The wealth of Sapiens

February 3, 2018

It’s 2am, and I’m curled up in a ball on my bathroom floor crying. I’m trying to do this without waking up my sleeping wife and daughter in the next room.

And I’m pretty happy about that.

True wealth is not money. It’s the option to buy what you truly need. If money can’t buy what you need, you’re on even footing with the poorest person out there.

My daughter got the flu. No biggie. We kept her home from school for two days, and the fever broke. She was back to running, jumping and singing her friends names. On Thursday I left on a ski trip with friends.

Saturday, at 3am, my wife called from the emergency room. My daughter had a 105 fever and hadn’t eaten in 36 hours. She was whimpering in pain and not drinking water. Chest x-rays revealed not the sharp white and black lines of ribs and air, but white lines and splotches of cloudy white: liquid in her lungs.

Fifty-three children have died from the flu this year. Fifty three parents started out their week with an annoyingly sick kid, and ended up grieving. The last time flu season was this bad, 56,000 people died from it.

I found a car rental that allowed one-way trips, and booked it online at 3am with a credit card. My friend drove me to there at 7am when they opened. I got directions from Google. I dropped the rental off at LGA, grabbed a Lyft to the hospital, and was hugging my wife and looking at my daughter at 12:30pm Saturday.

Please read the paragraph above over and over again to realize how amazing it is.

“Decreasing marginal utility”

In economics 101 you learn a simple model of happiness: more wealth makes you happier, but by smaller and smaller amounts. The first $10,000 you spend is awesome. The second $10,000 is good too, but not quite as great as the first. And so on.

Water, food, shelter, clothes and a bed. Those are all really important things. Without them, you’d be pretty miserable.

The most important money we spend is not the Lambo money. It’s avoiding-misery money. The modern world has gotten pretty good at providing the avoiding-misery money. Not perfect. But good.

But now, we must also contend with hedonic adaptation - we seemed evolved to never be happy. With each increase in our standard of living, we adapt, and it no longer brings us the same happiness. We seem to quickly forget what living without most of our current consumption would be like. We focus on the rich and their luxuries, and take for granted our warm beds. We’ll come back to that.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The ingredients for the treatment for pneumonia:

  • IV fluids
  • oxygen
  • antibiotics

This is not brain surgery. It is not gene therapy. We’re talking water, salt, sugar, air, and mold.

Oh! And generations of accumulated knowledge. To know which mold to use. To build an air compressor. To keep fluids sterile.

The ingredients are banal. The recipe is magic.

Ars longa, vita brevis means “Art is long, Life is short”. It refers to the fact that as part of the human colossus, we have the ability to contribute to a body of knowledge that outlives ourselves, and bootstraps the progress of future humanity.

Humans are small. Humanity is large.

At the beginning of the 20th century, out of every 1,000 infants born 100 were dead by their first birthday. By 1997, that number dropped to 7.

Pestilence’s children are Diphtheria, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Cholera, Malaria, Ebola, Yellow fever, Smallpox. Those names used to be death sentences. They killed millions throughout history.

The human colossus vanquished them to history, and a few unlucky countries and random outbreaks amongst luddites and homeopathists.

Stop and consider a hospital: it’s one of the truly impressive things humanity has created. Mount Rushmore is neolithic next to a modern hospital.

Cornell Hospital in Manhattan is huge. Billionaires donate to build wings, wards, and specialist facilities. It houses thousands of patients across all ages and infirmities. It has MRIs, and X-ray machines, and others which I don’t understand.

Each nurse and doctor inside it represents a minimum of 20 years of education. That education represents centuries of distilled trial and error, scientific progress and engineering, and optimization of how to get as much useful info as possible into a human brain. They operate together with amazing efficiency at taking in humans with any infirmity, and as fast and effectively as possible, fixing them and pushing us back out.

One success metric: a 90% reduction in infant funerals.

The wealth of Sapiens

True wealth is not money. It’s the option to buy what you truly need. If money can’t buy what you need, you’re on even footing with the poorest person out there.

Wealth is living in a society where you have the option of spending money on the things you need. The greater the number of options, and the more aligned they are to you needs, the wealthier you are.

The wealth we have all inherited is knowledge and social institutions. It’s taken generations of work, the sacrifice of many, and it’s not a foregone conclusion. We’re lucky we were born when we were.

Wealth is genuinely understanding how the world works, so that we can have a high degree of control over it. So you know what mold to use, when, and why. Because predecessors paid the price for that knowledge.

Wealth is a society where you unhesitatingly trust complete strangers with your child’s life. When those strangers felt confident dedicating years of their life to understanding how the body works, so that they could fix our bodies when something went wrong.

Wealth is having friends, colleagues and family who support you. Who take care of the things you can’t, without pause.

Wealth is when strangers rent you cars for 1-way trips at 3am over the internet.

And one kind of wealth we have more of now than ever before, is an open invitation to contribute to Ars Longa. To add to that compounding body of knowledge. So that in the future, one less child is on the wrong side of statistics. Consider this the invitation. Get out there.

Enjoying wealth

It’s easy to feel like you’re not wealthy. How can we keep ourselves baselined to how good we actually have it?

Find ways to viscerally remember what life is like without the modern marginalia.

Go camping. Not in a cabin. Not from a car. Put a pack on your back, and walk. And then clear a space in the woods. Sleep on the ground. Feel the cold. Worry about rain and bears. Eat a cold tasteless meal. Smile at sunrise. Groan at your aches.

Vacation in poor countries. Pay attention! People are happy. They are kind. Children play outside. Teenagers flirt, parents stress, and grandparents sit around and smile at it all. You do not need the latest smartphone to live well.

Then come back, and appreciate: hot showers. potable water, electricity, delivery pizza, family.

The benchmark is “my family and I are alive, safe and fed”.

The rest is luxury.