The Wealth of Nations

Who’s wealthier, a Maasai elder or your average American?

A few years ago, my wife and I enjoyed a marvelous hike through the bush of Tanzania while on safari. After camping in the village of Nainokanoka, we set off early with Moloton, our Maasai guide, and we walked amongst the buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and zebra on our way to a campsite at Empakaai, a gorgeous crater lake that legions of flamingos call home.


It was positively Edenic … I still can’t believe my wife did it while pregnant …

Since this was a long hike, I had lots of time to get lost in thought. And I kept pondering the question at the top of this page.

I’m sure this is an oversimplification but consider the following: these Maasai lived in houses they built for themselves on land for which they pay no rent (as far as I know). They tend to their livestock, which nourish them, and which may be sold for cash / bartered for other goods.

Also, they’re (semi-)nomadic. If things go south, they can pick up stakes and search for a new place to live — cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens in tow.

Moreover, I can’t speak for him or about his aspirations, but Moloton didn’t seem to need much to get by. Sure, he had a mobile phone and wore a jacket under his shúkà, but when we offered him water throughout the day, or some of our gristly chicken legs to snack on during lunch, he always declined. Even on the strenuous uphill climbs. He said he’d had some milk in the morning and was used to walking / running 40+ km a day without the extra calories.

But then, maybe he just didn’t like the look of our chicken legs.

When our safari guide, Innocent, drove us back to Nainokanoka to drop off Moloton, I asked how much these cattle and goats could be sold for in the market. Moloton and Innocent had a back-and-forth for some time, but as I recall the cattle sold for ~$500 per head, and the goats were worth 10% of a cow.

Now, the elders of the villages we passed had at least 100 cattle and three times as many goats. Some own upwards of 1,000 cattle and thousands of goats. These are proper franchises.

Again, these are assets that produce food and regenerate themselves — they literally compound themselves over time.

So how much wealth did this represent?

Let’s do the math.

The elders we passed on our hike owned assets that could be converted to cash for at least $65,000. This ignores the sheep and the chickens, whose wool and eggs and meat could be bartered away or sold.

The Maasai elders’ liabilities (as far as I know) are approximately $0.

For example, only 5.4% of American families in the middle quintile of incomes own a pooled investment fund (e.g., mutual funds, ETFs, etc.; see below). The most broadly owned income-generating assets are retirement accounts, but the median values for the bottom four income quintiles are woefully inadequate to the task of future expenses.


Of course, the United States prides itself on being a nation of homeowners. Almost two-thirds of families in the middle quintile of incomes own their primary residence, with a median value of $150,000.

These are assets, but they’re not liquid and there are many frictions when converting them to cash: long and expensive sales process, finding a new place to live, finding a new school / daycare for your kid(s), lugging your belongings to your new residence, registering with the DMV, etc. etc. etc.

They’re also liabilities. For example, the Fed data show 41.9% of Americans held mortgages or home-secured debt — a figure that seems low — with a conditional median value of $111,000.

More generally, 77.1% of households owed debt in 2016, with a conditional median value of $59,800. The median debt-to-income ratio is 95.1.

So, where does this leave us? Let’s take a look:


My assumptions get us to a place where the Maasai elder has nearly $18,000 more wealth than your average American.

And like, I think this is a way more favorable view of the average American’s balance sheet than is warranted — remember how 40% of Americans don’t have $400 to cover an emergency expense?

But maybe you feel differently. Maybe, you say, money isn’t the fount of wealth: health is, or happiness, or friends, or discretionary time.

My question to you would be: who has more of those? Your average American?

Consider the following:


Who do you think is wealthier?

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