Are the rich good for anything at all?

It used to be considered that the wealthy had some use because they would benefit society via philanthropy by supporting the arts, funding libraries, cultural centers, charities, and so on. It was a kind of trickle down mentality, that they would use some of their surplus wealth to benefit the broader community, if not out of a sense of altruism, at least to head off potential resentment and anger.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes in a review of a book by Italian historian Guido Alfani that the new billionaire class does not have the social function that they were once considered to have .and are now increasingly becoming seen as a menace as inequality increases.

In the past generation, the ranks of the super-rich have grown dramatically. Between 1990 and 2020, the number of billionaires in the U.S. increased ninefold. In China, the growth of the super-wealthy has been more explosive still: in a single year, between 2020 and 2021, that country’s billionaire count grew by sixty per cent. Private fortunes of this scale are fundamentally transnational and less moored to individual nations that might make demands of them.

Progressives, for much of the past century, have seen the problem of wealth through the lens of redistribution: what they want of the rich is that they pay their fair share. Taxes “are the proper way (institutionally and culturally) for the rich to contribute to society,” Alfani concludes. “Not giving, but taxes.” This can seem a little quaint and unadventurous. But, in this jittery, politically tenuous post-pandemic period, the sentiment has weakened. Throughout the pandemic, at a time when public resources were under strain, and aggressive emergency aid for the poor made for an immediate reduction to inequality, no advanced economy (with the exception of Spain) meaningfully raised taxes on the rich.

As revelations of inequality have kept a spotlight on the wealthy, some of them, notably the heiress and philanthropist Abigail Disney, have argued for greater public giving. “It’s taxes or pitchforks,” a worried coalition wrote in an open letter released as the World Economic Forum convened in Davos in 2022. Those are the liberals; the more audible reaction has been a bristling insistence that the super-rich deserve their outsized fortune.

Critics of the ultra-wealthy have tended to describe them with analogies from the animal kingdom—pigs at a trough, vampire squid. Alfani offers a gentler comparison. “They are like the pearl in the oyster: shiny indeed, and produced by the living body of the oyster, but at the same time somewhat extraneous to the organism,” he writes. The question that animates his book also haunts our politics: What, exactly, do we want the rich to do, and how do we want them to be?

When ordinary people envisage what they would do if they suddenly became rich, say by winning a lottery or inheriting a fortune, their dreams usually takes the form of giving up their jobs and living a life of idleness, where they travel to exotic places and spend money of luxury goods, and filling their time with various forms of recreational activities. This is the image one gets from stories of British aristocracy of the early twentieth century and before, who lived on the interest generated by their wealth. Life seemed to consist of people living in country estates or city homes waited upon by servants and passing the time in recreational activities and going to parties. This is the life depicted by many of the leading characters in the TV series Bridgerton or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse such as Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth. They did not seem to do anything that we would consider actual work, except for a bit of time monitoring their portfolios or checking on the running of their estates.

I occasionally read of young people nowadays say that their goal is to accumulate enough money that they can retire by the age of of forty. Many of them see the tech sector as the vehicle to achieve this goal, by creating something that is attractive enough to be bought by the big tech conglomerates for a huge sum. They are willing to work very hard to try and create it, the payoff being that they can then lead a life of idleness. But an opposing image of the ‘idle rich’ is being deliberately propagated nowadays by the rich themselves.

Around the start of the twenty-first century, the Oxford sociologist Jonathan Gershuny noticed a change in the way the privileged behaved: the leisure class that the economist Thorstein Veblen had described during the Gilded Age seemed no longer to exist. The farther up people were on the income ladder, the harder they worked. “Busyness,” Gershuny concluded, was “the badge of honor for the new superordinate working class.” These days, even the highest-profile billionaires tend to be a little grim-faced. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos—they practice judo throws, but do they ever smile? Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the minting of a new mega-billionaire, the eighty-six-year-old Texas wildcatter Autry Stephens, who, in February, sold his company and its meticulously assembled Permian drilling rights for twenty-six billion dollars. Stephens had driven to his office every day for forty-five years, lately in an old Toyota Land Cruiser. Was he looking forward to enjoying his extraordinary gains? Not really—he would miss the grind. “There is certainly some sadness on my part,” Stephens said.

Why work this hard? Doesn’t a life of ease beckon? Aren’t there polo ponies to raise? The traditional rationale is to provide comforts to those you love. “Familia, id est substantia,” the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century southern-European jurists argued—in other words, the family is the patrimony. But, at Stephens’s level, the logic dissolves. No family needs the twenty-sixth billion. In the early twentieth century, the Texas oil tycoon Haroldson L. Hunt, then one of the richest men in the world, remarked that, “for practical purposes, someone who has $200,000 a year is as well off as I am.” As he explained, “Money’s just a way of keeping score. It’s the game that matters.”

$200,000 in (say) 1924 would be equivalent to about $3.6 million today when adjusted for inflation.

Of course, keeping score is one thing. These ultra-wealthy also want to let everyone else among their peers know what the score is. Having assets in stocks does not do it. They thus they have to find ways to flaunt it by buying ever-larger yachts, planes, and homes and thus we have the current competition to display ostentatious wealth. But Wallace-Wells, suggests that the wealthy also want to give the impression to the ,em>hoi polloi that they deserve all this because they work hard and not because for many of them, the main source of their wealth is inheritance-based and not earned, and thus more likely to breed resentment. They seek to give the impression that they are not like the idle rich of the past but deserve what they have.


  1. cartomancer says

    The problem with this argument, of course, is that it is completely impossible to work so hard that you deserve the kind of money these billionaire parasites get.

    Let us assume that our billionaire works literally all the time. 24 hours per day, seven days per week. No time off to sleep, eat or anything else. That makes 168 hours of work per week. Let us then assume that an average worker works for 42 hours per week (high for Europe, low for the US).

    If how hard one works is the metric for how much recompense one deserves, the billionaire should get AT MOST four times as much as the average worker. A more realistic measure would be about the same as the average worker, because they don’t really work any harder at all.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    If you look at countries where the oligarchy dominates society and the middle class and workers are marginalised, it is generally not nice to live there.
    I have even heard of a country where the supreme court serves the interests of the oligarchs and the health insurance is a for-profit scam making being sick potentially ruinous. Fancy that.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Assumes every worker’s worth is equal. Which is so obviously bollocks it makes me suspect you’ve never had a job.

    I mean… I can run for two hours. But I can’t run as far as kelvin kiptum could in that time… Not even half as far.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    “Are the rich good for anything at all?”
    To quote shoe salesman Al Bundy, that is good buzzard fodder.

  5. steve oberski says

    They are like the pearl in the oyster …

    Especially apt metaphor given that “pearls are formed when an irritant, such as a food particle or a parasite, slips between the shells of an oyster or other mollusk and lodges into its mantle”.

  6. cartomancer says

    sonofrojblake, #3

    If you take a look at what I said, I began my concluding remark with a conditional: “IF how hard one works is the metric for how much recompense one deserves..”. I am well aware that this is not how we tend to do things, but it is the rationale that Mano was suggesting lies behind this particular phenomenon of the billionaire parasite trying to look busy in public.

    There are plenty of possible factors one could take into account when determining what to pay people. Under our sclerotic capitalist system the usual one is “how little can I get away with”.

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