As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, its financial and economic impacts worsen – for most of us, anyway. Businesses are going under, The job market is dismal, and millions don’t have access to high quality healthcare which is desperately needed in times like this. So, with all that going on, what better time to discuss one of the greatest reasons so many are struggling right now –wealth inequality. Lately, social media has seen a spike in content detailing why billionaires shouldn’t exist at all, and really, they’ve made it so extremely easy for this belief to become popular opinion. Let’s take a look at why everyone’s hating on billionaires and why it’s totally valid to do so – in fact, I’m actively encouraging it. Grab yourself a warm beverage, and let’s dive in.
When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Getting your head around a “billion”
The human brain is not equipped to handle large numbers. In fact, our brains do it so poorly that not only do we struggle to envision a billion of anything, but we frequently underestimate how much that number actually represents. We’re not to blame. Our brains simply didn’t evolve for that function.
Let me help you out.
If you wanted to save $1 billion, and you put away $100 a day, it would take you (and your great grand-kids, and their great-grandkids) over 27,397 years to reach your goal of $1 billion. 1 billion steps could take you roughly 15.2 times around the equator. Even a million, which sounds like a pretty big number, pales in comparison. While 1 million seconds is about 11 days, 1 billion seconds is a whopping 31 years (and 3/4).
Now that many of us use electronic, rather than physical money, any sum becomes something intangible and abstract. Couple that phenomenon with the fact that our brains naturally don’t know how to process how large a billion actually is, and the reality of how much wealth the world’s billionaires possess when combined is enough to trigger migraines and heart palpitations.
What’s wrong with being rich?
There’s nothing wrong with reaping the rewards of one’s efforts, but many who sit comfortably at the top of the looming capitalist pyramid, go far beyond that.
In the USA the gap between the rich and the poor is now the biggest it’s been in half a century, and it’s sparked a climate of suspicion towards the ultra wealthy. Billionaires are coming under increased scrutiny this year, as normal people begin to question whether their existence is doing more harm than good. In January 2020, a report by Oxfam international found that the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people . What sounded aspirational in recent years is increasingly becoming synonymous with income inequality, tax cuts and special interests. As the situation worsens and the rich get richer, people are starting to sit up and take notice. Here are some more fun facts to kick off this important conversation:
Whether you have biblical leanings or not, the expression “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” has been with us for thousands of years, as has our disdain for the mega-rich.
In the United States, the top 0.1% of Americans own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%, and the 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all black households and a quarter of Latino households put together. The disparity is massive, and it’s growing every year.
Even as millions around the world are stumbling towards recession on account of a global health crisis, the 1% are, somehow, thriving even more than before. According to Chuck Collins for CNN Business, the wealth of America’s billionaires increased by almost 10% over just three weeks at the start of the COVID-19 crisis took hold.
“Already, the combined wealth of US billionaires is higher than a year ago, according to our study,” he writes. “At least eight of these billionaires have added another $1 billion to their wealth during the pandemic”.
That’s particularly true in the tech sector, where there are 8.4 percent more billionaires globally as of May 2020 compared with the end of 2019– the highest uptick of any sector. Included in the list of “pandemic profiteers”, says Collins, are Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, which owns Skype and Teams – both of whom are profiting handsomely from the increase use of video conferencing.
Their 2020 success, however, still pales in comparison to that of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. During the pandemic, Bezos’s wealth has shot up by a mind-boggling $25 billion as home-bound quarantiners increase their amount of online shopping and streaming. “This wealth surge for one individual — greater than the entire GDP of Honduras — is unprecedented in the history of modern markets”, writes Collins. Honestly, just reading that line and rewriting it here makes me feel more than a little nauseated.
In 2019, British Labour MP Lloyd Russel-Moyle received backlash for a BBC radio 5 appearance (that went viral) in which he claimed that billionaires shouldn’t exist. Writing for the Guardian after the fact, Russel-Moyle stood by his statement, saying he believes that hating the extremely wealthy is a very common – and reasonable – notion. “No one – however smart or hardworking – is worth a billion pounds or more,” he writes.
Speaking of the situation in the UK, Russel-Moyle writes: “How is it acceptable that a country that can afford to have billionaires can also afford to have 8 million people living in poverty in families where at least one person is in work, 4 million of them children? On a daily basis I am shocked by the suffering of many of my constituents.”
He then quotes The US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, referring to the same issue in the USA, said that: “A system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”
During his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders referred to the existence of these ultra-rich men – and they usually are men – as a moral and economic outrage. The support he garnered before dropping out of the presidential race is testament to the fact that the working class is tired of them. They’re tired of putting in long hours every week to serve giant companies run by men who own private planes and fat off-shore bank accounts.
And that leads us to the root of the problem: The capitalists systems that dictate our societies are strongly in favour of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. These systems which are ostensibly meant to serve society, are fact detrimental, and therefore broken.
“Every billionaire is a policy failure.”
-Dan Riffle, an aide to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Hoarding wealth is undemocratic
Wealth is often used as a tool for political debate, but Russel-Moyle argues that the belief that wealth should have a cap is far from an overly liberal argument. “We now know that inequality costs us all economically,” he writes. “In a world with finite resources increasingly controlled by a handful of men, it is actually the most conservative of positions to argue that their fortunes should not exist”.
Increasingly, though, anti-billionaire sentiment in the USA is coming from both the left and the right. When there’s consensus between those two rival clans, you know they’re really on to something. When, echoing Sanders, Elizabeth Warren proposed implementing a 2% “wealth tax” on those with a net worth of $50 million, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (worth an estimated $55 billion) adamantly claimed that “probably is unconstitutional”. The question, if you ask me, remains whether it isn’t in fact undemocratic for 1% of a nation to cling onto 40% of that nation’s wealth.
In fact, Annie Lowrey, in an article titled Cancel Billionaires, states that that “dramatic inequality in wealth means dramatic inequality in terms of political power means a political system unresponsive to what most people want. Wealth inequality, in other words, is an anti-democratic force.”
However, having as much money as people like Bezos, Microsoft’s Bill Gates (both worth over $100 billion) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg do means that they have tremendous influence over political processes– and though these names are all of American billionaires, this is seen in countries all across the world. Collins states that over the past few decades, they’ve used this power to “slash their tax bills astoundingly over the last few decades”.
“According to our data,” he says, “the taxes paid by America’s billionaires, measured as a percentage of their wealth, decreased by a stunning 79% between 1980 and 2018.”
With these powerful men influencing policy in their favour, it may seem pretty hopeless to the rest of us. Lowrey points out that unequal societies tend not to correct themselves exactly because of the political influence of the rich.
But does it really have to be this way?
“The gap between rich and poor can’t be resolved without deliberate inequality-busting policies, and too few governments are committed to these,” Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar said in a press statement. According to the Oxfam report, a fairer world – one that benefits the 99% instead of the 1%– is possible, but it will require work.
The Oxfam report found that if the world’s richest 1% paid just 0.5% more in tax over ten years, it would equal the investment needed to add over 100 million jobs in workforces like health, education and childcare. Instead of hoarding wealth that could never be spent in one lifetime, the mega-rich could fuel the economy in valuable ways and give back to the society that built them.
The following post also analyses the net worth of the 5 richest men in the world and points out just how a small percentage of their net worth could have been better used elsewhere:
For decades, the world’s extremely wealthy have managed to dodge criticism by branding themselves as success stories and innovators to be admired, or worse, white knights who, through their philanthropic efforts, can supposedly save the world. Just a handful of these super rich men could team up and make tangible change with just a fraction of their wealth. If they truly are the heroes they claim to be, why have we not seen that change yet?
Billionaires shouldn’t exist, but when it comes to wealth, in most societies, the game is rigged. The rich get richer, while the majority of us are left worrying about what our finances will look like in a couple of months, or worse.
Billionaire’s shouldn’t exist, but it’s not about blaming one or two specific billionaires in particular – although what would be small change to Jeff Bezos could very well solve the crises we’re seeing in Yemen right now – but we should focus on fixing a broken and detrimental system.
Billionaire’s shouldn’t exist, but since we’re stuck with them, the onus is on us – the normal people, the governments, and the disenfranchised – to hold them to account and to continue to pint out the exploitation that comes hand-in hand with their ballooning net worth.
And if all else fails,
eat the rich.