Billionaires Owe the World That Made Them

grey metal case of hundred dollar bills

We like to watch old reruns of Shark Tank. For me, it’s not about seeing people become rich. It’s about people who need it getting a hand up from someone who has already been there, trying to make a dream come true. As we watch, I Google the company name and find out whether they are still in business, or what happened to them. But there’s an aspect of the show that I despise.

It’s when an entrepreneur is explaining what it costs to make their product, and what they sell it for. The bigger that spread, the more excited the Sharks get. So, if it costs $1 to make the thing and they sell it for $25, it’s a huge profit margin. Yay! say the Sharks as they rub their hands with anticipation. Boo! says me. Why so greedy?

Yes, the show was built on the premise that greed is good. Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary has staged his persona on that concept. But I think it’s gross.

Part of trying to be stoic (because I’m still trying – I’m not “there”!) is to concern myself with my own behavior, no one else’s. To understand where I do and do not have control, and to let it go. But I’m having trouble accomplishing that when it comes to billionaires. It’s not the idea of making that amount of money, it’s keeping it.

“Our problem isn’t the virtue level of billionaires. It’s a set of social arrangements that make it possible for anyone to gain and guard and keep so much wealth, even as millions of others lack for food, work, housing, health, connectivity, education, dignity and the occasion to pursue their happiness.”

Anand Giridharadas writing in The New York Times

Why the Business of Billionaires is Bad

Many people would have you believe that someone’s outrageous success has nothing to do with poverty, homelessness, or any other social problem. But it’s not that simple.

*Staggering wealth was mostly built on the backs of people working minimum – or lower – wages. Amazon. Walmart. Microsoft. Shein, the current queen of fast fashion, is valued at $66-billion and its CEO, Chris Xu, has a personal net worth of $10.5B. A recent undercover look at Shein’s manufacturing operation found workers (mostly female) are on the job up to 18 hours a day (illegal) and make just a few cents US for each garment they produce. The company expects perfection. If a worker messes up a piece of clothing they’re charged more for it than they stand to earn by making it.

*There’s a finite amount of money. When one person hoards it, there’s less for the rest. Two American men have as much wealth as 42% of that country’s population. 2 men = 140 million people. Last year the world’s richest 1% made two-thirds of all of the world’s new wealth.

*The wealthy pay a fraction of the taxes paid by regular people. And they can afford to hire experts who will hide their income because – don’t forget – greed is good.

“Half of the world’s billionaires live in countries with no inheritance tax for direct descendants, putting them on track to pass on $5 trillion to their heirs, more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of Africa.”

Oxfam report, Jan 2023

The Upside of Billionaires

It’s true that billionaires tend to invest in innovation which benefits us all. (Tesla, Space-X) They sometimes fund philanthropic causes, even if only for the tax deduction. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done great things around the world, saving and improving lives. Billionaires’ businesses employ people and keep families sheltered and fed. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says he’ll give away most of his money during his lifetime. (I guess he plans to live forever.)

But do you know what else all of these people are doing? Staying billionaires. Bezos just gave away $200-million. We give a collective “Oooh” at a $200-million donation because we can’t imagine that amount of money. But it is nothing to Bezos. According to expert calculations, he will earn that back in about 23 hours. Less than one full day!

Related reading: The Angst of Baby Boy Billionaires Means We All Suffer – Heather Mallick, Toronto Star (paywalled)

Paul McCartney built his fortune mainly through music. Rihanna became a billionaire from music and companies she founded. They, along with Warren Buffett, are often seen as “good” billionaires who help with causes and, in Buffett’s case, talk often about giving it all away. Bezos’ ex-wife Mackenzie Scott is doing better than most, donating more than $4-billion within one year. Scott, the Gates’, and others have signed Buffet’s Giving Pledge. I’s a non-binding agreement to give away their wealth to those in need. But the goodness of giving moves slowly..

In the meantime, they’re all still billionaires. Clutching onto their vast accumulation of money like it’s a wooden door, they’re Rose, and Jack is trying to climb on after the Titanic went down. They could do much more, and they don’t. That’s my issue.

But Lisa, you ask, wouldn’t you like to become a billionaire? No, I wouldn’t because no one on this planet needs a billion dollars. Especially not when there are people starving, homeless, stuck in a cycle of poverty, or suffering in any other way that big money could ease. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the best of life that you’ve worked hard to afford. But to live to great excess and flaunt it? It’s inhumane.

This Isn’t Political

Some people argue against better wealth distribution. They claim anyone who doesn’t worship billionaires is anti-capitalist or a communist. But this isn’t about Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

This is about reminding the wealthiest of the wealthy that we only go around once – together – on this big, blue marble. If we don’t look out for each other, what the hell are we doing here? How many billions is enough? What good does it do one person to stare at a wealth portfolio and “win” the real-life game of Monopoly? Okay, so you won. Now what?

Governments waste billions of our money, too. And that’s terrible. But that’s not this. Sadly, it’s what we’ve come to expect from governments. All governments, big, small, and the world over. Billionaires are regular people who ought to know better and be kinder!

Derek and I flank Huey Lewis as he holds a jersey with his name on the back.

Years ago, Huey Lewis was asked about the money he made from his records and touring. Was it fun to be a millionaire? Huey responded that what mattered was if his kid was hungry, he could reach into his pocket and know he had enough money to buy a hamburger. That he didn’t have to worry about paying his bills or the mortgage. That’s all money was to him. Confidence. The ability to take care of his family.

Huey Lewis and I will never become billionaires because we won’t stand on the backs of other people to rake in cash for ourselves. It’s not how we’re wired. If you’re in a position to help people in such a large way, you should do it. We all didn’t start with the same advantages. Not everyone has access to the means to change their own circumstances. It falls on those who are capable, to help.

No one needs a yacht the size of a floating city or a home on every continent. But if that’s their dream, and after all that spending they’re still a billionaire, they’re doing life wrong. Hugging all of that money might fill some empty hole in their soul. But it could be put to better use, like filling empty bellies.

3 thoughts on “Billionaires Owe the World That Made Them”

  1. Sadly musicians have jumped on the billionaire bandwagon – I hard on the business report on CBC this morning that Taylor Swift and Beyonce’s tours this summer are set to bring in over $1Billion each this year. Although people do have a choice whether they want to pay those kinds of bucks for a concert ticket.

  2. That’s a very good point. When the Eagles reunited many years ago, I decided then and there that despite being a huge fan, I would never pay their outrageous prices. And just look at them now! Tickets in Detroit start at $440. No judgment if that’s how someone wants to spend their money but it’s not for me.

  3. Claire Cascone

    And that’s why I love Huey Lewis. If I was on that list of billionaires, I would be picking random neighbourhoods each week, knocking on their doors and giving…whatever it was they needed. But first I would make sure their fridge and cupboards were filled to the brim, and their beds were warm and cozy. In a nutshell, I could never sit there with a whole loaf of bread while the person next to me was hungry.

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