Wealth Isn't Zero Sum

Everyone can make bank, and we don't have to eat the rich to do it.

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Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

Matthew 14:13-21

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed Him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. 18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 

19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Why the Sunday School Lesson?

I grew up Southern Baptist. If you grew up in the church like me, you are familiar with the tale of Jesus feeding the 5,000. A crowd of people had gathered to hear him speak, and they had nothing to eat as evening approached. Instead of sending them off to fend for themselves, Jesus turned five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed the massive crowd.

JC was a capitalist before it was cool (and man I hope this isn’t a sacrilegious statement). Our Lord and Savior turned finite supply (capital) into exponential food (wealth), to the shock of his disciples. So how does this relate to wealth creation?

We tend to view household wealth as a pizza, where the top percentile of the country owns the majority of nation’s wealth:

How do we propose to fix this wealth inequality? The simplest response is take some money from the blue section and give it to the orange and grey sections:

Bam! Wealth controlled by the top percentile drops by 20 points, while the poorest and middle groups increase by 10 points each. Wealth inequality is solved, everyone is happy, and the world is a better place, right? That is the stance that a lot of politicians take, but it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of wealth and money. The truth is, money isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s a positive-sum game.

What Is a Positive-Sum Game?

In a zero-sum game, the total amount of resources are static. Think about buying a single pizza from Domino’s. It doesn’t matter if you cut it into 12 slices, 8 slices, or 4 slices. One slice could be three times bigger than all of the rest. No matter how you cut it, you have the same total amount of pizza. In a zero-sum environment, resources would have to be reallocated from one group to another for the bottom group to improve. Maybe the bottom cohort would outperform the bigger one and take a larger share of the pie. Maybe progressive taxes could be used to redistribute the wealth. Regardless of the method, money would have to be moved to improve the standing of the bottom group.

Good thing that wealth is a positive-sum game. What is the most obvious evidence? US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is the market value of goods and services produced in a specific country during a specific time, and that graph has almost always climbed up and to the right in the US:

Interestingly, the GDP graph appears to contrast reports of wealth inequality today. While GDP has steadily climbed, wealth inequality in the US appears to be at its biggest gap ever. In 1968, the top 20% of US households generated 43% of income. Today, the top cohort generates 52% of national income. 1/5 of the country makes more than 4/5. That’s horrible. Wealth inequality is destroying the country… right? Instead of strictly comparing percentage of total wealth, let’s look at the absolute size of the pie.

I’m going to stick with the pizza analogy because 1) it’s easy to understand, and 2) I’m starving right now. Here’s the pizza size chart from Domino’s website:

50 years ago, the entire US economy was a 6” personal pizza. The top 20% controlled less of this pizza, but the entire pizza was tiny. In 2021, We have a 15” xtra large meat-lovers pizza with all the goods.

For the math wizards out there, the total area of the personal pizza was 28.27”, while the xtra large pizza is 176.71”. In 1968, the top 20% of US households would have controlled 12.16 inches of pizza (43%), while the bottom 80% would have controlled 16.11” (57%).

Meanwhile, in 2021 the top 20% of US households control 91.89” of pizza (52%), and the bottom 80% control 84.82” (48%). Sick, our grandparents had a bigger portion of a way smaller pie. No one talks about how much absolute wealth has grown for the average Joe, though. Our percentage of wealth might be smaller, but we own 5.25x more pizza than the previous generation.

Think about it, if you are middle class (or even lower class) in America today, you probably have luxuries that previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of. Electricity. A refrigerator. A vehicle (even if it is a clunker). Goods that didn’t even exist in the past such as internet and a cell phone. If you are middle class and living within your means, you can travel almost anywhere on a budget.

Look, I don’t think anyone needs $200B *cough* Bezos *cough*. That being said, if we spent less time comparing our lives to the current crop of billionaires and more time looking at how much living standards have improved over the last 50 years, we would see that we’re doing pretty well.

Capitalism, Baby

At the end of the day, movers, shakers, and risk takers in private markets create the products that help us generate wealth today. There are more ways to make money than ever before. We have “traditional” jobs with large companies. Start ups. Content creators. Remote work has created opportunities that never before existed. All of this optionality has helped the pizza grow larger and larger.

The vast number of opportunities available, combined with competition in the job market, has led to increased wages for employees as well. When workers have options, employers have to pay up to attract talent.

So now we have more jobs than ever. Better wages than ever, and many products are cheaper than ever. Companies pay more to attract workers, but their products need to cost less to attract customers. TVs used to be thousands of dollars. Now you can get a decent flat screen for $150. Air conditioning isn’t a luxury, it’s practically a right. Electric cars will soon be cheaper than gas-powered vehicles.

Optionality + higher wages + lower costs = more expendable income for everyone. More expendable income = one massive pizza.

Sure, the stakeholders in the biggest winners will benefit more than most. But if I can order anything under the sun and have it delivered to my house in 12 hours, why should I care if Bezos is richer than me? His service made my life much easier. Yeah, the stakeholders in these massive businesses create unfathomable wealth. But their successes don’t come at the expense of everyone else. The whole pizza keeps getting a little bit bigger.

Anyways, I’m off to go bool with some Slavs in the Czech Republic. Catch you guys later this week 🤝

- Jack

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