“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up for treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborer’s who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”James 5:1-6
Billionaires sit on top of the empire of money. There were 2,825 billionaires in the world in 2019. Billionaires amassed over 1 trillion extra dollars during the current pandemic, with 50 new billionaires arising. “Healthcare billionaires” have gotten 150 billion dollars richer.
Let’s wrap our heads around a billion dollars. 1000000000 United States Dollars is roughly 15303440000,00 South African Rands. If you earned just enough to crack the top 1% of South African earners, it would take you ~26158116 years to earn that amount of money. Jeff Bezos has 187 of those billion dollars.
Inequality.org says that the world’s 10 richest billionaires own 801 billion dollars in combined wealth. This is a sum greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis. Meanwhile, over 734 million people live below the poverty line. This represents a criminal level of inequality. The report states, “Those with extreme wealth have often accumulated their fortunes on the backs of people around the world who work for poor wages and under dangerous conditions.”
No fair system allows one man to idly make 149,353 dollars (over 2 million rands) a minute. Not while children die of hunger. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) says that it would cost 14 billion dollars a year to end world hunger. No billionaire bothers because there’s no money in that.
This is an explanation of the situation in the United States, referred to as “homicidal greed”:
The vast majority of the yields of our global economy are being captured by the world’s rich. Society is set up as one large enrichment scheme designed to extract wealth from the 99% and funnel it to the 1%. The point of capitalism is not to make the world a better place – it’s to make a profit.
Parenti says, “There’s only one thing that the ruling circles throughout history have ever wanted – all the wealth, the treasures, and the profitable returns; all the choice lands and forests and game and herds and harvests and mineral deposits and precious metals of the earth; all the productive facilities and gainful inventiveness and technologies; all the control positions of the state and other major institutions; all public supports and subsidies, privileges and immunities; all the protections of the law and none of its constraints; all of the services and comforts and luxuries and advantages of civil society with none of the taxes and none of the costs. Every ruling class in history has wanted only this-all the rewards and none of the burdens.”
The rich regard the poor with contempt, constantly calculating ways to avoid, rob and silence them.
According to Luke Savage, “Billionaires are the grotesque products of an exploitative, immoral economic system.” He goes on to say, “A billion dollars, let alone the over $100 billion amassed by Jeff Bezos, is not a reward proportionate to someone’s social contribution. It’s institutionalized theft, plain and simple.”
Apologists for billionaires defend them on many points.
1 – Billionaires are geniuses, deserving of their position. They won the game
Parenti has a good answer: “If the very rich are naturally so much more capable than the rest of us, why must they be provided with so many artificial privileges under the law, so many bailouts, subsidies and other special considerations – at our expense? Their ‘naturally superior talents’ include unprincipled and illegal subterfuge such as price-fixing, stock manipulation, insider training, fraud, tax evasion, the legal enforcement of unfair competition, ecological spoliation, harmful products and unsafe work conditions. One might expect naturally superior people not to act in such rapacious and venal ways. Differences in talent and capacity as might exist between individuals do not excuse the crimes and injustices that are endemic to the corporate business system.”
Often, when we talk about genius billionaires, we fail to mention the privilege that enabled them. Here’s a snippet from Extreme Wealth is Not Merited:
I understand why people want this to be true. To believe that with enough grit and cunning, they too can ascend the rungs of society. This is why many defend offensive fortunes. Unfortunately, in reality, it is a myth, a delusion sold to keep civilians hopeful within a perverse system.
2 – Billionaires are signs of a free market and vibrant democracy
Re-read United States of Capital and Unfettered Capitalism. Neither paints a picture of freedom or democracy. The United States is home to the most billionaires in the world yet it experiences obscene levels of poverty and inequality.
3 – Billionaires solve problems with charity and innovation
Charity is not a solution to widespread poverty and hunger. It’s dehumanizing to receive charity. The rich use charitable organizations to score good public relations (PR), retain control of their wealth and dodge taxes. No wealthy person has put a dent in their fortune by giving it away. In fact, many use it as a tool to complement their business activities.
“Of course no amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”Theodore Roosevelt
Johnstone deconstructs the argument of rich men saving the world. Her article reads, “Which means the only answer capitalism has for the current plight of our species is the blind-faith belief that the world is about to be saved, any minute now, by a handful of union-busting tech billionaires who choose every single day not to use their vast fortunes to end world hunger.”
4 – Billionaires are early adopters. When they acquire something new, it eventually trickles down to us, making the world a better place
An argument against this is written by Sam Pizzigati in The World Would Be a Better Place Without the Rich.
Quoting economist Robert Frank, Pizzigati says that the wealthy set the consumption standard which makes the rest of us rush and stretch ourselves unnecessarily thin. We spend more in reaction to people at the top spending more. Yet they have so much more to spend. Whereas many finance newer standards of living by neglecting savings and taking credit. Grand spending by the rich undermines the quality of our everyday transactions. Poorer people are put under pressure to keep up.
In reality, the concentration of wealth has created luxury markets. Retailers focus their attention and innovation on luxury markets, and ordinary people are ultimately never satisfied, being unable to keep up.
Pizzigati asserts, “The awesomely affluent have no net redeeming social value. Their presence coarsens our culture, erodes our economic future, and diminishes our democracy. Any society that winks at the monstrously large fortunes that make some people decidedly more equal than others is asking for trouble.”
According to Billionaires Are a Sign of Economic Failure, “The super-rich use their wealth to pay as little tax as possible, making active use of a secretive global network of tax havens, as revealed by the Panama Papers and other exposes.” It also states, “Billions are not just used to ensure lower taxes. They can also be used to buy impunity from justice, to buy politicians, or to buy a pliant media. The use of ‘dark’ money to influence elections and public policy is a growing problem all over the world.” The conclusion: billionaires undermine social mobility and democracy.
You’ve heard about the bad billionaires: Bernie Madoff was a fraudster, Jeffrey Epstein was a pedophile sex trafficker. At the same time, we’re inundated with puff pieces on how great billionaires are – their genius, their altruism. While almost all of that is paid-for PR, billionaires do not exist in isolation. Phillips says, “They generally know or know of each other – often personally – do business together, hold significant personal wealth, share similar educational and lifestyle backgrounds, and retain common global interests.” Birds of a feather flock together.
To drive home the point that billionaires are bad, I will not look at the avarice of Bezos, the buffoonery of Musk (1, 2) or the odiousness of Trump. Let’s rather take a look at a “good” billionaire.
The next part is The Good Billionaire.