Could you spend a billion dollars? How about $90 billion? Here, try. It’s actually kind of hard to do if you’re used to living, as most Americans do, paycheck to paycheck. In your head, you’ve probably already started allotting money to issues you care about, problems you’d solve with that kind of money. Maybe you’d Oprah your whole block or build a school. The billionaires on Forbes 400, a list of the 400 richest people in America, they all have at least two billion dollars. In total, they’re all worth “a record-breaking $2.96 trillion,” a sum that could eliminate the American student debt crisis twice, or end world hunger for at least 10 years, or give nearly every single human being on the planet $34,428.57.
Jeff Bezos, who is at the top of the list for the second year in a row, doesn’t just possess enough money to change lives, he has enough money to change entire systems. If he just paid a slightly higher rate of taxes, there’d be money to fund social programs. But billionaires like Bezos aren’t just accumulating their masses of money because of lax tax laws, though that certainly helps. They make their money by shortchanging their employees. Amazon warehouse workers have some of the worst working conditions in the country, and they’ve repeatedly been prevented from unionizing.
Even some of the ultra-wealthy are aware of how dangerous billionaires are. CEO Peter Gorescu (who admittedly didn’t make the list) told the New York Times in March that he worries that the version of capitalism that exists now is essentially eating itself alive. He believes that we’re at risk of societal collapse. And his fears aren’t baseless. Between the effects of climate change — predicted to only increase in frequency and severity — the opioid crisis, political division, the looming threat of another war, the wars we’re already in, an unstable economy, a growing divide between economic classes — the list could go on — it feels like the sky is falling. There is an urgent need for major, expensive, systemic change.
Forbes has treated their list of the 400 wealthiest Americans as some of “chess-not-checkers” game played and mastered by the most enterprising minds in our country. In reality, it's more like a compilation of the most immoral and greedy people in America. Having a billion dollars, or $50 billion is the result of a system that rewards unfettered greed, not the result of gumption and know-how.
The charity that supposedly offsets the billionaires’ negative impacts rarely ever does so, and it is ridiculous that the bulk of humanity is supposed to hinge their fates on the whims of billionaire class philanthropy, especially when so many problems are caused by billionaires and their greed.
A world without billionaires might not be a perfect world, but it would certainly be a better one. A billionaire makes their money through exploitation, cut corners, and shameless greed. We don’t need that. And we certainly shouldn’t be celebrating it.