trying to build up a war chest that will buy you a very expensive toy—one that isn't currently available at any price, so that if you want one you'll have to sink billions of dollars and years of your own time into building it.

The latter is unusual but not unheard-of. Elon Musk has repeatedly explained that he wants to retire on Mars. That's a not-available-at-any-price option right now, but he's definitely serious about it; which is why he sank most of a gigantic fortune into building his own space program. (Which is doing pretty well right now, and even showing signs of turning a profit.) Steve Jobs arguably didn't need to return to Apple in 1997; his other ventures (NeXT and Pixar) had made him a multi-millionaire, even a billionaire. (When he died he was the largest single shareholder in Disney.) But I'm pretty certain he had been haunted for a very long time indeed by a vision of some sort of platonic ideal of computing, and he very badly wanted to own one. (I suspect what he wanted was the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with the mind-expansion capability it demonstrated on the hominids in the movie.)

But what, I wonder, motivates Mitt Romney? Does he want to buy something that isn't for sale at any price because it doesn't exist yet? Is it habit? Or is it all a game?

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 22, 2012 11:18 AM.

Interview on The WELL was the previous entry in this blog.

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