(In other news, I finally send off the novel manuscript I've been working on for the past 18 months. Taking a couple of days off before getting back to work on a novella I started in 2014 ...)
(Disclaimer: money is a proxy for control or power. I'm focussing on money rather than political leverage only because it's quantifiable.)
To you and me, a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. It's on the order
of what I (at peak earning capacity) would earn in 10,000 years. Give me
just $10M and I could comfortably retire and live off interest and some
judicious siphoning of capital for the rest of my life.
So are there any valid reasons to put up with billionaires?
There's a very fertile field of what I can only describe as capitalist apologetics, wherein economists and others try to justify the existence of billionaires in terms of social utility. Crude arguments that "greed is good" are all very well, but it begs the question of what positive good billionaires contribute to the commonweal—beyond a certain point the diminishing marginal utility of money means that every extra million or billion dollars changes nothing significant in the recipient's life.
For example, Steve Jobs had pancreatic cancer, as a result of which his liver was failing (after he underwent a pancreaticoduodenectomy ). As a very rich man, he could afford the best healthcare. As a billionaire, he could do more than that: he reputedly kept a business jet on 24x7 standby to whisk him to any hospital in the United States where a histocompatible liver for transplant surgery became available. (Livers are notoriously short-lived outside the donor body. Most liver transplant recipients are only able to register in one state within the USA; Jobs was registered in two or three.) But at that point, it did not matter how many billions he had: once you've got the jet and are registered with every major transplant centre within flight range, no extra amount of money is going to improve your chances of survival. In other words, in personal terms the marginal utility of money diminishes all the way to zero.
So, personal wealth has an upper bound beyond which the numbers are meaningless. Which leads to the second common argument for tolerating billionaires: that they have the resources to undertake tasks that governments decline to address. For example, there's the Gates Foundation's much-touted goal of eliminating childhood diseases of poverty in South-East Asia (which I haven't heard much about since COVID19 hit—or, for that matter, since the allegations of a Gates-Epstein surfaced in the press). Or Elon Musk's avowed goal of colonizing Mars.
Contra which, I would argue that in planetary terms a billion dollars is peanuts.
Gross planetary GDP (GWP—gross world product) is on the order of $85Tn—
that is, $100,000 billion—a year. It's hard to pin it down because it's distributed among multiple currencies with varying PPP, so it could be anywhere from $70Tn to
Anyway. Those insanely rich guys, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? Each of them is
worth less than the growth of GWP during 2019. The richest billionaires are barely
visible when you look at wealth on the scale of GWP. Collectively, along with Gates, the Waltons, Putin, et al, they represent only about 1% of GWP.
They can fund lobbying groups and politicians, rant about colonizing Mars, and
buy midlife crisis toys like Twitter or weekend getaways on a space station, but their scope for effecting real change is actually tiny on a global scale. Even Putin and Xi, who are at the state-level actor end of the scale (individually they're multi-billionaires: but they also control nuclear weapons, armies, and populations in 8-9 digits) have
little global leverage. Putin's catastrophic adventure in Ukraine has revealed
how threadbare the emperor's suit is: all the current gassing in the Russian
media about using nuclear weapons if he doesn't get his way actually does is to
demonstrate the uselessness of those nuclear weapons for achieving
So I conclude that they probably feel about as helpless in the face of
revolutions, climate change, and economic upheaval as you and I.
Which in turn suggests something about the psychopathology of billionaires. They're accustomed to having their every whim granted, merely for the asking, as long as it exists within the enormous buffet of necessities and luxuries that are available in our global economic sphere. But they're all going to grow old and die. They can't really avoid the threat of creeping disablement within their own body, although they can buy the most careful attendants and luxurious bedpans and wheelchairs. They can't insulate themselves from objective reality, although they can pretend it doesn't exist and buy their very own luxury apocalypse bunker in New Zealand.
So they're likely to succumb to brutal cognitive dissonance at some point.
Elon Musk turns 50 this year. He's probably finally realized that he is not going to have a luxurious retirement on Mars. If the Mars colony isn't established within 20 years, he'll probably be too old to make the trip there (and I'm betting 20 years isn't long enough for what he'd want).
Vladimir Putin turns 70 this year. He's been treated for thyroid cancer, and may well be quite ill. Only one former Russian or Soviet leader lived past 80 in the past 400 years, and that's Mikhail Gorbachev (who was out of office, and insulated from its premature ageing effects, after only 5 or 6 years). My read on the situation is that Putin hadn't been impacted by external reality for decades before his Ukraine "peacekeeping operation"; his 70th birthday present to himself, intended to secure his legacy by re-establishing the Russian empire, has turned into a nightmare.
Jeff Bezos is 58; keep an eye on him in January 2024, that's when he's due to turn 60. (He seems to be saner than Musk and Putin, but his classic midlife crisis year falls around the start of a presidential election campaign in the US and he might succumb to the impulse to make a grand gesture, like Mike Bloomberg's abortive run on the presidence.)
More to the point?
Granting individuals enormous leverage can sometimes be socially useful. But before you point at Musk and Tesla or SpaceX, I need to remind you that he didn't found Tesla, he merely bought into it then took over: SpaceX's focus on reusability is good, but we had reusable space launchers before—the only really new angle is that it's a cost-reduction measure. Starlink isn't an original, it's merely a modern, bigger, faster version of 1990's Teledesic (which fell victim to over-ambitious technology goals and the dot-com bust). Meanwhile, billionaires can do immense damage: the Koch network has largely bankrolled climate change denial, Musk's Mars colony plan is fatally flawed, and so on. We inevitably run into the question of accountability. And when one person holds the purse-strings, we lose that.
I can't see any good reason to let any individual claim ownership over more than a billion dollars of assets—even $100M is pushing it.