Do we really need billionaires?

To the editor,

In 2018, Forbes identified 2,208 billionaires from 72 countries and territories. Collectively, this group was worth $9.1 trillion, an increase of 18 percent since the preceding year. Americans led the way with a record 585 billionaires, followed by mainland China which had a record 373. According to a Yahoo Finance report in November 2018, the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by 12 percent during 2017, while that of Chinese billionaires grew by 39 percent.

These vast fortunes were created much like those amassed by the robber barons of the 19th century. The Walton family’s $163 billion grew rapidly because Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, paid its workers poverty-level wages. Jeff Bezos (whose fortune jumped by $78.5 billion in one year to $160 billion, making him the richest man in the world), paid pathetically low wages at Amazon for years until forced by strikes and public pressure to raise them. In mid-2017, Warren Buffett ($75 billion), then the world’s second richest man, noted that “the real problem” with the U.S. economy was that it was “disproportionately rewarding the people on top.”

The situation is much the same elsewhere. Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to workers has been dropping around the globe, exacerbating inequality in wealth. “The billionaire boom is ... a symptom of a failing economic system,” remarked Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. “The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited.”

The concentration of wealth has produced rising levels of economic inequality around the globe. According to Oxfam, in 2017, some 3.7 billion people – about half the world’s population – experienced no increase in wealth. Instead, 82 percent of the global wealth generated went to the wealthiest 1 percent. In the United States, economic inequality continued to grow, with the share of the national income drawn by the poorest half of the population steadily declining. The situation was even starker in China. Here, despite two decades of spectacular growth, economic inequality rose at the fastest pace, making China one of the most unequal countries on the planet.

It’s hard to understand why billionaires think they need such vast amounts of money. After all, they can eat, drink and consume only so much. What more can they desire?

When it comes to desires, the answer is: plenty! That’s why they drive $4 million Lamborghinis, acquire mega-mansions, take $80,000 “safaris,” purchase gold toothpicks, create closets the size of homes, reside in $15,000-a-night penthouse hotel suites, install luxury showers for their dogs, cover their staircases in gold, and build luxury survival bunkers. Donald Trump maintains a penthouse in Trump Tower that is reportedly worth $57 million and is marbled in gold. Among his many possessions are two private airplanes, three helicopters, five private residences, and 17 golf courses across the United States, Scotland, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, billionaires devote enormous energy and money to controlling governments. “They don’t put their wealth underneath their mattresses,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “they use that wealth to perpetuate their power. So you have the Koch brothers and a handful of billionaires who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections.” During the 2018 midterms, America’s billionaires lavished vast amounts of money on electoral politics, becoming the dominant funders of numerous candidates.

This big money has a major impact on American politics. Three billionaire families – the Kochs, Mercers and Adelsons – played a central role in bankrolling the Republican Party’s shift to the far Right and its takeover of federal and state offices. Thus, although polls indicate that most Americans favor raising taxes on the rich, regulating corporations, fighting climate change and supporting labor unions, the Republican-dominated White House, Congress, Supreme Court and regulatory agencies have moved in the opposite direction.

With so much at stake, billionaires even took direct command of the world’s three major powers. Trump became the first billionaire to capture the U.S. presidency, joining Russia President Vladmir Putin (reputed to have wealth of at least $70 billion), and China President Xi Jinping (estimated to have a net worth of $1.51 billion). The three quickly developed a cozy relationship and shared a number of policy positions, including encouragement of wealth acquisition and discouragement of human rights.

Admittedly, some billionaires have signed a “Giving Pledge,” promising to devote most of their wealth to philanthropy. Nevertheless, plutocratic philanthropy means that the priorities of the super-rich (for example, funding of private schools), rather than the priorities of the general public (such as funding of public schools), get implemented. Moreover, these same billionaires are accumulating wealth much faster than they donate it. Philanthropist Bill Gates was worth $54 billion in 2010, the year the pledge was announced, and his wealth stands at $90 billion today.

Overall, as wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, most people around the world are clearly the losers.

– Lawrence Wittner, professor of history, SUNY/Albany, for Peace Voices