Billionaires, Punch Them Or Kiss Them?

It’s no crime to be poor, but is it a crime to be rich? Farhad Manjoo argues that we should “abolish” billionaires.

“Some ideas about how to make the world better require careful, nuanced thinking about how best to balance competing interests,” [Tom Socca] began. “Others don’t: Billionaires are bad. We should presumptively get rid of billionaires. All of them.”

Mr. Scocca — a longtime writer at Gawker until that site was muffled by a billionaire — offered a straightforward argument for kneecapping the wealthiest among us. A billion dollars is wildly more than anyone needs, even accounting for life’s most excessive lavishes. It’s far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.

By “competing interests,” he means values, as in things that Socca believes are more important than other things. By “nuanced thinking,” he means no thinking at all, just believing. The question isn’t whether anyone “needs” a billion dollars, but it’s not as if society plucks some random guy out of the crowd and a loud voice proclaims, “You shall be a billionaire.”

But Manjoo thinks only of tech billionaires, since he’s a tech writer, and doesn’t like them very much.

But it is an illustration of the political precariousness of billionaires that the idea has since become something like mainline thought on the progressive left. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are floating new taxes aimed at the superrich, including special rates for billionaires. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also favors higher taxes on the wealthy, has been making a moral case against the existence of billionaires. Dan Riffle, her policy adviser, recently changed his Twitter name to “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” Last week, HuffPost asked, “Should Billionaires Even Exist?

The “moral” case is that people who are wealthier than Bernie, Liz and AOC believe they’re entitled to be should forfeit their gains to be transfered to people who might be inclined to vote for Bernie, Liz or AOC. In fairness, the argument is that the vast wealth of the superrich could be used to pay for the needs of the poor, and even if the superrich were super kind to the poor, they still shouldn’t exist because it’s unfair and immoral. As Riffle’s twitter handle says, “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” That means no billionaire is a financial success.

I suspect the question is getting so much attention because the answer is obvious: Nope. Billionaires should not exist — at least not in their present numbers, with their current globe-swallowing power, garnering this level of adulation, while the rest of the economy scrapes by.

As Manjoo typically does, he conflates people being billionaires with our reaction to billionaires. They receive undue respect and adulation? So cut it out. They have too much power? Sure, but then, if not the people with vast wealth, who? Me? You? Manjoo? He writes for the New York Times, and I think he’s got too much power because I disagree with him sometimes.

But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?

Billionaires got that way for different reasons, but for the most part, they made their money with some brains and a lot of luck. But there’s suffering in the world, so it’s immoral for anyone to be that rich? For those billionaires who want to, give it back, help the people, do good. If they don’t, it’s their money. As Manjoo reveals by his failure to make an argument, and instead devolve to “the answer is obvious,” he fails to see any reason why a person needs a fancier car than a Prius.

In contrast, Will Wilkenson of the Niskanen Center, in a brilliant retort, points out a detail Manjoo misses.

But there’s a big moral difference between positive-sum wealth production and zero-sum wealth extraction — a difference that corresponds to a rough-and-ready distinction between the deserving and undeserving rich. The distinction is sound because there’s a proven a way to make a moral killing: improve a huge number of other people’s lives while capturing a tiny slice of the surplus value.

There is still suffering, but by all metrics, society suffers less today than it ever has in the history of mankind. That’s attributable, in large part, to the innovations of people who become billionaires, and get a tiny slice of the value they’re created, which is so huge that their 2% translates into vast wealth. Of course there’s still more to do to end suffering, but the unseemliness of the superrich is neither the problem nor the cure.

Fixing these policy failures might create a system that produces fewer billionaires. But that shouldn’t be the point. It might also produce more morally worthy 10-figure fortunes. That’s great, because we should be aiming to channel entrepreneurial energy into productive wealth creation that lifts us all up and away from the extraction of wealth through unjust rules that close off opportunity and deprive us of the blessings of innovation.

So why does Manjoo, not to mention Bernie, Liz and AOC, believe stifling innovation that lifts all of us is a good idea? Perhaps when one spends one’s time wallowing in misery, giving up all hope of becoming successful, it’s easier to focus blame outward on those who achieved wealth than to work harder, strive harder, think harder and achieve success on one’s own merits. After all, why bother to learn to fish when you can demand a billionaire give you a fish instead?

There are deserving rich and undeserving rich. There are deserving poor and undeserving poor. But from a macrocosmic view of the world, billionaires have been good for society, even if neither you nor I will ever be one. I don’t begrudge them their wealth. I just wish I was smart enough, and lucky enough, to have been one as well.

48 thoughts on “Billionaires, Punch Them Or Kiss Them?

  1. wilbur

    He doesn’t take it nearly far enough. I propose that anyone worth over a million dollars has too much, and should forfeit the rest through taxation. After all, nobody needs more than that to live comfortably.

    1. B. McLeod

      I approach these issues from a more enlightened perspective. Everyone who has more than $100,000 should give me some money, and anyone with less than $100,000 should give me some money also.

  2. delurking

    It is a bit rich for a bunch of people who live in a country where more than half of working people are 1%ers and we set the poverty line at the ~90th %ile of world income to complain that some people are unfairly rich.

  3. Hunting Guy

    Philbert DeSanex.

    ”What this country needs is a complete change of leadership! The government must abandon its imperialist policies, get rid of excessive military spending,give everyone a minimum wage of $100 dollars a day and enough social security to live a comfortable life, give everyone the freedom to do anything they want, and tax the rich until they’re dead.”

  4. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    No, billionaires do not deserved to be punched or kissed for the fact that they are billionaires alone. Yes, billionaires ought to spread their immense wealth more than they do. Please do not lick their boots and eat up the swill that their paid propagandists put down. Read my preferred propagandists instead.

    Sure, you call a retort brilliant that argues for the status quo. The status quo has been good to you, despite you not having billions of dollars (as far as I’m aware at least). How dare the uppity-poor folks demand you give up my fascination with expensive motor vehicles! You earned the right to indulge. Right? There will always be starving people and there’s precious little any individual can do about it.

    Maybe you did earn that right. Maybe you driving a Healey around makes you happy and better able to help others through your trade. Maybe the Healey helped you achieve a net benefit to society, if that’s what you care about. That’s all fine and good, but having a billion dollars is a bit more concerning than one guy’s luxury goods obsession. The unprecedented concentration of wealth is a threat to our society as we knew it.

    Taxing the uber-rich out of existence is foolish without some other seemingly meritocratic mechanism to distribute the same. Legislating them out of existence is just as foolhardy. Calling on the poor to eat them is juvenile. Revolution? Count me out. Can shaming them out of existence work? I doubt it. They have what can nicely be termed “fuck you money,” after all.

    And here I am twiddling my thumbs and shouting into a void. Hopefully the better angels of billionaire’s natures will win out in the end. I hope our modern masters come up with something quick.

    I did my best not to channel Brother Jake because the topic very much pulls at my “feelz-strings.” I likely failed.

    The best of all Americans, Eugene Debs had it right over a hundred years ago. “The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society — we are on the eve of universal change.” If only we actually were.

    Best,
    PK

      1. PseudonymousKid

        The electoral process always results in the best candidate winning, of course. How stupid of me.

        You disinherited me a long time ago, so I guess you’re adding me back? Are you cursing me with one of your cars now? Thanks?

      2. B. McLeod

        Debs probably could have made governor, had he chosen the venue carefully. President was overly optimistic.

    1. BernieLaw

      I have come from Reddit, and I have seen the light! As PK obliquely noted, why should some people be permitted to drive Healeys while other people, such as public defenders, are compelled to drive Honda Civics? And how many watches does one man need, anyway? And as for those fis–okay you can keep the plates. No one else wants them.

  5. Richard Kopf

    Re: The Humpty Dumpty Principle

    SHG,

    OAC and her bunch speak of morality as if such an idea is self-evident and indisputable. With such true believers, it is fun to flip the scenario.

    I can twist the word to make a decent argument that poor people are immoral because they extract far more from society than they contribute. Indeed, it might even be “moral” to argue that if one can’t afford justice (whatever the hell that means) one doesn’t deserve it.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. PseudonymousKid

      I’m surprised by the obscurantism, Judge. What you describe isn’t “twisting” words. That’s just arguing a utilitarianist position regarding morality which isn’t without its own problems. It isn’t fun either.

      1. SHG Post author

        The point, my dear PK, is that words, like “morality,” that mean whatever you want them to mean fail to serve as a valid argument. They are so squishy as to be easily applied to pretty much anything and serve only to signify to others where you draw your moral line.

        Of course it isn’t without its own problems, which is very much part of the problem with the obscurantism of concealing actual thought behind vapid words. Now, apologize to the nice judge and go to your room.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Philosophical SJ will always be the worst SJ. “Morality is relative. Lulz.” Fine. Be that way.

          I’m sorry Judge Kopf.

          1. Richard Kopf

            PK,

            All is foregiven. You may leave your room, but you must eat your broccoli while swearing never to eat kale. All the best.

            RGK

    2. Patrick Maupin

      This may explain, dear Judge, why your generous charity of a bed and three square meals a day is often paired with conditions that the recipients find to be even worse than the preaching the Salvation Army metes out.

      Stay warm anyway.

    3. SHG Post author

      But as we’re well aware, warm and fuzzy words like morality (and justice) have always covered a wide variety of intellectual sins.

  6. B. McLeod

    Billionaires, in the main, tend to be practical people. If the U.S. decides not to allow them here, they will find another place to be billionaires.

  7. phv3773

    Billionaires don’t have $billions in cash in the bank. They have stuff, like mansions and, mostly, financial investments. If the government takes, say, $50 billion of Microsoft stock from Bill Gates, what are they going to do with it? Sell it? Who has $50 billion to buy it?

    Did Mr. Scocca figure out this was going to work?

    1. SHG Post author

      I like that commercial where a guy puts a lawnmower on the bar to pay for a drink, and the barkeep says, “we don’t take lawnmowers” and points at the sign.

    2. Owl

      To expand upon your comment, yes, they have mansions, and yachts, and jet planes.
      Do they need them? Maybe not, but the workers who built those mansions and yachts needed the job.
      And those financial investments create jobs and wealth for many more people as well as raise our standard of living.
      Remember when a small flat-screen TV was thousands of dollars, not that long ago? Who bought them then? The rich, who by doing so helped finance the R&D needed to mass produce those TVs more cheaply.
      Now you can get one for less than a ticket to a Broadway show.
      After they eat the rich, everyone will starve.

  8. Curtis

    So a tech “guru” thinks Steve Jobs was too rich after selling the Macintosh and Bill Gates was too rich after MSDOS?. They should not have been rewarded for making iMacs, iPods, iPhones or Windows. Brilliant.

    Google, Amazon, Apple should shut all new research because their founders are too rich already.

  9. Jake

    Billionaires have much to be proud of, no doubt. But real power and influence are paired with tremendous responsibility for the way things turn out, whether or not the outcome or the responsibility is desirable.

    Humanity has come far, but that knowledge will be cold comfort when things get ugly again. Uglier than the emergence of phenomena like Trump or AOC. Therefore, is the problem one of morality, or a lack of imagination? As the guillotine fell, do you think Louis XVI thought to himself: “There are things I would have done differently, had I known it could come to this”?

      1. Jake

        But you presume sir -and your imagination still lacks strength. A grand revolution is only one of the ways things may get uglier for those who have power and influence.

  10. JorgXMcKie

    Do any of these folk condemn Fidel Castro? Or Sir “Bob” Mugabe? Or Hugo Chavez’s daughter? Just wondering.

  11. Dave

    There is a middle ground, one of stronger moral foundation. Don’t begrudge those who make themselves a billion dollars through their hard work and ingenuity. One can quibble about whether some of those are legitimate (for instance, those who drain their national treasuries to get rich – the kleptocrats as they are called). But what about those who only “earn” their billions by virtue of being related to someone who leaves them billions?

    A 99% inheritance tax on all wealth transferred over a certain amount (500 million? a billion?) would at least do something to reduce the numbers of the non-self-made billionaires. So now people have incentive to get themselves rich, but they don’t get to create dynasties of power of more billionaires in their family in perpetuity through inheritance. Of course, their offspring still will have a HUGE advantage – much easier to make millions (and then billions) when you start with millions in the bank. But still, at least they need to do some work then to actually earn it as opposed to just waking up in diapers and having a billion already in the bank. Because that baby didn’t earn it.

      1. Dave

        Actually, feelings don’t enter into it, just math and policy. If you were to enact a policy, like an inheritance tax, whose stated purpose was to prevent people from becoming billionaires simply by inheriting a billion dollars, you would have to set it up so the math works out so no one actually ends up with a billion dollar inheritance. Now, you could make it 999,999,999 dollars, but then even pathetic checking account interest would make that person a billionaire five seconds later, kind of defeating the purpose.

        One could make a moral argument for not allowing any inherited wealth at all – i.e., everyone starts at zero and has to earn their way in life. (Note, I am not making that argument now). As you noted in another post, those who inherit wealth tend to live in their own (somewhat twisted?) world.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re probably unaware of my antipathy toward stupid crap here, and thought my comment was an invitation for you to pursue it. It wasn’t.

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