The Intellectual Situation
Bezos as space conqueror, Gates as global vaccinator
But individualism is a luxury, too. At least we’re not very good at it. Depressed and hopelessly earthbound, we looked to the skies. What did we see up there? Richard Branson (net worth: $4.5 billion) in a little plane strapped to a rocket, just barely leaving the atmosphere. And who was that right behind him? Jeff Bezos (net worth: $190 billion) in a spaceship shaped like a penis. It was the billionaires, the greatest individuals of all.
What do we think about billionaires? That they should not exist, of course. Beyond that, they barely constitute a coherent object of thought. They lean conservative, but they are not as politically homogeneous as you might expect. (In 2020, just 43 percent of US billionaires identified with the Republican Party.) One billionaire said he voted for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in the last election; his wife donated to Bernie, who gave the money back. Their geographic distribution is also fairly wide. Fewer than a third of the world’s billionaires are American, and some seventy countries have at least one.1 China and the rest of the world’s emerging economies still churn out billionaires in the old captain-of-industry style, their wealth directly correlated with the resources they pull out of the ground. There are women who divorce their billionaire husbands and then become billionaires in their own right. There are children whose billionaire parents die, with the same result.
But these classic types face competition. There are tech billionaires, media billionaires, finance billionaires, real estate billionaires, telecom billionaires, and services billionaires. Who will explain to the ghost of Andrew Carnegie that today you can become a billionaire by selling athleisure (Lululemon), a Sadie Hawkins–style dating app (Bumble), or plastic vials of caffeine spiked with vitamin B (5-Hour Energy)? There are billionaires whose wealth correlates directly with their fame (Jay-Z, Rihanna). There is Warren Buffett, snacking on cheeseburgers and pretending to live in the same house he bought in Omaha for $31,500 in 1958. And there is Jeff Bezos, whose bald, sleek, physically overbuilt appearance suggests nothing so much as an overfunded, perpetual midlife crisis; he wants to be every kind of billionaire at once.
Do they associate with one another? They certainly used to, at least while the Lolita Express was in service.Tweet
Perhaps it’s hard to generalize about billionaires because there aren’t that many of them. Four-hundred ninety-three people became first-time billionaires in 2020, the most ever in a single year — but there are still fewer than three thousand in the world, which is not quite enough to make assertions about their behavior as a group. Billionaires are also a relatively new thing, at least in recent history. After North Atlantic old-growth capital was annihilated by world war and social democracy, such pinnacles of wealth took years to pile back up. Globally there were just twelve billionaires in 1984. Since then they have grown richer and more numerous. In 1987, the world’s richest person, the real estate investor Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, had a net worth of $49 billion, adjusted for inflation. Today, Bezos has almost four times that much.
It’s also not clear that billionaires see themselves as a group. Do they associate with one another? They certainly used to, at least while the Lolita Express was in service. Do they coordinate their projects? Get on Zoom, share screens, and collab? Why would they? Tyler Perry and Prathap Reddy both became billionaires in 2020, but one is the producer of the Madea franchise and the other is an Indian doctor who owns a hospital chain. By what concrete mechanism would these two people come to understand themselves as compatriots? The largest billionaire collaboration we can think of is the Giving Pledge, in which Bill Gates and Warren Buffett persuaded a bunch of the super-rich to agree that they will eventually, someday, give at least half of their wealth to charity. We don’t know whether those who signed on are living up to their commitments, because the Giving Pledge doesn’t publicly track how much giving is happening. The biggest social impact of the Giving Pledge may well end up being that billionaires feel better about their relationship to the world — the most expensive self-care initiative in history.
It is as an object of cultural fascination that billionaires take on a more tangible group identity. Billionaires are not just rich people. They are not millionaires, the wealthy people with whom the rest of us might still interact in the course of our lives. We can drive up to a millionaire’s house and buzz the front gate without being questioned by a former Division I lineman who now works private security. With billionaires, the security comes in layers. We cannot approach their homes, and we’ll almost certainly never speak to them. If we do, we’ll remember it forever, as if we’ve spotted one of the world’s rare birds.*2
Billionaires are also set apart by the fact that an average person cannot reasonably aspire to be one. There are an estimated 22 million millionaires in the United States alone, more than 8 percent of the adult population. Becoming a millionaire is simple, if unimaginable for many: graduate from college with no debt, get a $50,000 starting salary at 23, save 8 percent per year, and get 2 percent raises every year for the rest of your working life. By the time you’re 65, you’ll have $2.7 million socked away, ready to burn on a long-term care facility. There is no equivalent path for billionaires. Culturally, they not only possess but represent the wealth that can be neither justified nor “earned”: the vast and malignant pools of overaccumulation that often result from long periods of pacifically exporting conflict to the periphery of the world system. When Bezos founded Amazon in 1994, there was no good reason to think that it would beat out the hundreds of other tech companies to become the world’s largest merchant monopolist, but the possibility that such a mega-capital would emerge is baked right into the technology. Under modern-day capitalism, becoming a billionaire is just something that happens to some people.
What is the difference, the joke runs, between God and Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle? The answer: God doesn’t think he is Larry Ellison. But while an individual billionaire may see himself as God in the Abrahamic sense, remaking and reorganizing the world in accordance with his vision of the good life, billionaires as a group more closely resemble the gods — plural — of ancient Greece. They are various, individuated, subject to moods and caprices. Their relationships to one another and to their family members rarely come into public view; when they do, we read the entrails of their divorces to divine what will come next. (Will Bill give up on global health just to get back at Melinda?) Some want to help the rest of us, and some don’t give a shit. Their vanity projects are plentiful and diverse. Clive Palmer, whose money comes from iron, nickel, and coal, is currently attempting to build a fully functional replica of the Titanic, to be named Titanic II, at the cost of some $500 million. Hedge funder Steve Cohen seems to have bought the New York Mets primarily to bring back the black alternate uniforms while tweeting about them like any other fan (“It’s hard to understand how professional hitters can be this unproductive”). Marc Lore, who may not currently be a billionaire but who sold his e-commerce company, Jet.com, to Walmart for $3.3 billion, recently announced plans to build a city from scratch, either on cheap land in Appalachia or somewhere in the deserts of the American Southwest. He says the city’s population will be five million within forty years.
Who will explain to the ghost of Andrew Carnegie that today you can become a billionaire by selling athleisure?Tweet
It’s fun to dwell on the quixotic billionaires. Their eccentricity lends itself to the fantasy that they are special — that they are not the inevitable product of our political-economic regime — and they take our minds off the single-mindedly malignant billionaires. There is Peter Thiel, who is currently funding pro-coup Republicans to challenge members of Congress who voted to impeach Donald Trump. There are the Koch brothers, who helped delegitimize the idea of public transportation, among other crimes. There is Rupert Murdoch, who has built his fortune undermining the democracy that made him rich. There is Kelcy Lee Warren (big fossil fuels), Isaac Perlmutter (Trump’s shadow ruler of the VA), Diane Hendricks (Scott Walker’s patron), Steve Wynn (RNC finance chair until he got accused of sexual harassment), and the Walton family (exploitative retailers). There’s a lot of them.
Will billionaires ever do something socially worthwhile with their time? George Soros has spent more than $32 billion on his Open Society Foundation to support democratic governance, education, racial justice, and global economic development. Elon Musk assures us that his own enrichment is merely a side effect of Tesla’s true purpose, which is to end the era of the internal combustion engine. The Gates Foundation is the second most important organization in global health after the World Health Organization, to which Bill Gates is the second-biggest donor. Some of this philanthropy is laudable, and some of it is misplaced. (For all the laudatory press Gates received for his efforts to eradicate polio, for example, it turned out that a number of countries would have rather been helped in fighting diseases that place a larger burden on their public health. “They were compelled,” one researcher said, “to emphasize polio against their will.”) With wealth concentration not just increasing but doing so at an increasing rate, it is easy to fantasize that a small, dedicated group of billionaires with the right priorities could help in even larger ways — say, by ending homelessness.
But this is just a fantasy, and one constructed on the very assumptions billionaires themselves would propagate with their childish petit bourgeois ideology of pluck and gumption. Some billionaires are good, some are bad, but all of them are more symptom than cause. Moreover, most of them are mostly useless, being incapable of fixing capital at any kind of significant historical scale. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration put a person on the moon in 1969. Five decades later, the best the billionaires can do is a low earth orbit in a penis rocket. Add the net worth of the top ten American billionaires together and you could fund the federal government for less than four months. Four months! That’s how small these masters of the universe really are in comparison to what we regularly achieve together, often without even recognizing or thinking about it.
In practice, the most a dedicated billionaire can hope to achieve is gridlock and sabotage. And this they have done. With the Senate and nationwide gerrymandering making authentic majoritarian governance impossible, and with Mitch McConnell’s reactionary federal judiciary standing guard to crush any progressive legislation that does accidentally make its way across a friendly president’s desk, it’s clear that the democratic capacities of the US government have atrophied dramatically over the past two decades. Do most Americans support Medicare for All? Yes. Can the country afford Medicare for All? Yes. But because our political system is largely indifferent to what most Americans support, we are not going to get Medicare for All.
As weirdos who have been appointed to positions of great social power and influence by nothing more than the accident of their wealth, billionaires cannot be trusted to fix the world’s problems. No matter how much of their money they want to give away, things won’t begin to improve until we take it from them. Not because we need it, but because they can’t be trusted to handle it without destroying the collective preconditions of common existence. Either we redistribute capital to ease the chaos-mongering inequality that threatens all of our futures, or war will do it for us, in the worst of all possible ways.
Nationality tells us very little about where a given billionaire’s money actually lives. As investigative reporting on the Pandora Papers revealed, the superrich make extensive use of tax shelters and shell corporations to avoid paying taxes on their investments, trusts, business income, and real estate holdings. Some of these tax shelters were already well known (Bermuda, the Cayman Islands), but some were relatively unknown, even to the people who live there. It turns out that South Dakota is home to financial services companies that manage trusts valued at six times the GDP of the entire state. When polled last year by the Washington Post, South Dakota residents said that agriculture was the most important sector of the state’s economy, estimating its contribution to GDP at two-thirds. In reality, agriculture makes up less than 7 percent of South Dakota’s economic output. Finance and insurance, the actual engines of the state’s economy, account for a fifth. ↩
* At what point does a millionaire become unapproachable, and become, spiritually, a billionaire? $100 million? $500 million? We have no idea. ↩