Sunday, August 30, 2015

Billionaires For Dummies

It is worth reminding yourself of the factoid from a decade or more ago:  it is not worth Bill Gates' time to stop and to pick up a $100 bill that he sees lying on the ground.  Welcome to the wonderful world of billionaires.

As your host, my job is to orient you to the billionaire life that surrounds us.  Maybe you know one.  Maybe you are one (though if the $100 isn't worth your time, this most certainly isn't).  When the shift from millions to billions took place several decades ago (as humorously noted in Dr. Evil's terrorist request in the first Austin Powers movie), it led us to, all these years down that road, a tendency to take billionaires for granted.

In the apocryphal exchange where F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that "The rich are different from us," Hemingway is supposed to have responded, "Yes, they have more money."  While Fitzgerald found the comment insulting and undercutting, and while you may be thinking, 'Good insight, Captain Obvious,' Hemingway cuts to the heart of the matter.  The fact of that money, that humongous amount of money, changes everything (with apologies to Cyndi Lauper's songwriters).

Basically, to understand billionaires, you have to know what they want.  We all know what they have, but what do they want?  I break it down into 4 categories:

1.  They want to protect what they have.
2.  They want to influence the world around them in ways that are advantageous to them.
3.  They want what they want when they want it.
4.  They want to use their money in ways that bring them praise, adulation, and "immortality."

First, if you are a billionaire, you have engaged in cutthroat activity of one sort or another.  You outbid, colluded, made secret deals, squeezed out a partner, bent the laws or the rules of ethics.  And because of that, once you've got what you were after, you want to keep it.  Your vast holdings may destroy your offspring and their offspring, but that does not mean that you are going to just give it all away.  If you do give it away, you will do so in ways that bring you accolades and immortality and posterity-- say a string of public libraries or a donation to the U.N. Or some kind of African initiative.  If you don't give it away, well, no one expected you to.

Which means that you will do whatever you can to keep your wealth intact, growing, in an advantageous position for the future.  You'd be a fool not to, when you can influence politicians and local officials with any number of different and inconsequential machinations of your wealth.  A few thousand or million here or there, some dark money behind a targeted ad campaign, flat out campaign contributions--all of these protect your interests.

Because you are a billionaire, you are used to getting your way whenever you want to get your way, which is all of the time.  The people who work for you directly, and the people who can be influenced to work for you, will do your bidding and will do so in ways that do not challenge your authority.  What would be the point?  How many people who may not even know it wait to take their jobs as soon as they slow down or question?

Finally, the billionaire projects a persona that makes him or her seem untouchable.  The wealth of a billionaire is another way of saying, I am in complete control of all that I do, now and into the future (that will extend long beyond your life).  It says, I know how the world works in ways that you cannot begin to fathom, you who have to make reservations at restaurants and have to choose to spend money on one thing over another and who have debt that is not a tax advantage and who see yourselves as tied to one spouse for the rest of your life.  The billionaire knows that, with the stroke of a pen, he or she can alter the course of a city or state, maybe even a country or a world problem, in ways that will bring fame unto him or her, if he or she so desires it.  And there is nothing, no law or morality, that requires that he or she desire it if he or she does not want to.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying that if you, me, or him or her or they are staking our or their collective futures on the whims of a billionaire, any billionaire, then all of us are fools.  To think that a person that removed from the dealings, decisions, interactions, and real-life ethical choices of an average person's daily life--with law and punishment and church and debt looming--has any understanding of what is best for us or our country is sheer lunacy.

Billionaires can do most anything they want, but they can't come over to our house or our street to play.  Not if we don't want them.  And why would we?  Unless the goal of our lives is to make them all about what a billionaire wants.  No thanks.  Let them buy the street, the neighborhood, if they like, but they will still know nothing of our lives.

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