Both of Emba’s “beside the point” concessions in her piece—that the value of the limit itself is “arbitrary” and “context-dependent,” not to mention nearly impossible to enforce in our current fiscal system—actually seem to pose the most interesting philosophical challenges of all. 

How would we even begin to identify such a threshold? It reminds me a little of the fabled Google interview questions (how many gumballs can you fit inside a school bus?). Maybe it’s less about the number itself, and more about the reasoning we use for getting there. Presumably there is some point beyond which society begins deteriorating from inequality; when the net effect becomes negative (one could argue we’re already there, and have been for quite some time).

Far from being beside the point, this question is central. Where does the accumulating weight of society’s needs eclipse one’s individual right to be incentivized by still more personal wealth accumulation? Is it better to allow a civilization to topple, for an exploited underclass to rise up and overthrow its oligarchic clown state government, than for a centimillionaire to get cut off after their first hundred million?

The question of incentive, by the way, intrigues me in and of itself: Even the staunchest defenders of limit-free wealth accumulation will probably concede that there’s such a thing as diminishing marginal returns. Money has long been immaterial to people like Jeff Bezos. I find it dubious that capping the personal wealth of these masters-of-the-universe types would mean they’d hang it up and stop working on drone shipping. Consider this data visualization that compares his $185 billion to a measly million and report back. It’s almost inconceivable to me that his next incremental dollar could meaningfully incentivize him, but maybe I’m naïve.

Then there’s the fact that the vast majority of our society would never even come close to breaching such a proposed limit (90% of American households have less than $1.5 million in wealth, most far less; the legal limit tossed out in the piece is more than $10 million, an amount that would land you among the richest 1%). For that reason, it seems to me this issue receives a defense disproportionate in both size and intensity to the number of people who would be impacted, like a group of dudes who clock in at 5’8” vehemently arguing about instituting a height limit of 7’ in the NBA.

Because of my profession, I’m tempted to tap financial planning’s 4% rule as a grounding force. If my lifestyle costs $160,000 per year, my personal maximum is probably somewhere around $4 million. I can live my ideal life on $4 million in perpetuity, so accumulating, say, $10 million would represent more than I could reasonably need, as well as (probably) an indication that I’ve not been very generous. But this rule doesn’t quite work without raising additional questions: You could argue that spending $160,000 per year is also wasteful. Where do choices morph from reasonable to excessive? This feels entirely subjective, and while there’s probably a creative equation that would triangulate the point at which we’ve allowed Katie to stockpile one too many pairs of designer shoes, my imagination fails me.

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