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Billionaires should not exist

1 month ago
David Surdam
Businessman holding cash

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.

Author

Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

David Surdam received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, "Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War," was supervised by Nobel-Prize Winner, Robert Fogel. Professor Surdam has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon.

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Comments

Submitted by Austin Agan on
Reading over this article, it brought me to think back to when Amazon donated roughly 690,000 US dollars toward the Australian fires that have recently occurred. Jeff Bezos had backlash placed on him for donating to a good cause. Yes Amazon is worth 100's of billions of dollars, but that is more money than most of us could think about even owning. Yet people would sit behind their screen and tweet about how terrible Amazon was for only donating that amount of money. What would be the bottom line donation so that companies or people wouldn't have to face the same situation as Bezos did? While it comes to celebrities who are billionaires, Americans look at these people as hero's/people we may look up to. We don't see faults in anything they do. Some of us have looked up to them our entire lives and don't want to accept anything "bad" they have done. I didn't look into any of the three celebrities mentioned in the middle of the article, but did any of them donate to these fires in Australia? If they didn't, why are Americans bashing Jeff Bezos and Amazon but not someone like Jay-z or Michael Jordan for not donating?

Submitted by Paige Sieren on
I found this post very interesting to read! I feel like you often hear people say that many billionaires were born into their wealth or just had it handed down to them and although it may be true in some cases, it's not in all cases. Obviously many celebrities and people mentioned in this post worked hard to get where they are and have earned the money. I think that when people have so much money, they often don't know what to do with it all resulting in them making lots of bad financial choices and ending up bankrupt which happens to many people who win the lottery out of luck. So a solution to that potential problem could be that many wealthy Americans could invest back into social causes or even into the stock market would could in return help the economy all together. Wealthy Americans could also donate to charities and special events like that to give back to the world around them and show that they care.

Submitted by Moriah Ross on
As the election is fast approaching, I hear more and more about how wealthy Americans should be taxed more. I do not agree with this. As this article has already pointed out, if a person has worked hard to provide a good and/or service and sacrificed a lot to do so, why should they feel guilty about being wealthy? Also, if someone is willing to donate money for a good cause, why do we have to compare the donated amount to how much they have? Can we not focus on their willingness to help at all? I do believe that money is a very powerful thing and can become more controlling the more you of it you have. In my opinion, it must be hard to be a billionaire. You have to worry about protecting all the stuff you own and be under constant public scrutiny. I do not think taxing billionaires more would solve our problems. Encouraging them to help worthy causes would have a bigger impact.

Submitted by Colin Kirchhoff on
Another great post that brings up the old argument about wealth and how those who hold it are "evil". I personally applaud those who are able to attain this kind of wealth. If they worked for it and have some sort of talent and able to exploit it; they have every right to gain this type of wealth. I liked the point about celebrities and athletes also. Those who believe that business mangers who amass great fortunes are evil; while on the flip slide praise those in sports and movies who also have lots of wealth is quite silly. Businesses provide goods and services to help our society. Since we are also in a capitalistic society, companies have an incentive to out-compete one another and provide certain products to those willing to buy. Another point I liked was bringing up how much John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie contributions to the U.S during the late 19th century. Yes, their business and monopolies might not have been regulated well. But, they were sure to contribute and give back to society in a positive way instead of keeping it all to themselves. I believe most large business and their billionaires have a duty to give back some of their wealth to those who need it. Overall, great read and agree with everything that was said.

Submitted by Marnie Reynolds on
One of the things that makes America great is the amount of opportunities that are available. Most of the wealthy population in America have worked hard to earn their money. Yes, there are some that are born into wealth but whether their parents or grandparents are the reason for that, someone in their family worked hard at one point to earn that wealth. I don't think the wealthy should be taxed more, nor do I think they should be made to feel guilty or illegitimate for what they've earned. We all have the possibility to become wealthy and that's what makes America a great country. I don't think taxing billionaires would solve problems. Instead I think we should encourage them to recirculate their money back into society, social causes, etc.

Submitted by Wyatt Harvey on
I feel most billionaires do get a bad rap as they worked hard to get to the top. It is easy for the middle to low class to be resentful and ill will for the 1% being able to live the life they do. Though most don't know the sweat and tears it took to get to the top. It is not by accident that Buffet is one of the wealthy, he spends most of his time doing research on the companies he chooses. He spends hours upon hours looking at the financial statements where most would find it too tedious and arduous, it is not his fault for being informed and making smart decisions when he puts the time and effort into his decisions that pay off. I believe he also said that he spends less in taxes than his secretaries do. I believe most of his income is taxed at the 20% capital gains rate, he knows how the tax system works and plans ahead to get the most out of his money. Society should not be angry at him for doing this, it is a smart legal tactic that if everyone could do it they would. It is engraved into the people today that the number one goal is to make money, so rather than resent the wealthy we should be looking to them for advice. Their job like ours is to make a living while some don't want to put in the extra time the wealthy are more than happy to.

Submitted by Brandon DeMaris on
I think this is a great post! People bash billionaires a lot because they have all this money and they wont just give it away. Tom steyer had a similar ad complaining about what is a real billionaire. Politicians who use this as an argument are trying to grasp at anything and everything. This country is set up that you can come from nothing and with the right idea and drive you can create a company that makes you lots of money and anyone who complains about people having too much money are full of it. Bringing up Paul, Jay-z, and Michael was a great way to help bring people out of their stubborn argument and back to a logical debate.

Submitted by Chris White on
I have done multiple projects investigating Carnegie and his reasonings for why he chose to give back the way he did. When I was younger, it amazed me how he did these things just because he could. I imagined rich people pinching pennies and not caring about anybody else. As I’ve grown, I’ve learned that money can only do so much. One point I want to speak on Is that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could voluntarily pay more in taxes. That may be true, but I believe based on their bodies of work, they could absolutely do more good things with the money than the US government can.

Submitted by Elliott on
As the next presidential election is approaching this is becoming a very heated topic. Everyday it feels as if I hear more and more people complaining about wealthy individuals not paying enough money in taxes. I find this article interesting and agree with the idea that instead of trying to get wealthy people to pay more taxes, encourage them to donate to social causes. I feel as though people are willing to donate larger amounts of money to things that they are able to choose. I liked how this article pointed out that a lot of wealthy people actually earned their money. It seems as though a lot of people are convinced that everyone in the top 1% got there from inheriting their fortunes.

Submitted by Emily Ernberger on
I really enjoyed this article because I have never heard about something like this. I think it is interesting that people in America despise billionaires who may have worked hard for their money but yet look up to royals who were handed money. Americans can be big hypocrites and this article showed that. I do not think that it is fair to despise someone due to their success in life. Personally , it would make me want to work hard to be able to some day get to that level of financial stability. I also gained knowledge about the line that they used to put on taxes for people to donate more in order to help the national debt. I did not know that was a thing but I am also not surprised that no one really participated in this. I think instead of being so mad about someone's wealth, we should use it as almost motivation. This is just my personal opinion. Some people are lucky enough to be handed money and some are lucky in life and have great success but I would never despise someone because of this. I gained a lot of good knowledge and insights from this article.

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