I concluded the post on well-being with: “The trend of increasing wealth, income and consumption is undeniable. The question is what is the trend in inequality? And what of well-being? While the level of well-being is undoubtedly rising around the world, is it also becoming more unequal?”

The world is unequal in terms of wealth and income for certain. Empirical evidence shows that inequality in wealth and income is increasing monotonically. Since wealth and income are positively correlated with consumption, and are also causally linked, one can conclude that inequality of consumption must be growing as well. It is.

That much is clear. Now let’s talk about well-being. What is it? It’s a feeling of being well. It’s about having our needs — physiological, psychological, emotional — satisfied. These needs are met through consumption. We consume water to meet the physiological need to satisfy thirst, for instance. We need stuff to meet our needs; stuff that may be in short supply relative to demand.

(You can’t expect an economist to not somehow smuggle in demand and supply into any discussion.)

The main goal is well-being, and the need for wealth, income and consumption are instrumental in promoting well-being. They are “derived” needs, not the primary needs. Your hunger drives the need for food, which drives the need for consumption, that drives the need for income and wealth, etc.

When we become incapable of consumption (regardless of our wealth and income), we become incapable of achieving well-being. In other words we die.

Greater well-being requires greater consumption, no doubt, but we get satiated fairly quickly, given that we are finite beings with finite lifetimes. Therefore, while there can be immense disparity in wealth and income, there are limits to the disparity or inequality in well-being. No matter how much food or water one has, there’s only so much one can consume. Once you’ve had as much as you wish to eat and drink, you have reached the level of well-being (along the food-drink dimension) as can be reached by any other person.

There’s a ceiling to well-being. A billionaire’s potential well-being is the same as the potential well-being of a moderately rich person in any developed country. Sure, the billionaire may have dozens of mansions with gold-trimmed bathrooms but that does not increase his well-being above the well-being of a moderately rich person who has what is called a “luxury home” in the US with a bunch of pretty good bathrooms. You can use only one bathroom at a time anyway, and the experience is not diminished by the lack of gold faucets.

At present, there are billions of people who don’t have what we’d consider by our standards to be pretty good toilets. And they don’t have all that they’d like to eat. Or don’t have a hope in hell to reach the satiation point of consumption goods. But let’s not despair. The world is getting better in all sorts of ways.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the world is getting richer. Sure, the rich are getting richer and one may argue that the poor are not getting as rich as the rich but that’s not the relevant dimension. The important bit is whether the poor are getting the ability to reach their potential in terms of well-being.

My claim is that the world is getting to a point where everyone is able to attain their potential well-being. That means that regardless of how relatively rich or poor one is in the world of the near future, everyone will be nearly equal in terms of well-being.

This is going to take time, of course. How much time? Hundreds of years? No.

I believe that it will be around one generation at most but in all likelihood, it will be in about 15 years. In about 15 years or so, there will be equality in well-being. There will be inequality of wealth and income, and to some degree inequality in consumption, but there will be equality of well-being.

In a way, we are circling back. Once upon a time, there was equality of well-being. Everyone, for all of human existence, was miserable. That was equality. Then, a few generations ago, inequality of well-being began to be a thing. And in only another generation or so, there will again be equality of well-being: everyone will have the opportunity to reach their potential level of well-being. Nobody will be prevented from being well merely because of income or wealth.

In a future bit, I will argue that in a world of superabundance, there will be equality of well-being even as there will be immense inequality of wealth and income. That would be an immensely desirable world, a world that lacks preventable misery.

The Buddha around 2,500 years ago realized that the characteristic unsatisfactoriness (Sanskrit dukkha) is caused by clinging to or grasping for something. If you stop desiring something, then you remove the cause of the feeling of unsatisfactoriness. So what’s an easy way of removing desire for something? Simple: have enough of it to become satiated.

I desire water when I’m thirsty. But after a few glasses of water, I am done. I have no more desire for water. I may have other needs but water is not one of them. If every need I feel now is met without any struggles, then at least for now I am not bothered by them. I may have other needs that arise later that I cannot conceive of now but that’s something I have to deal with later. But for now, all I want is that I have sufficient amounts of stuff that meet my current needs so that I can be as free of needless unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) as possible.

That is where humanity is headed. It’s going toward a world where everyone’s well-being is assured because they all have their consumption needs met regardless of how much wealth and income they have.

I conclude with this shanti mantra from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

oṃ sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ
sarve santu nirāmayāḥ .
sarve bhadrāṇi paśyantu
mā kaścid duḥkha bhāgbhavet .
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
Let all be happy
Let all be free from debilitation
Let all see goodness
Let there be no victims of sorrow.
Om peace, peace, peace.

Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “Convergence”

  1. One important thing that those complaining about inequality tend to be unaware of or ignore is that wealth acquisition isn’t zero sum. Billionaires got that way by people voluntarily purchasing what they were selling, and they don’t get rich at the expense of others. So as long as one is able to fulfil one’s basic needs, what billionaires earn isn’t one’s concern.


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