What billionaires actually do

They wreck people’s lives. One of them, Joe Ricketts, has written a memoir in which he is actually proud of his crimes. He made his fortune exploiting deregulation of financial markets, and then he dedicated his retirement to union-busting and tearing down journalism because it wasn’t “profitable” to him.

On November 2, 2017, many journalists witnessed an especially egregious version of the same scene, when Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, abruptly laid off the entire staff of Gothamist and DNAinfo, two networks of local news websites he had recently merged. He also shuttered both networks, replacing tens of thousands of articles with a letter justifying his decision. “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” he wrote. “And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”

Lies, lies, lies. Read the whole article to get the full picture: he shut it down because the journalists, who were paid a pittance especially compared to the billions he was squatting on, tried to unionize to get better working conditions and fair pay.

But even worse, that’s an indictment of short-sighted capitalism, which sees everything as a business that must make a profit. Journalism has no purpose other than to make a profit…and not a profit for the journalist, but for the fat cat who owns the newspaper. I am in a “business”, education, which is not done for some crass quantity of dollars, but to make our citizens better informed, better able to deal with the world, better people, just as journalism should be, and I’m proud of that. But you tell people like this Ricketts asshole that you’re not into skimming cash from the pockets of people who need it, but in providing a service in expectation of nothing more than reasonable compensation and a living wage, and they see you as a sucker and your work as meaningless. All they can see is dollar signs, and professions like journalism and education don’t light up their eyes.

Sadly, Ricketts will never realize what a leech he is. He has adopted an American myth as his own.

The story Ricketts tells about himself is just the latest riff on a familiar American fable, in which an unremarkable person — ideally, a white guy from Nebraska or thereabouts — achieves wealth and success by working hard, never complaining, and seizing opportunities. Even assuming this story is true as far as Ricketts is concerned, it ignores the millions of people who tried to follow the same path and failed, and by extension, the absurd randomness that dictates that a guy like Ricketts should be able to sabotage dozens of careers on a mean-spirited whim. To whatever limited extent Ricketts is representative of his upwardly mobile generation, the source of his prosperity — the deregulation of capital since the 1970s — has almost completely destroyed the prospect of upward mobility for the generations that follow. Of course, none of the Ricketts kids will have to worry about that.

The worship of billionaires has become our shittiest religion.

Every billionaire is thus more than a simple failure of policy. Every billionaire is evidence of a basic glitch in the fabric of the moral universe: their lives, and acts, ring out with the gospel that only what we call evil will be rewarded — that the selfish get to live as angels, and all good people will be damned. Challenging capitalism also means challenging its religion.

Every time I criticize these parasites, whether it’s Bezos, or Musk, or Gates, or Ricketts, I know people will crawl out of the woodwork to complain that I shouldn’t say that, because they’ve all earned their wealth, and if we remove the incentives to suck up huge amounts of money, how will we get our flying cars or our Mars colony or convenient ATMs with big fees? Don’t care. Wake up.


  1. says

    “Every billionaire is evidence of a basic glitch in the fabric of the moral universe”
    That’s good, I’m going to use that one. It makes me think of how Paula White is in the White House right now blasting her “Prosperity Gospel” into anyone who’s empty broken brain (Trump) is listening.

  2. stwriley says

    Defoe had it right about the wealthy in general and creatures like Ricketts in particular all the way back in 1722. When he wrote Moll Flanders he had her refer to bankers as “living like a louse on the back of a sheep.” A perfect description of Ricketts, who has done nothing other than suck up other people’s earnings like a parasite.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    Challenging capitalism also means challenging its religion.

    And challenging capitalism’s religion means countering the hyper-competitive, Social Darwinism of American culture that divides people into “winners” who deserve their luxury because somehow “earned” it and “losers” who deserve their penury because they must have been lazy, immoral, or otherwise “unworthy” of anything better. That’s not easy to do. Almost every time anyone has suggested that maybe we ought to make our culture a little less cutthroat, they are usually shouted down by knuckle-draggers who scream about the infantilizing effects of “giving every kid a trophy.”

  4. PaulBC says

    Maximizing shareholder value is supposed to stand as a measurable proxy for the total utility of corporations, as in Adam Smith’s adage “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

    What has happened in the meantime is that shareholder value itself has been turned into a religion, so that a modern MBA “baker” is primarily interested in figuring out how to get people to pay for cakes while delivering as few as possible. And if they turn around and say “I could get even richer, but I’m supposed to be providing cakes and a living wage to my employees”, they are declared traitors to capitalism.

    Thus you get psychos like Kevin Crissey of American Airlines say wage increases are “frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.” The primacy of the shareholder is the sacred cow of capitalism that needs to be destroyed before capitalism destroys everything else.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ PaulBC

    “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

    And as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, extending this to incentivizing your surgeon to cut off your leg might not be the best of ideas.

    Those who truly worship Capitalism never seem to grasp this concept.

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    And if they turn around and say “I could get even richer, but I’m supposed to be providing cakes and a living wage to my employees”, they are declared traitors to capitalism.

    Acquiring wealth, whether for the owner or investor, is the goal. Needing to create actually goods and services and having factories, machines, and employees is a necessary evil to get that wealth. If only they didn’t have to deal with the actual “capital” party of capitalism, they’d be even richer!

  7. Stuart Smith says

    I always find the capitalist argument about removing incentives to be extra-stupid. Like, 80% of people want flying cars, but because they are stuck in a capitalist system, they are unable to work to bring about that dream because they are too busy doing pointless bullshit work to line the pockets of a billionaire. People don’t need a financial incentive to do science, or create art, or explore the world, or any of that stuff. They need a financial incentive to go work at MacDonalds when they really WANT to be doing that other stuff instead.

  8. says

    Once you’ve accumulated enough wealth, it’s inevitable that the wealthy person will turn it to politics, if only to defend their wealth. In that manner, wealth accumulation is a moral issue as well as being anti-democratic.

    As Epicurus says:

    The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.

    Epicurus sees wealth as an error on the part of the accumulator. They desire wealth and power in order to protect and take care of themselves, but once they get a certain amount they associate their wealth with themselves (“my money” etc) to the point where “defending oneself” includes “defending one’s wealth.” That begins a feedback loop: you need more money to protect your money, which means you need even more money to protect that, etc.

  9. says

    The worshipping of billionaires is even more ridiculous when you consider that Elizabeth Holmes was a billionaire essentially based on rich people calling her a billionaire- her company was vaporware, but people invested in it so it must be valuable.

  10. PaulBC says


    The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.

    What, you mean I don’t have a natural need for a super yacht? Seriously, I am feeling the need. (I could probably even explain why using very scientific results from evolutionary psychology.)

    (Though in my case, it’s probably not a super yacht, but if I started acquiring Google-size data centers for personal use, I don’t think there would be a point where I decided I had “enough” computing power. There is always an even longer combinatorial search to run.)

  11. unclefrogy says

    People don’t need a financial incentive to do science, or create art, or explore the world, or any of that stuff. They need a financial incentive to go work at MacDonalds when they really WANT to be doing that other stuff instead.

    if you ain’t got money you don’t live indoors nor eat regular nor much of anything else and we will pay you almost enough.
    that is how the incentives work
    uncle frogy

  12. says

    “Billionaires are poison in the body politic, and we need an antivenin.”
    Is PZ a closeted fascist? If you acknowledge most billionaires are Jews, this sounds like a Hitler quote! Might want to cool it down a bit PZ, aim to be just a bit more PC.

  13. PaulBC says

    @13 Uh, seriously. WTF? Am I missing some ironic context or are you trolling?

    There are about 2000 billionaires in the world. I don’t have an ethnicity breakdown, but you can make some guesses working it out by nation. https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-with-the-most-billionaires-2019-5

    There are 705 in the US. After that, 285 in China. And there is a longer tail that follows. Most nations aren’t as ethnically diverse as the US, and even the US has plenty of white Christian billionaires. Also go to the Forbes list of richest people in the world to see that your claim is ludicrous even restricted to the very top.

  14. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Greg Norman@13,
    Good fricking imaginary gods, why on Earth would you assume that the majority of the planet’s billionaires were Jewish? Sounds like somebody’s been hanging around Breitbart a wee bit too much.

  15. rrutis1 says

    #13 How about we acknowledge that you are either a moron making stupid claims or an @sshole trolling for kicks?

  16. woodsong says

    George Norman @13, who are you quoting? The only occurrence of the word “poison” in this post is in your own comment, and it doesn’t occur at all in either of the two posts PZ linked.

    Where did you come up with that, and why are you using it to accuse PZ of being fascist??

  17. says

    Joe Ricketts is a Roman Catholic who attended a Jesuit university.
    If you google it, the most cited number for the percentage of Jewish billionaires is 11.6%.

  18. says

    All you need to know about Ricketts (not, sad to say, rickettsia), and for that matter his family, is that he applied this hypercapitalist way of thinking to determine that the Chicago Cubs represented a good investment opportunity.

    The Chicago Cubs. In 2009.

  19. Akira MacKenzie says

    George Norman @ 13

    I’m sorry, but who is acknowledging that ” most billionaires are Jews?” You’re the only one bringing it up.

  20. woodsong says

    Even if anyone here did “acknowledge most billionaires are Jews”, being a billionaire is a condition that can be easily changed at will. Being Jewish is much more difficult to get away from (and a much less objectionable class to belong to).

  21. says

    Ok, “most” is incorrect. The percent of Jewish billionaires being somewhere between 12% and 35% and yet they make up only 2% of the population. That along with calling them “poison” that need “antivemon” on the Facebook link, makes me think of the holocaust, which was primarily done out of jealousy. Being jealous of the extreme wealthy is not a good path to go down. It’s been done before and things haven’t turned out well.

  22. says

    @George Norman:

    How the fuck did you determine that PZ is jealous of billionaires and not someone who genuinely believes that having any billionaires, any at all, is deleterious economically and politically and that therefore public policy should discourage the concentration of obscene amounts of wealth?

    BTW: As it happens, arabs are overrepresented among billionaires compared to global population, as are members of European royal families. I don’t think that PZ is dangerously parroting Trump or Robespierre and you certainly didn’t express any concern on that score. Why then should I believe that PZ is dangerously parroting Hitler?

  23. PaulBC says

    @22 Give it up, man. You can’t pivot from “most” to “statistically overrepresented.” You are the one who made the leap to “Jews”, not PZ.

  24. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 22

    Right, how horrible it is to envy a tiny silver of humanity for whom money is no object while a substantially larger group of people, despite their best efforts, struggle to make ends meet.

    Yes, my heart sure does bleed for all those French aristos who got marched to the guillotine and poor Czar Nicholas and his family. How terrible.

  25. says

    “I am in a “business”, education, which is not done for some crass quantity of dollars, but to make our citizens better informed, better able to deal with the world, better people…”
    Sadly not any more. With the commercialisation and corporatisation of education has come obscene levels of fees, crippling student debt and a plethora of shady colleges and charter schools offering suspect qualifications, many from fake campuses. Trump University was only the tip of a very large iceberg.

  26. PaulBC says

    Apropos of nothing really, except it came up while succumbing to poor taste and looking up the ethnicity of billionaires.

    I find it amusing that if Jeff Bezos’ mother hadn’t remarried, he’d be Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen, the name that presumably graces his birth certificate. And if he dropped the Lex Luthor styling, he’d probably fit right in with the Thurston Howells of the world. Hey, he knows how to cultivate mystique, I’ll give him that. But in some alternate universe, JP Jorgensen is leading some very different if equally blessed existence.

    (Note: from what I clean, Bezos was not born to a lot of money, and he is a smart guy who graduated with excellent grades from Princeton. However, it’s not exactly a rags to riches story.)

  27. microraptor says

    Troll who fails at logic @13 & 22: What’s your next trick going to be, claiming that PZ is a closet misandrist because billionaires are disproportionately men? Billionaires are such a small portion of the general population that they don’t follow population averages. Plus, you’re just repeating a current right-wing meme trying to once again link Jewish people with money, which would make you the anti-Semitic one here.

  28. wereatheist says

    @George Norman:
    If I’m not terribly mistaken, ‘Aryan’, i.e. indo-european persons are extremely over-represented within the world’s billionairs.
    Should we start gassing ‘Aryans’ ?

  29. PaulBC says

    I’d like to add that I do not envy billionaires. I live in Silicon Valley, and I’m not allergic to money by any means. I have some level of “sporting” envy for those who earned their FU money and never need to work again on anything they don’t feel like working on. (I have a friend who, as far as I know, spends all of his time traveling to windsurf–or maybe kite surf–I don’t envy him for that and don’t have that kind of hobby; I don’t know if he could do that any put kids through college, but that’s a pretty nice life for him, and he partly earned it, partly won it in the lottery that is the tech economy).

    But a billionaire? A billionaire is literally living proof of the failure of capitalism. We can think of an economy as a massive plumbing system designed to distribute “utility” in the abstract for the good of human beings. Not through “benevolence” but through appropriate incentives, I do some work for you. You do some work for me. It gets distributed around for the benefit of humanity, right? Through all these lovely plumbing pipes of the free market. A billionaire is the leaky basement of capitalism. All that “utility” started pouring into a single place to someone who obvious already had enough and did not need any more. A billionaire actually has to work pretty hard to stop this ever-increasing flood of money, and of course, most of them have no desire to do so.

    Look, I am actually sympathetic to the idea that markets do some good. I think economics is a pretty interesting subject, though it is based on some silly assumptions about human behavior. I’m a huge fan of Paul Krugman. I read at least one volume of Adam Smith. I think auctions are cool. I think game theory is cool. Someone like me would want markets to work, and the presence of the superrich is such an obvious refutation of the idea that markets work that you have to be willfully ignorant not to see them as an offense against every supposed free market principle you were propagandized to believe.

  30. KG says

    the holocaust, which was primarily done out of jealousy – George Norman@22

    Oh, right, that’s why Roma and Sinti people (commonly referred to as “Gypsies”, which some but not all members of those groups find offensive) were singled out alongside Jews for extermination. And of course people with disabilites, who were the first group so targeted – how they must have been envied!

    Seriously, whoever told you that is nearly as stupid as you are (I’m being perhaps unduly kind in suggesting that what’s wrong with you is simply stupidity). It’s another antisemitic myth (like “most billionaires are Jews”), being a version of: “Well the Jews must have done something to be so hated”.

  31. says

    I read a good article recently: “What is a billionaire?” I thought this was a good point:

    A Billionaire Is Someone Who Runs a Very Important Tollbooth

    Most people think a billionaire is someone with a lot of money, a sort of Scrooge McDuck who goes swimming in a pool of gold coins. And why wouldn’t we? The name billionaire has the word billion contained within it, so clearly it means having a net worth of at least ten figures. And in a sense, that is technically true. But if you look at the top ranks of the Bloomberg billionaire index, you’ll notice that nearly all of the leaders are people who own a corporation with substantial amounts of market power in one or more markets.

    Billionaires use market power to extract revenue the way that a tollbooth operator does. If you want to drive on a road, you have to pay for the privilege. It costs the tollbooth operator nothing, he/she just has a strategic chokepoint for extraction. Billionaire Warren Buffett, for instance, has such a ‘tollbooth’ strategy for investing, though he uses the term ‘moat’ because it sounds charming and quirky rather than rapacious.

    Put another way, the Bloomberg billionaire index isn’t a list of the most important Scrooge McDuck’s, it’s a list of the biggest tollbooth operators in the world.

  32. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Greg Norman
    I’m gonna go way out on a limb and guess that you never took a logic course. Amirite!

  33. Andries Spies says

    Fact is we will never get to Mars because it will be to “expensive”, that is we would first have to pay these leeches of to get somewhere. And the more society pays them, to fatter they become until like they like a real parasite in nature bud off another “business” to leach even more from society.

  34. says

    @23, Look up the word “jealous.” I’m talking about PZ’s facebook link post title to this. It is Hitleresque, not directly supporting Hitler.
    @25, I’m sure you feel the same about all the rich Jews is Germany in the 40’s.
    @29, Anti-white sentiment isn’t even hidden. Try going to any college lecture or turning on your television for a few minutes. Also, no, we shouldn’t, that’s my point.
    @30 How is this different than what people said about Jewish bankers in the 40’s?

  35. kurt1 says

    George why are you trying to erase left jewish voices who have a rich tradition of criticising capital by claiming said critique is anti-semitic?