Farhad discusses the moral failing that are billionaires. In light of recent news about the rich cheating their way into prestigious schools, hiding billions of assets from taxation, and the lived experience of money making some people much much more “equal” in our
democracies plutocracies. There is a undercurrent of renewed skepticism of the rich. I say, rightly so.
A billion dollars is wildly more than anyone needs, even accounting for life’s most excessive lavishes. It’s far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are floating new taxes aimed at the superrich, including special rates for billionaires. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also favors higher taxes on the wealthy, has been making a moral case against the existence of billionaires. Dan Riffle, her policy adviser, recently changed his Twitter name to “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” Last week, HuffPost asked, “Should Billionaires Even Exist?”
Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?
This is something I don’t understand, as a member of the global 1% myself I feel a lot of shame around my opulent wealth and ease of life. Perhaps my analysis simply ties my relative meager station in life to a history of exploitation and unfairness that is left unresolved. Perhaps I see being born to white middle class parents who stuck together in America in the 90’s and could afford to give me access to computers as what it is: luck. Everything I have is both because of my hard work and because I am cosmically lucky.
Writing this now it occurs to me that I don’t actually feel shame for being lucky, that’s just a roll of the dice. I feel shame because so many people around me try and convince me that it isn’t luck, that I (and they) somehow deserve this station based on merit and by extension those with less somehow deserve their lot in life.
As the writer Anand Giridharadas has argued, many billionaires approach philanthropy as a kind of branding exercise to maintain a system in which they get to keep their billions.
There are two things at play here that erk me. First off, charity as a practice doesn’t ever actually address the root problem of inequality. It maintains the power dynamics of some who have more and some who have less. Further, when one has a $1,000,000,000 dollars and donate, say, one hundred thousand dollars to a charity it sounds like a huge number but amounts to 0.0001% of income. My net worth is probably around $10,000. So that 10 grand from a billionair is equivalent to me donating $1. I gave a panhandler $5 the other day, where’s my global recognition for being such a generous guy?
When American capitalism sends us its billionaires, it’s not sending its best. It’s sending us people who have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing inequality. They’re bringing injustice. They’re buying politicians. And some, I assume, are good people.
Some are good, but here’s what none of them are ever going to do: change the world in a way that would interrupt the power that they have accumulated and that’s the problem. No one should have that much power.