Can you imagine telling an inequality-wracked world that we might not want to take away a billionaire’s money? Absurd. And poorly argued!
Billionaires: should we take their fucking money and use it for things that society desperately needs, because they sure don’t fucking need it? The answer is yes. That said, there are many (misguided but) intellectually coherent ideas as to why we should not do so: for example, some believe the existence of billionaires is but an unfortunate side effect of a free enterprise system that will ultimately enrich us all; some would say that confiscatory taxation would simply cause billionaires to flee to tax havens, making the global situation worse; and so on. In order to have this debate effectively, both the pro- and anti-billionaires need to trot out arguments that—whether or not you agree with them—have some sort of rational and/ or moral heft.
Or, you can just do what Jeff Sommer did in his recent New York Times piece headlined “Why You Might Not Want to Take Away a Billionaire’s Money” and say a bunch of nonsense!!!!!!!!!!
Why mightn’t I want to take away money from someone who has far more than he could ever spend in order to give that money to poor and starving people who could really use it? I hope you brought your A-game, Jeff...
In my teens, when I saw hungry people on the streets of New York I started to dream of expropriating money from the wealthy to feed the poor. My father, who rose from Depression-era poverty in Scranton, Pa., to modest affluence as a New York City businessman, tried to set me straight on the subject.
“Think it through,” he said. “You might bring some justice to the world and you’d help some needy people. But you’d lose what people like the Rockefellers have done for the common man, the museums, the parks, the libraries, the schools, and the contributions to medical research, and on and on. It’s no small thing.”
Is the headline of this story “My Father Was a Great Guy, But Wrong About Billionaires?” That would make sense here. Because Jeff’s father, while acknowledging the good that all of this excess money could do for needy people, then seems to assert that that good is outweighed by the fact that Gilded Age titans like John D. Rockefeller built museums, parks, and libraries. In fact, even the briefest ethical examination of this assertion tells us that is insane to believe that museums, parks, libraries, colleges, or other public institutions that billionaires can put their names on are a more valuable and ethical use of the money than, for example, saving human lives. Jeff’s father is saying, in essence, “A nice museum with John D. Rockefeller’s name on it is better than your very life, Mr. Starving Homeless Wretch. Die now.”
Then, my dad said, consider the horrendous cost of expropriation in countries that have tried it — the bloodshed, the lost lives, the ruined families, the economies stunted by revolutionary violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, I spent time as a reporter in countries that had endured such ordeals — particularly post-Cultural Revolution China and Russia before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Taking from the rich and giving to the poor didn’t work out well in either place, and both China and Russia backtracked from their early revolutions.
Pretending that the concept of “Taking from the rich and giving to the poor” is discredited because it didn’t work out in the two most extremely violent ideological revolutions of the 20th century... is insane! And dishonest! This is akin to saying that blimps should be outlawed because of the Hindenburg.
After this, Jeff spends many paragraphs delving into the awful state of economic inequality in our nation and in our world—facts which argue in favor of confiscatory taxation of billionaires—and then comes back to this:
Some very wealthy people in the private sector are taking action aimed, at least in part, at voluntarily redistributing their enormous wealth through charitable giving. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren E. Buffett some years ago organized a “giving pledge,” in which rich people promise to give most of their money away. Such voluntary good deeds, if embraced by the world’s richest people, can go a long way toward solving the billionaire problem peacefully.
But clearly such good deed are not being embraced by the world’s richest people on anywhere near a sufficient scale, Jeff, or you wouldn’t have just pointed out a few paragraphs back that eight billionaires are worth more than the world’s poorest 50% of people. Does that strike you as a great testament to the effectiveness of leaving it up to billionaires themselves?
My dad isn’t around to discuss any of this now but I know what he would say, and I say it to my own son. I tell him that our flawed civil society is nonetheless precious and that all of us, billionaires included, need to do whatever we can to make it more just.
Your heart pumps Kool-Aid.
We already have a class war, you just don’t know you’re losing.