Billionaires should not exist

Billionaires should not exist

David Surdam /

The title is a quote from Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Apparently he used to say, “Millionaires shouldn’t exist,” but given that he is now a millionaire thanks to his books, he has altered his slogan.

I think I heard one candidate claim in an advertisement, “People, not billionaires,” so apparently billionaires are no longer people. This objectification of people with a billion dollars or more in wealth is troubling.

My guess is that many, if not most, Americans think people with a billion or more in wealth didn’t earn their wealth or simply “made money on paper.” To be sure, there are some wealthy people, who used the government to gain wealth or inherited wealth.

However, America is not like Saudi Arabia or Russia, where the wealthy people often extorted or stole money from the masses. Even the British royalty didn’t earn their wealth, yet Americans, probably including many anti-billionaires advocates, adore the royals. Most wealthy Americans earned their money by providing goods and services that people willingly purchased. From my perspective, successful Americans’ actions are more ethical than the oligarchs in other countries.

Americans also don’t appear to begrudge Paul McCartney, Michael Jordan, and Jay Z’s wealth; each reputedly has wealth in excess of a billion dollars. Americans enjoyed watching these three perform; McCartney’s and Jay Z’s music bring pleasure to millions of Americans. Author J.K. Rowling is another reputed billionaire; her books inspired a generation of American youths to read. All of these people rose from modest beginnings to attain wealth. Not only were they talented, but they carefully invested their money.

Mega-million dollar lottery winners reveal an odd aspect of Americans’ attitudes toward wealth. A handful of Americans who were sole winners of hundreds of millions of dollars joined the ranks of wealthy Americans on the tier just below billionaires. A lottery winner did absolutely nothing virtuous in attaining their wealth. Instead of scorn, most Americans secretly envy or enjoy reading about common, everyday Americans who enjoyed a windfall. The reality is that many of these winners ultimately end up bankrupt, with their wealth dissipated.

Some wealthy Americans appear to feel sheepish about their wealth. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have advocated raising taxes on wealthy Americans. They seem to ignore the fact that they could individually volunteer to pay more than their current tax liability. The income tax form used to have a line whereby taxpayers could voluntarily ante up donations to offset the national debt. The Internal Revenue Service deleted the line some years back, as hardly anyone partook of said opportunity.

Rather than expend time and energy coercing wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes, perhaps activists could devote their efforts in convincing wealthy Americans that various social causes are worthwhile investments. There are grassroots projects that help poorer Americans gain skills to manage their money or to increase their attractiveness to potential employers. In the past, wealthy Americans such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie invested in worthwhile projects such as public health endeavors and public libraries. Rockefeller and Carnegie avidly sought ways to invest money to help their fellow humans. I suspect that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are better than legislators in ascertaining which competing uses for their wealth are worthwhile.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.