This commentary is by Kevin Ellis, a communications consultant based in Montpelier. He is a member of the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.
It’s been a bad month for billionaires.
Elon Musk, the dog that caught the Twitter car, flailed about. First he spent too much. Then he fired the board. Then he fired the management team. Then he fired thousands of employees. Then he tried to rehire those he just fired. Then he let Trump back on. Wow.
Jeff Bezos pledged to give away all his money for building democracy and … something else. He is so vanilla it’s hard to remember. I just can’t believe plutocrats who pledge to give their money to a worthy cause. Bezos wants what a lot of billionaires want — adulation. They were not raised to care about the republic, the common good. Their intent is about creating more wealth via tax deduction, or moving money around, or buying shiny new toys like newspapers or sports teams.
Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey, school system with little impact. When he made his announcement, I could just feel the army of PR advisers helping him weather a reputation damaged by his obsessive drive to change the world without regard for the result. It has always been about breaking things for Zuckerberg. Nobody around him ever seems to tell him “No.”
When is someone going to tell these people they have to stop hurting the country?
Sam Bankman-Fried torched his own company. The 30-year-old founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX drives a crummy car, sleeps on the floor, pitches investors while playing video games and sits on stage with Bill Clinton in a T-shirt and shorts. He championed philanthropy, donated to political campaigns (several in Vermont) and promised to make the world a better place with his billions.
Then it all went bad.
Bankman-Fried promised to spend all his money on democracy, or vaccines, or … something, but recently we discovered it was always about something called “regulatory capture.’’ Put simply, it is an effort to buy off federal/state regulators and members of Congress to go easy on the crypto market. A fair amount of that money went to political action committees, which then donated it to two Vermont political campaigns: one by Peter Welch, soon to be Vermont’s newest senator, and the other to Becca Balint, soon to be Vermont’s lone member of the House.
Both Welch and Balint, after questions from the press, gave the money to charity.
Lastly, there is Trump, the pretend-billionaire who doesn’t even pretend to give back or care about the republic. His presidential announcement speech was half-baked, warmed-over repeats from four years ago. As usual, he blamed everybody but himself. It’s always someone else’s fault with Trump: every crime, every stolen state secret, every insurrection. At least he admitted that Biden is the duly elected president by blaming him for all that’s gone wrong.
Prediction re: Trump. It’s over.
The criticism of these billionaires — the laughter at Musk, the eye-rolling at Bezos, Zuckerberg and Bankman-Fried and the yawn at Trump’s campaign announcement — are encouraging. We might finally be pulling out of our two-decade-long obsession with rich, young start-up founders. Instead of seeing them as world saviors, we are beginning to understand what they really are: very smart people talented in creating stuff that doesn’t necessarily have value to our wider society.
Their inventions may disrupt legacy systems that are decrepit and inefficient (mail, food, communications) but they have also driven us apart by eliminating the spaces where we live life: the city park, the movie theater, the post office, the general store.
These folks and their wealth are stealing from Americans. And we know it. I hear it every day. We know this kind of wealth is wrong, especially when we see our kids’ crumbling schools or have to give up a job to care for our children.
Just the other day, my son said: “Being a billionaire should be against the law.’’
I tried to dispute this, but failed. I mumbled something about a free society and how market capitalism has lifted people out of poverty. But it was half-hearted.
Billionaires should not be illegal. But they are a mistake, a failure of our society to properly prioritize what is important. And that problem comes down to the billionaires having most of the money.
We need to divert more of our wealth toward what matters. Schools, libraries, arts, poetry, the proper use of technology, parks, mental health, child care, energy transformation: These are the areas where we should direct our money, not toward making Jeff Bezos another billion.
So how do we change this?
First our government needs to do its job. The American government exists to level the playing field. We have a Federal Trade Commission to ensure Bezos and Zuckerberg conduct themselves fairly within the bounds of what is healthy for markets. We have a Justice Department that can sue these companies to break them up and distribute their power among new entrants with new founders. And we have an Internal Revenue Service that can make sure the proper amount of taxes are collected from these enterprises so that we can operate a civil society.
Most importantly, we have Congress, whose very job is to create a taxing system that allows no or fewer billionaires while distributing that wealth to those who need it and those who earned it.
In theory, it should all work. But the billionaires understand the system and know how to rig it in their favor. They hire immense teams of lobbyists to force our government to do their bidding. These billionaires have captured our government through campaign contributions. Bankman-Fried is just one example. And as long as our politicians are doing the bidding of those billionaires, nothing will change.
A new Congress is being seated in January. Breaking the billionaires’ influence over their careers and our daily lives should be Priority No. 1.