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Billionaire Follies

Bezos as space conqueror, Gates as global vaccinator

Artwork featuring a purple robot riding a horse. The robot is wearing a crown and carrying a yoga mat. The horse has armor and beats headphones.
Jonathan Monaghan, The White Rider. 2018/2020, inkjet on archival paper, plexi face-mount. Edition of three. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

  1. * 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. 

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