Choose an item, any item, and picture one billion of them. One billion balloons, one billion pencils, whatever. Can you do it? Unless you’re superhuman, the answer is no. The human brain simply cannot comprehend one billion, let alone hundreds of billions. So why are there humans out there who have billions of dollars—literally an inconceivable amount of wealth? In the United States the top 1% of earners hold more wealth than all the American middle class. So how did we get here, and why is it a problem?
I’ve been thinking about the concept of billionaires for years, but especially since the Covid-19 Pandemic began in 2020. According to Forbes, by late April of 2021–the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight—twenty million Americans had lost their jobs while the 650 billionaires in America had increased their combined net worth from $3.4 trillion to $4.6 trillion—by 35%. While that may look like an impressive feat to some, it’s really just an impressive display of greed and exploitation.
When it comes down to it, there are only two ways to accumulate the unfathomable wealth Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and a few others have:
- Inherited wealth
Option one is what we often see from so-called “self-made billionaires”—I’m sure many of us have heard the infamous stories of Mark Zuckerberg coming up with Facebook in his (Harvard) dorm room, or Jeff Bezos creating Amazon out of his garage. But in actuality, no one can become a billionaire alone. It takes the labor and sacrifice of (at least) thousands of people and given the history of colonization and enslavement in the United States, oftentimes those exploited people are people of color. The second option is really just another way to say the first option–if you inherit that kind of money, it means someone in your family line exploited a lot of people to get where you are. Oftentimes that money comes directly from chattel slavery. While Black people still suffer systemic racism, the rich white elite continue to profit off it.
To understand billionaires better, I sat down with humanities teacher Erik Szabados. Erik’s definition of a billionaire breaks down both wealth and power simply. “Being worth a billion dollars is the ability to control the direction of state and federal government,” he said. “It’s not just wealth, it’s the ability to steer the course of entire nations.” Wealth, in the context of the United States, is synonymous with power. People with seemingly endless amounts of money, where their needs and wants will always be met, will have seemingly endless power. But it’s more than just the ability to sway a politician with a large donation to their campaign. It’s the way politicians and citizens alike perceive the billionaire class. “It’s almost a religious institution, meaning the politicians don’t just look to billionaires for money, they look to billionaires as religious figures…there’s just a worshiping of that power.”
From absorbing common narratives about billionaires in the media to laws miraculously always being made in their favor, it can be easy to believe that they’re not all bad. That it’s more about the individual than their money. But when it comes to the kind of unfathomable wealth we’re talking about, there are simply no good billionaires. For someone to have excessive wealth, there are more people who live in excessive poverty. There’s nothing fair or equal about the way that billionaires acquire wealth, no matter what. And unless the individual has a magical change of heart and decides to give all their money back to the people where it rightfully belongs, there’s not much they can do to justify having that much wealth, philanthropy included. Bill Gates is a great example—many praise his foundation for the amazing work he’s doing. “That’s the propaganda,” Erik said. “It’s one individual’s whims of what that individual values, not the needs and values of hundreds of millions of people. The wealth was taken from, gleaned off of the work and efforts of hundreds of thousands. But none of those desires—all of the people who have worked for Microsoft or bought Microsoft, all the people who contribute to that wealth—none of them have a say in it. So do we really believe in democracy or do we believe in autocracy?” The will of one is not the will of the people, no matter how much money they have. “Whatever he wants to do with his money, that’s not democratic…the real needs aren’t being addressed by Bill Gates. Education’s not being met, healthcare’s not being met, housing’s not being met. Bill Gates is not dealing with any true needs that are costing lives, it’s just what he needs to feel better about his money.”
There’s a lot more to be said about billionaires and this is not by any means a comprehensive article. But it continues to be true that millions of people, disproportionately people of color, are exploited so the elite few can continue to accumulate wealth they could never possibly spend in a lifetime. Workers sacrifice their time, relationships with friends and family, time to develop their own self, just to barely be able to afford basic necessities. Billionaires justify it with philanthropy on a whim, or the idea that they somehow earned this wealth. But we have debunked both those justifications in this article. So what is it going to take to make it so no one can obtain this godlike power? “We value wealth, and as long as we value wealth without understanding its cost in human labor, loss, and sacrifice. As long as we value wealth we’ll never value these things. They’ll always be a cost analysis instead of a human analysis.” Along with practical, tangible steps like taxing the rich, we need a massive cultural shift. We as a society must learn to value people over profit. “We have pants because cutting off the pants and folding them up [to the knee] the way the wealthy did was seen as so emblematic of exploitation and cruelty that it’s like, we’re never going to dress like that anymore because no one wants to be scene like that. That’s the kind of cultural shift we need – all the trappings of billionaire class are looked and sneered at as the perpetuators of barbarism and cruelty.”