Did you know that if you had a billion dollars, you could spend a dollar a minute, every minute of every day of every week of every month of every year for the next 1900 years? I looked it up. It’s much different from being a millionaire. If you’re a millionaire, you could do the same thing, but for less than 2 years. To possess a billion dollars, then, is to have more money than you could likely spend in 19 lifetimes. It’s more than enough for you and the next 18 generations of your family to be certain it’s unnecessary ever to do a minute of paid labor of any sort. You are as free financially as anyone could ever want to be.
THAT’S GREAT, FRED, BUT WHAT’S IMMORAL ABOUT THAT?
When a person has more than they can possibly use, it seems to me, that person has an obligation to the rest of the world that has made this possible for him (or her). There are those who have recognized this, and I admire them for it. J.K. Rowling gave up her status as a billionaire by donating more than $150,000,000 to charity. (She’s stated views that define her as frighteningly intolerant, but that’s a discussion for another episode.) She’s helping to improve the world. Good for her. Good for any billionaire who does what she does. Bill and Melinda Gates are also to be congratulated. But… here’s the thing: we still have homelessness.
BUT, THE HOMELESS DIDN’T EARN THEIR MONEY. WHY SHOULD THOSE WHO WORKED HARD AND EARNED MONEY BE REQUIRED TO HELP THE LAZY?
“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
— Abraham Lincoln
It’s true, I suppose, that billionaires have toiled and worked to earn bread, and that the poor and homeless are eating it, but the slaves are the poor, not the wealthy and the powerful. It has always been so. It will always be so.
When you have more than you need, you can help others without hurting yourself. To fail to help is, to me, unwarranted selfishness. I have been the fortunate recipient of more help from my friends and family than I have deserved, and each time someone else reduced, by a not insignificant amount, their ability to do things for themselves because they did things for me. This is what it means to be a decent human being. It is the recognition that others are as important as you are. It is an understanding that each person’s suffering is, to some extent, your own. It is an understanding of what John Donne told us all those years ago:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
It’s estimated that Jeff Bezos is worth more than $138.5 billion. What does this mean? It means that he could spend enough, every minute, to send my best friend and me to Outback for dinner. And he could keep doing it for 1.9 millennia. We can do this, ourselves, perhaps once a month.
It’s estimated homelessness can be abolished for 20 billion dollars. Bezos has the money to do this 5 times over, and he would still have enough to spend $18.50 a minute until the year 3923.
I don’t expect people to hurt themselves to help others. But, I really don’t see how Mr. Bezos could possibly be hurt by helping millions of people. I don’t know why Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates, or any of a host of others don’t end world hunger, end poverty, and end homelessness all by themselves. If you can do good, and you can do so without endangering yourself, how is it possible to choose not to do it?
Forbes claims there are 607 billionaires in the United States right now, with a combined worth of 3.111 trillion dollars.
YES, FRED, BUT THOSE PEOPLE DID SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY TO EARN THAT MONEY. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO DEMAND THEY GIVE IT AWAY.
“You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.”
– Adrian Rogers
I agree with Mr. Rogers to the extent that it’s wrong for one person to work for something without receiving the benefits of his labor. Where I disagree is how much that labor is really worth. In most cases, I think the labor is worth much more than it is paid. In many fewer cases, I believe the labor is unimaginably overpriced.
I congratulate Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates for their accomplishments. I am grateful to them for the things they did. They absolutely deserve wealth for their contributions to the world. But… THAT much wealth? They have (or had) more money than they could ever spend. It becomes pointless to have more. There’s nothing more for them to do with it. They can already buy anything they want at any moment in time. They’re never going to worry about having enough for a pack of cigarettes, let alone paying rent, or going out for an evening’s entertainment. I don’t deny they deserve that. I’m happy to contribute to that. Again, they earned it.
But… when you have more than you could spend in 19 lifetimes, it seems to me that one is simply a dragon hoarding his treasure. It may be yours, but it doesn’t serve you in any way. It could be serving a much higher purpose than adding to itself. If you leave a billion dollars in an average savings account, doing absolutely nothing, you get 2,000,000 a year in interest. It’s just sitting there. It’s not buying anything. It’s not adding to the economy. And you get 2,000,000 for absolutely nothing. Jeff Bezos could have more than a hundred such accounts. That’s 200 million dollars a year for… what exactly?
IT’S NOT THEIR JOB TO TAKE CARE OF THE CITIZENS. IT’S THE JOB OF THE GOVERNMENT.
I agree. As I have written many times before, to the extent that any civilization includes homelessness, poverty, hunger, a lack of education, or insufficient medical care for all its citizens, that civilization is a failure. It’s my opinion we should have been doing something about this 40 years ago. Instead of the clearly failed “Trickle Down Economics,” that increased the already, even then, widening Income Inequality, we should have been spending the money to make sure everyone had a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, schools to attend, and the healthcare they needed. I believe we should be doing much better at this by now. The government has the primary responsibility. But, many people will disagree with me on this. That is an argument for a different essay.
This is not political. It’s personal.
The fact that people with this kind of power allow homelessness to exist is simply wrong. There is no alternative case that I can see. If you can make a convincing one, I would love to hear or read it.
They allow these things to exist in the world, when, with no significant effort, they could end them.
I can’t save these children, lying on the street, one covered by a blanket while the other searches for a parent.
I can’t give this man, lying on the sidewalk, a place to sleep.
I can’t get these kids a washer and dryer or a home in which to connect those appliances.
All of this suffering is going on, right now, today, this very minute, and any billionaire could end it simply by deciding to do so. Failure to do so is immoral. What right have you to more than you could ever possibly need when others will never have enough to be sure that they will have a place to live next week? It doesn’t matter to me whether you earned it by saving the world or by enslaving your employees. You are equally morally bound in either case.
When you are willing to recognize this old man’s right to exist is precisely equal to your right to exist, that his suffering is unnecessary, and that we should value him as highly as Bezos, Zuckerberg, and the rest, you will have begun to be morally enlightened, assuming you’re not already so. When the billionaires take positive action to end suffering, they will have erased my contempt, and they will have earned my gratitude and admiration.
Until then, being a Billionaire is Inherently Immoral.