What’s the Point of Billionaires?
As is the custom to ring in a new year, we make resolutions and hopefully keep them over the course of the year. Common resolutions are exercising more often, eating better, losing weight, being more productive, and being a better, kinder person.
There’s one other resolution you may have made this year: to become a billionaire.
Ok, so maybe becoming a billionaire is not on your list of resolutions for the new year. But no worries. I’m going to tell you how to do it.
First off, to be totally honest with you, and contrary to what you may think, I’m not a billionaire.
I know, you picture me as a suave, sophisticated, erudite, debonair, urbane, refined, civilized specimen who walks around all day in smoking jacket, ascot neatly wrapped around neck, wine glass in hand, butler in tow filling my glass with the finest and rarest of wines at each beck and call.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not me. I’m more the dull, boring, beer guzzling, proletariat type.
But I once did meet a billionaire, spent a few days with him in fact. He was a splendid guy, a sincere family man. He was a billionaire of the accidental type—he made his billions courtesy of the internet bubble of the late 1990s, when he was invited to join a tech startup as a top officer and, after the company went public, cashed out and joined the three comma club.
I lost touch with him, but he did inspire me to write a novel, The Knuckleball From Hell, about an accidental tech billionaire turned surfer dude who through a chain of random events bought the baseball team the New York Mets. I was probably living vicariously through him because, if anyone should have become the owner of the New York Mets, it should have been me. As Marlon Brando famously said in On the Waterfront, “I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
But enough of my tales of woe. Let’s get back to the matter at hand, that of helping you become a billionaire.
There are four ways to do so:
1. The accidental way, like the person I met who was at the right place at the right time
2. Be the leader of a country, especially one in which you are an autocrat
3. Start a company, work hard as you watch profits rise and expenses lessen, and before you know it, you’ve become a billionaire
4. Be a psychopath (which most probably encompasses the second and third ways of becoming a billionaire)
Now before I explain what I mean by a psychopath, let’s walk down memory lane and look at billionaires throughout history. At one time, billionaires were a rare commodity. Hundreds and thousands of years ago, you either had to be the ruler of a country or related to one to be a billionaire.
There was Mansa Musa, known as Musa I of Mali, the tenth emperor of the Mali Empire, who lived from 1280 to 1337. He is considered one of the richest people ever, with a worth of about $400 billion. There was William the Conqueror, who lived from 1028 to 1087, and became enormously wealthy from the spoils of war during the Norman Conquest of England. And there was John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III of England, who lived from 1340 to 1399. As the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt owned land in almost every county in England, with a household comparable to that of a monarch.
Going further back, there was Emperor Augustus of the Roman Empire, who lived from 63 BC to 14 AD, and is said to have a worth of $14 trillion, thanks to his owning all of Egypt. And there also was Alexander the Great, who was the ruler of Macedonia and lived from 356 to 323 BC. Although Alexander’s exact wealth is unknown, he is believed to be one of history’s richest people.
In the 19th century U.S., during the Gilded Age, the billionaires were known as the “robber barons.” These included John D. Rockefeller, with a net worth in 2020 dollars of $350 billion; Andrew Carnegie, with a net worth in 2020 dollars of $75 billion; Henry Ford, who when he died in 1947 had a net worth of $188 billion; J.P. Morgan, with a net worth of between $25 and $45 billion, in 2020 dollars; Cornelius Vanderbilt, with a net worth of $2.5 billion in 2020 dollars; and his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, whose worth was $5.75 billion, in 2020 dollars.
Of Cornelius Vanderbilt it was said that “in a Darwinist age, Vanderbilt developed a reputation as a plunderer who took no prisoners.” And the Gilded Age’s robber barons were described as “Business leaders who were, on the whole, a set of avaricious rascals who habitually cheated and robbed investors and consumers, corrupted government, fought ruthlessly among themselves, and in general carried on predatory activities comparable to those of the robber barons of medieval Europe.”
Incidentally, the Gilded Age was a time of extremes. For every one of the wealthy, there were tens of millions living in poverty. The massive wealth inequality of the era threatened the well-being of the nation. In 1890, when the U.S. population was 63 million, the top one percent owned 51 percent of the wealth and the top 12 percent owned 86 percent of the wealth, while the lower 44 percent owned just 1.2 percent of the wealth. Two-thirds of the population of New York City lived in cramped tenements, and tens of thousands of New York City residents were homeless.
Over the millennia, billionaires have been few and far between, but their number has picked up exponentially in modern times. In 2020 there were 2,095 known billionaires, with Jeff Bezos being listed as the richest of them all, with a net worth of $188 billion. (It’s said that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is richer than Bezos, but that’s a story for another time, when I discuss your possible New Year’s resolution of how to become a kleptocrat.)
As I mentioned in the paragraph above, the list of billionaires in 2020 are the known ones. No one really knows the true number, because many others keep a low profile and launder their money into tax havens all around the world, which means it’s a secret as to how much they truly have.
Some billionaires are well-known—Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, Charles Koch, and the Sackler family of OxyContin fame are just some of the notorious billionaires who find themselves mentioned often in popular culture.
Some billionaires get glorified, with people looking up to them and their every utterance. Some are admired for being good business people. Some have held public office. And some are looked at as positive contributors to the welfare of society.
But here’s the thing. If you want to become a billionaire, just like all the folks I mentioned, you have to, as I outlined above in step four of how to become a billionaire, be a psychopath.
Of course, you don’t have to be a psychopath if you fall into the category of being an accidental billionaire. Other than that, you have to have a singleminded obsession with money, and desire to obtain and hoard it to the point that nothing else matters.
You have to want to own things, and own people, and not care about how you might be hurting people or the planet as you garner your fortune.
You have to desire to pay little to nothing in taxes, as you move your money around in tax shelters around the world.
You have to have a mentality of extraction, thinking, how can I take money from people in order to have more for myself? Or how can I take natural resources from the planet (meaning fossil fuels, rare minerals, the Amazon rain forest, etc.) in order to make more for myself?
You have to be willing to have your hands on the levers of power, by putting money in the pockets of politicians in order to shape laws to your favor.
You have to be willing to deal in abstract amounts of money in the worldwide derivatives market, where $600 trillion circulates.
You have to be willing to hoard your money while people around the world live on pennies a day and governments around the world (including the U.S.) have to operate with an austerity mentality, because of the lack of taxes you, the billionaire, pay.
If you are good with that and ready to amass your billion dollar fortune, let me dig further into what it takes to be a psychopath.
Psychologist Robert Hare is the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, and he has developed a 20-point checklist for identifying a psychopath. These include glib and superficial charm, grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, superficial expression of emotion, callousness and lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, and poor behavioral controls. These are the traits of someone who will steal your soul—that’s what psychopaths are most adept at doing.
Hare found that psychopaths are self-righteous opportunists, and to them, everyone is their mark. Psychopaths have many tools at their disposal to keep people believing them, and it doesn’t matter who or what they harm, as from their perspective, the ends always justify the means.
Now, having read all that, you may say screw it, I don’t want to be a psychopath and for that matter, I don’t want to be a billionaire. And that then begs the question, why are there billionaires? And are they really such hot stuff?
The answer is, we don’t need billionaires whatsoever; and no, they’re not hot stuff at all. In fact, they’re psychopaths.
What billionaires, along with their cousins, the megamillionaires, do is amp up the level of wealth inequality. And it’s wealth inequality that is the greatest scourge to humanity, and the thing that has the potential to lead to widespread societal collapse.
The wealth class are comprised of plutocrats and kleptocrats, and all they care about is enriching themselves even further. They care very little about things like climate change or pandemics, because they’ve built underground bunkers or rocket ships to help blast them off to space and colonize other planets (beer cans on the Moon, anyone?).
There are some members of the wealth class that do give a hoot and want to do good, but they prefer to do it in a way in which their wealth stays intact and protected. They may set up foundations to do good, but at the same time, they make sure their financial interests are secure. In other words, they do it on their terms.
For example, at the recent COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow, in which political and business leaders, along with climate activists, came together to discuss what can be done about climate change, an alliance from the financial industry was formed, calling themselves the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Made up of 450 international financial institutions, they claim to have $130 trillion at their disposal.
What will they do with this money? In vague and creepy corporate speak, they say their aim is to “drive upward convergence around corporate and financial institution net-zero transition plans.” In other words, they will make money with their money, and shrewdly get good PR by making themselves look like the good guys at the same time.
This alliance won’t be disbursing the funds on climate projects. It will direct how those funds are invested, favoring behaviors the finance industry deems virtuous and freezing out those it deems not.
This is psychopathy with a smiley face, and it would be an extraordinary concentration of political power in bankers’ hands—exactly the place where they prefer it to be. It’s also where we need to understand that it’s the place to fear power most.
Alright, so I’m thinking you have taken becoming a billionaire off your list of new year’s resolutions. I don’t blame you. Instead you can add to your list being a better person and making this a better world, in ways big and small.
How about this? Add to your list of resolutions that you will spit on the ground every time you see or hear a billionaire mentioned in a positive light (just like Julio’s mother looked down and spit on the ground every time his name gets mentioned, at least according to Paul Simon in his song, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”).
A last word of advice: Just like mammas don’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys (at least as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson suggested in their song), mammas also don’t let your babies grow up to be billionaires.
Hey, letting your baby grow up to be a cowboy just might be a better thing after all, mamma.