Against Billionaires

1. Scale. If you made a thousand dollars a day, you’d have a million in 3 years. A billion? 2,740 years.

To earn a million dollars in a year, you’d have to make about $500 an hour, not including holidays. To get to a billion dollars in a year, you’d have to earn sixty dollars every second of every day, sixty seconds an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days. $3,600 an hour. Most billionaires took about 10 years to get there, amassing wealth at around $6 a second for a decade. Amazon’s Bezos increased his wealth last year from $72.8 billion to $108.7 billion. He made $126,000 an hour, every hour, every day in one year.

A billion dollars is about 16,000 average American yearly incomes put together, which means for every dollar the average American earned, the billionaire earned $16,000. As a number, this is large, but not otherwordly. But consider the relative cost of basic necessities to the billionaire, things that cost the same to each person, like food. For every dollar the average American spends on food (about 10% of yearly income), the billionaire only spends .00006% of their annual intake. The average American spends another 10% on health insurance. 20% on rent or mortgage. 5% on utilities. 20% goes towards taxes. To the billionaire, all of this combined, all basic living expenses shouldered by the average American, amounts to a fraction of a penny of every dollar they amass in a year.

Stack a million dollar bills on top of each other and you have a pile about 300 feet high, roughly the length of a football field. Multiply that stack to a billion? 63 miles high.

In 2017, the world had 2,000 or so billionaires holding $7.6 trillion collectively. If a billion is a universe of difference from a million, a trillion is equally as distant from a billion. A stack of a trillion one-dollar bills? 63 thousand miles high.

There’s an aspect of scale that is easily overlooked when we talk about millionaires and billionaires. One sounds much like the other, only bigger. But they aren’t simply bigger. A million is a manageable, human number. A billion is something else entirely. There are over 500 cities with a million or more people in them. The world’s entire population combined is seven and a half billion.

A million, even a hundred million, is a human number. A million dollars purchases human things, within the world all of us live. A billion is not a human number. A billion applied to a human, to a single person, is something else entirely. It’s no longer even money.

2. Power. For good or evil, money is power. It’s the same kind of power that many fear among the masses, the one that takes away a man’s money through taxation, but it’s still power. Power over other men. A billion dollars is unbeatable power. It’s why drug cartels are able to purchase entire governments. It’s why corporations can do the same. To imagine that one man’s money is somehow different from that, that if we could only regulate that power, is foolish. Money is power. A billion dollars is godlike power over the entirety of the rest of humanity.

3. Labor. What does it mean to ‘earn’ something? If I work a thousand hours and my labor grants me a crop that I use to feed my family, is that the same ‘earn’ as my stock options increasing in value because I own them and the stock market deems them valuable? Is owning land or lots of money or shares in a corporation the same kind of earning as making a house or teaching a child or flying a plane or policing a neighborhood? And if they are different, what makes ownership of stocks or shares so fantastically different than simple labor or service? What makes the holder of money so much more valuable than the laborer, and how is it that he has ‘earned’ a billion dollars in a day or a year or a decade?

There are different kinds of work and the way they generate wealth is not at all equal. But that’s okay. Nearly all service labor, in fact, earns no money at all. The caring of a child or a parent, the cooking of a meal for a family. Cleaning a home, doing laundry, grocery shopping. None of these actions come with a paycheck; none earn cash or interest.

Most labor that creates wealth has a connection, if sometimes tenuous, between the work and the money. Nearly all of us engage in work and are paid for it. We live in an ownership society that grants more value to having something than creating it, a system that provides the underpinnings to our capitalist engine. If labor or manufacturing are more valuable than service, then ownership is more valuable than either.

But the billionaire performs no labor, and the value of their ownership extends into realms a universe away and undreamed of by the system that created it. Jeff Bezos may have built his company in his garage, working 18 hour days, but what generates his billions now is so distant from that humble origin it has no parentage at all. The billions of billionaires is generated out of the mathematical ether of a vast and imaginary ocean. Within Amazon, or Berkshire Hathaway, or Microsoft, or Tesla, or Walmart, or any other billionaire-producing enterprise, are millions of people laboring to produce a value to the world. But the 30 billion dollars in wealth that Bezos amassed in one year is not at all connected to that. If it were, he’d have to share it, since those people perform the actual labor.

4. Obligation. What is our obligation to everyone else, if we exist in a system that is collectively the creation of all of us? What should my obligation be to humanity? To my company? To the people in my immediate circle? Bezos could easily relieve the suffering of every single one of his employees with one day’s profit, yet he does not. He doesn’t have to. Some would argue that we, the laborers, are obligated to the company owner for the very land upon which we work and materials we use to produce. But this one-way street ignores the obligation the owner has to us, and how distant they now exist from us with their billions.

5. And finally, Source. Money is only one of 2 things. It either comes from God, some form of primal or primordial substance, bound to the physical laws of energy and matter, or it’s an invention of Man. If money comes from God, then those with lots are blessed by God’s fortune upon them. Somehow they have managed to acquire enough of this matter to live truly blessed lives. The idea that men ‘deserve’ the money they have is a variation of belief in luck or fortune. Some — many, most — men work their entire lives without ever amassing the fortune of the rich. One imagines most would like to, yet they do not. If there is some kind of personal attribute they lack but others have, then that’s a random intrusion by fate upon the character they were born with.

The other option if money comes from God is that it’s all there for the taking, by anyone with the willingness to go get it. The Universe fills itself with money, men choose to go get it. And yet if that were true, then something is very, very wrong, because many, many men are extremely rich through outright corruption. Pretty much every dictator and drug dealer fits neatly into this category. Many others legally do so but still lack any kind of moral quality at all. Think tobacco company executives, or Martin Shkreli.

But no, money is a human invention. Men make it. Men allow it. If Bezos has a billion dollars, it’s because the system creates it for him. The very same system that grants a man several hundred thousand for flying a plane and me about 70k a year to teach children is the one that allows a billionaire his billions. This is not an argument against a market system; this is just pointing out that it’s not sacred or out of our control. We make it. We allow billionaires.

Jeff Bezos can make a billion dollars in one day, by selling interest in ‘his’ company. Not off of anything he himself did, but because a man-made financial system is deliberately designed to allow it.

Alone, every single one of these observations is debatable. We can chip away at each one if we ignore the others. But together it’s a pretty damning argument against billionaires.

just another frustrated teacher

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