Down With Billionaires!?

For the past few weeks I've been working for yet another billionaire (my third, I think) in an up-close-and-personal kind of way and I gotta tell you: wipe the dust off your tenth stuffed lion/grizzly/porcupine  and you'll inevitably start to wonder, as I have, if you're next on the ol' taxidermy stand.

All that concentrated power... who wouldn't wanna organize a little man-hunt?

But let's set aside what someone with that kind of money could do (and get away with) if they really wanted to and focus instead on whether it's inherently wrong for someone to be that rich.

First, a little perspective:
  • The average billionaire is 63 years old and has a net worth of 3.1 billion dollars.
  • Average life expectancy for a U.S. male is 76.4 years. But rich people live longer, so let's say our average billionaire can buy himself to age 83, which gives him 20 years left to live.
  • $3.1 billion divided by 20 years is $155 million per year.
  • $155 million per year divided by 365 days is $424 thousand a day.
  • The average global annual income, adjusted for purchasing power, is $18,000 a year.
So the average billionaire would have to spend a little over the average person's annual income roughly every hour (waking and sleeping) for the rest of his (yes, they're mostly men) life in order to end up broke.

But average incomes are misleading.

Roughly a third of the world's population lives on two bucks a day. And while poverty rates are declining, a hundred and fifty five million children still suffer from malnutrition every day. The billionaires of the world could end that. No complex legislative process required. A flick of the wrist over the checkbook, and the billionaires of the world could ensure that no kid starves ever again. They don't, and you have to be pretty invested in the Ethos of Individual Consumerism to not see that as something ugly and wrong.

But before we all start patting ourselves on the back for being so morally superior to the Richie Riches of the world, it's important to ask ourselves where, exactly, we'd draw the line between normal consumption and immoral excess. Is it one elephant hunt a year? A European vacation? Bi-weekly trips to Starbucks?

Setting aside as well the Machiavellian things many (most?) billionaires have done to get that kind of money (Stephen Spielberg is, after all, well up there on the Forbes 500 list—so it's not like they're all secretly selling AK-47s to poor people), perhaps we should ask if the way they live their lives and spend their money isn't the same as how we, too, fritter away the world's resources on pleasures, comforts, and excesses—ignoring the suffering of the world's children with our every purchase.

It's easy to see that sitting in a room gorging yourself on delicacies that you're refusing to share with the crying, malnourished child on the other side of the room is morally wrong, and that the same is true even if you stick that child in the next room over, where you can hear but not see them. It gets harder to make that argument when the kid is in the next house or the next country, unseen and unheard

Yet this is exactly what you and I do every dayand tossing a few easily-affordable, tax-crediting pennies at the problem doesn't absolve us of our guilt.

In a just and perfect world there would be no hunger. No tears. No violence or slavery or pain. There would probably not even be any private ownership (as we understand it) because each of us would be always thinking not only of our own needs, but of the needs of others as well.

We do not live in a just and perfect world. We live in a world groaning under the burden of death, and suffering under the cruelty of "powers and principalities" that don't care about love or creation or beauty. They want only to take, use up, and destroy.

As the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world continue to demonstrate, power has a tendency to exacerbate and amplify the Heart of Darkness that lives in us all, turning us into willing servants of the powers and principalities. The billionaires of the world are, by and large, a pretty destructive, usurious, grasping horde.

We need to stand strong against that.

But I think our first step needs to be to own that darkness in ourselves and to realize that for all our righteous internet activism, we too are part of the problem.

Rather than shouting "Down with Billionaires!" at easy targets that can't even hear us, let's shout "Down with Selfishness and Cruelty" into the mirror, and begin the slow, difficult process of re-calibrating our spending and our hearts toward greater generosity and loving-kindness.


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