Letters: ‘The Puzzle of the Wealthy’

Readers consider why many ultrarich people aren’t satisfied with their wealth—and discuss how to make America more equitable.

Thomas Peter / Reuters

The Reason Many Ultrarich People Aren’t Satisfied With Their Wealth

Recently, Joe Pinsker talked to a handful of experts about why many ultrarich people are motivated to accumulate more and more wealth. There are two central questions people ask themselves when determining whether they’re satisfied, one researcher explained: Am I doing better than I was before? and Am I doing better than other people?

My grown sons and I have often discussed the puzzle of the wealthy who want more money and the powerful who want more power. It’s nice to know that this question has actually drawn some academic study. As a member of the middle class who’d appreciate a little more economic security, I still feel a little sorry for these folks. To never be satisfied, to be driven to nonstop competition is a sorry existence, even if said existence is spent upon a golden throne. Too bad this population doesn’t add some creativity to its desires and strive to make the world a better place.

Janet Audette
Arvada, Colo.

This article was just as depressing to read as I imagine the research was to conduct. In a time of so much overabundance, it strikes me that so many people still live without the basic needs for survival.

California, where I live and work, is the world’s fifth-largest economy, thanks in part to many of the kind of high-net-worth individuals who were studied here. Even though the state’s GDP is doing so well, millions of people who live here don’t feel any of the benefits.

Almost 20 percent of California’s population lives below the federal poverty line—2 million are kids. I know humans are notoriously bad at learning from history, but I still wonder at the fact that we’ve never fully grasped the notion that the more extreme the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the higher the likelihood of a society becoming unstable for everyone (see: the French Revolution).

The super-wealthy in California and beyond remain largely untouched by the unsustainable tendencies of our economic system. But as drought and fire and displacement become more common, even the superrich will eventually come face-to-face with their place in humanity—as part of it.

As we move into a new decade of uncertainty around the quality of our shared infrastructure and the stability of world political and economic systems, it seems that the only way forward is for individuals and private interests to wake up to their responsibility to the collective. Deploying their accumulated wealth for the public good would not be solely altruistic—it would also be an investment in the ability to continue playing the game of acquiring wealth.

Courtney McKinney
Sacramento, Calif.

Certainly the rich can be greedy, self-centered, and overly focused on image, appearance, and their peer group. They can also be unhappy with their level of success. But I’d argue that you can find those elements at all economic levels. I’d be more interested in levels of happiness within groups (i.e., are successful hedge-fund traders more or less unhappy than those who build conventional businesses), and evaluating which groups at various socioeconomic levels are most happy and what characteristics contribute to that. That would be a much harder article to write, with difficult research. But the answers might actually benefit readers by giving them concrete directions to pursue happiness versus an article that’s really about why a non-rich person can have moral superiority over a really rich one—which, quite frankly, is what this article is about, in my view.

Joe Schmitz
Orange County, Calif.

I recall reading what I think was a Wall Street Journal article in the late ’80s summarizing research that examined incomes and happiness in a novel way. The researchers started with entry-level incomes and asked respondents, “How much more money would you need to be happy?” On average, as I remember it, they said 15 percent more. They then went to folks earning 15 percent more than the entry level and asked, “How much more money would you need to be happy?” You guessed it, the answer was about 15 percent more.

No matter the income level surveyed, the results were always the same. Folks think they need about 15 percent more than they currently make to be happy.

Thirty years later I still think I need about 15 percent more to be happy!

Vogel Da
Sellersville, Pa.

There used to be a simple solution to this: The 90 percent–plus marginal income-tax rates applied to the highest bracket during the 1950s. If 90 percent or more of the multimillion-dollar salary the CEO was demanding was going to go the government in taxes, he may have been less likely to ask for it. And if he demanded it anyway, for the sake of “status,” society became its prime beneficiary. Why do we so studiously ignore this effective countermeasure to the ever-growing income gap?

Carlos D. Luria
Salem, S.C.