The (billionaires') case against billionaires (permalink)
The downsides of a world with billionaires in it are well-rehearsed: billionaires can convert their vast wealth to power, and use that power to turn their whims and pet theories into policy failures that affect millions – or even billions – of people.
Take Bill Gates. Forget all the conspiracy theories about Gates and vaccines – it's bizarre that people bother to make up those fairy-tales when the truth is so much worse. Gates has an absolute ideological commitment to the idea that profit-based production is the most efficient way to produce and allocate goods.
It's what prompted him to declare war on free/open software, what caused his foundation to block patent waivers for AIDS drugs in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor nations, and it's what led him to strong-arm the Oxford university team to kill its plan to release its vaccine into the public domain, opting instead to license it to Astrazeneca.
Gates's foundation is the key force in fighting against covid vaccine copyright and patent waivers at the WTO, insisting that the world's poorest billions should rely on charitable donations from rich countries, waiting for vaccines until the wealthy minority are vaxed, boosted, and boosted again.
This is a catastrophic, even genocidal idea. Gates's ideology denied the world's poorest access to AIDS drugs, directly leading to a vast population of permanently immunocompromised people in the global south. These same people are especially vulnerable to covid, but again Gates's ideology denies them vaccines. Worse: immunocompromised people take longer to recover from covid, meaning they have a higher chance of incubating new strains, and when those new strains emerge, they rip through immunocompromised, unvaccinated populations.
Just in case you've encountered the racist lie that poor brown people in the global south are too primitive to make their own vaccines, waivers or no, here's a debunking of that particular pile of bigoted garbage:
Long before billionaires were threatening to kill us all by making vaccine access subservient to their ideology, they had devoted themselves to the destruction of the public education system. Dilletantes like Betsy DeVos, the Walton family, and, yes, Gates, funneled tens of millions into propaganda for the unaccountable charter school system:
Despite the fact that charters produce worse outcomes at higher prices and create and reinforce racial segregation, they serve an important role in billionaire ideology, by demonizing and neutering teachers' unions and attacking the idea of public service provision itself. Of course, it's not all ideology: charter schools make excellent money-laundries:
As I've written, it's not just that every billionaire is a policy failure: every billionaire is a factory for producing policy failures at scale:
Of course, billionaires still exist, and they have a lot of money (and hence power), which means that their lickspittles in the economics trade have dreamt up all kinds of excuses for their existence. On his blog, Charlie Stross analyzes these excuses and their counterarguments:
"Capitalist apologetics" makes an argument that billionaires provide social utility, first, by motivating others through appeals to their greed: "If you strive and strive, you might someday become a billionaire and wield power, too."
As Stross notes, even by its own lights, this is a pretty flimsy argument. Greed is a powerful motivator, but it also has diminishing returns. Billionaires are so rich that additional fortunes – even vast ones – change very little for them. Once you're a billionaire, another million (or billion) dollars confers virtually no benefit to you.
Stross cites Steve Jobs, a very powerful billionaire whose riches did not help him after he had his cancerous pancreas removed and his liver began to fail. His money let him keep a bizjet on 24/7 standby so he could be on liver-donor waiting lists in three states – the three states he could reach in time to receive a donor liver before it spoiled. If you'd given Jobs an extra billion dollars, it wouldn't have made a difference to his ability to procure a liver – the physics of civilian aviation and the frontiers of bioscience put a hard limit on his access to donor livers.
"Personal wealth," says Stross, "has an upper bound beyond which the numbers are meaningless."
But there's another argument for billionaires: they can mobilize their money to change the world (in Jobsean parlance, "make a dent in the universe"). Gates can create a foundation to eradicate child poverty, Musk can use his fortune to establish a Mars colony, etc.
But, Stross says, though billionaires are incredibly rich, they are nowhere near rich enough to do any of this stuff. The world's total income – the Gross World Product (GWP) – is $70-$100T. Add up all the world's billionaires' fortunes and you don't even get 1% of that. The wealth of a Bezos or Musk doesn't even cover the 2019 rise in GWP.
For all the lobbying, the corrupting of politicians, the big talk about going to Mars, the "midlife crisis toys like Twitter or weekend getaways on a space station," billionaires can't actually do much.
That includes billionaire autocrats like Xi and Putin, who have "nuclear weapons, armies, and populations in 8-9 digits" at their disposal. All of that still won't deliver Putin the swift victory in Ukraine he planned as a 70th birthday present to himself.
Stross hypothesizes that billionaires "probably feel about as helpless in the face of revolutions, climate change, and economic upheaval as you and I."
Billionaires may have figured out how to cheat taxes, but they can't cheat death. Stross says that this produces the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the psychopathology of billionaires: despite being able to command any luxury or necessity for sale, at any price, they can't insulate themselves from objective reality. Not with all the luxury bunkers in the entire nation of New Zealand.
So: Musk (50) will probably never go to Mars. Even if a Mars colony can be established in a mere 20 years (a fantasy), he will likely not be able to make the journey at 70.
Putin is 70. He's got thyroid cancer (and, depending on who you believe, lots of other ailments). The only Russian leader in history that lived past 80 was Gorbachev, who only served for six years and largely escaped the premature aging effects of office.
Vast wealth does create enormous power, and that creates tangible outcomes, but it's easy to get lost in the hype. Musk didn't found Tesla. SpaceX merely represents a refinement in the long history of reusable spacecraft. Starlink is a reboot of Teledesic.
The most prominent outcomes of billionaire power are all negative: the Kochs may have literally ended human civilization by funding climate denial. Billionaires are unaccountable – that's why people dream of amassing billions, after all, to escape the petty objections of others – and unaccountable power produces catastrophes.
The fantasy of billionaire wealth is that, with enough money, you can just do what you want. If what you want requires other people, you can just pay them to do their part. If other people don't want you to have what you want, you can just pay them to go away, or pay someone else to take them away. It's a toddler's fantasy of manifesting your will.
The reality is that we live in a society and other people aren't non-player characters or mere obstacles. Unchecked power can be used for destruction, but it creates very little, besides more destructive power. Left unchecked, that power will destroy the very society that protects it.
Hey look at this (permalink)
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago The harder you look at the DMCA, the stupider it gets https://thelookingglass.blogspot.com/2002_05_05_archive.html
#20yrago John Gilmore gives Intel hell https://people.well.com/user/doctorow/gilmoreintel.txt
#15yrsago HOWTO explain quantum theory to a dog https://web.archive.org/web/20070518093722/https://scienceblogs.com/principles/2007/05/many_worlds_many_treats.php
#10yrsago Google search ranking is editorial in nature and qualifies for First Amendment protection https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/05/scholar-regulating-google-results-would-violate-first-amendment/
#5yrsago Jeff Sessions wants to bring back long mandatory prison sentences for minor drug offenses https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/sessions-reviews-justice-department-criminal-charging-policy/2017/05/09/74ffac3a-2e8d-11e7-8674-437ddb6e813e_story.html
#5yrsago Wrapping up the Crooked Timber seminar on Walkaway: Coase’s Spectre https://crookedtimber.org/2017/05/10/coases-spectre/
#5yrsago Most European millennials would join “a large-scale uprising” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/10/upri-m10.html
#5yrsago What’s inside a phone that’s designed to fit inside your rectum? https://hackaday.com/2017/05/11/tearing-down-the-boss-phone/
#5yrsago Trump plans ban on laptops in the cabins of flights from Europe https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-airlines-electronics-ban-idUSKBN1862QS
#5yrago Photographs from the archives of the Stasi, East Germany’s legendary, paranoid secret police https://www.wired.com/2017/05/adrian-fish-the-stasi-archives/
#5yrsago The 2020 Census is headed for a “train wreck” thanks to Trump’s mismanagementhttps://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/04/trumps-threat-to-the-2020-census-000404/
#5yrsago Apple’s control-freakery is making the Internet of Shit shittier https://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2017/5/6/15566630/homekit-internet-of-shit
#5yrsag HP’s stupid audio-driver logs every keystroke you make (and it has an API!) https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/keylogger-found-in-audio-driver-of-hp-laptops/
#5yrsago Crashed computer at Oslo pizzeria reveals covert facial recognition scheme https://twitter.com/GambleLee/status/862307447276544000
#1yrago Let's eat all the cicadas https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/11/uniboob/#eat-the-brood
#1yrago Cyclopedia Exotica: Aminder Dhaliwal's cryptid history of our one-eyed cousins https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/11/uniboob/#one-eye-and-three-dot-dot-dot
#1yrago LA traveling toward free public transit https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/10/comrade-ustr/#get-on-the-bus
#1yrago Biden's shift on vaccine patents is a Big Deal https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/10/comrade-ustr/#vaccine-diplomacy
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- Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022
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