Billionaire Charlie Munger thinks we should all be a lot happier.
Munger, the longtime investment partner and friend of fellow billionaire Warren Buffett, says he doesn’t understand why people today aren’t more content with what they have, especially compared to harder times throughout history.
“People are less happy about the state of affairs than they were when things were way tougher,” Munger said earlier this year at the annual meeting of the Daily Journal, the newspaper company where he’s a director.
The 98-year-old noted that he came of age in the 1930s, when Americans everywhere were struggling: “It’s weird for somebody my age, because I was in the middle of the Great Depression when the hardship was unbelievable.”
During that annual meeting, Munger complained that envy is a driving factor for too many people today. Before the early 1800s, there were thousands of years where “life was pretty brutal, short, limited and what have you. [There was] no printing press, no air conditioning, no modern medicine,” he said.
If nothing else, Munger’s sense of widespread envy in today’s world might be right on the money: Recent studies show that roughly 75% of people are envious of someone else in any given year.
Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are especially effective at sparking feelings of envy or jealousy, often connecting us with people who only offer highly curated peeks into the positive developments in their lives.
At the meeting, Munger pointed to the work of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who has argued that the quality of life around the world has improved dramatically over the past century or two, citing evidence such as longer life expectancies and reduced global poverty.
Critics of Pinker’s work say his views are overly simplified and ignorant of negative aspects of modern life, from growing wealth inequality to the ongoing existence of violence and political instability — factors that can still cause real suffering.
In 2019, Munger downplayed the effects of wealth and income inequality, and claimed that the politicians who were “screaming about it are idiots.”
Some politicians, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called for tax increases on the ultra-wealthy in recent years. Munger and his estimated net worth of $2.2 billion would likely be subject to those increases.
The billionaire has expressed skepticism about higher taxes on the wealthy in the past, even arguing last year that some inequality is a necessary aspect of a free market economy. At the Daily Journal’s annual meeting this year, he added that most people’s concerns over wealth inequality and criticisms of the extremely wealthy were “motivated” by envy.
“I can’t change the fact that a lot of people are very unhappy and feel very abused after everything’s improved by about 600%, because there’s still somebody else who has more,” Munger said.