For $25, citizens of the US can purchase a coffee mug bearing the slogan “BILLIONAIRE TEARS”. It is sold not from a left-leaning Etsy store, but the campaign website of Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. Questionable serving suggestion of “a warm, slightly salty beverage of your choice” aside, the mug is one of the website’s best selling items – it has even spawned copycat versions. Its popularity reflects a notable shift in public attitudes towards billionaires in recent months. Bill Gates was widely criticised when he objected to Warren’s proposed 3% wealth tax by saying, “When you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math over what I have leftover.” He deliberately misled with this statement, as a generous interpretation would have it that he was referring to the $100 billion in tax he would likely pay after 30 years of Warren’s taxation. But his wealth would also grow during those 30 years, so he needn’t worry about getting leftovers. Billionaires evade scrutiny by relying on many people’s poor arithmetic ability. Certainly, in my maths-averse case, I would have incorrectly assumed that Bill Gates being required to pay $100 billion in tax was a likely outcome from his statement – his hyperbole demonstrates a duplicity. He is aware of his high-profile status as the world’s second-richest person, and he knows that his comments may harm Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. Exercising influence gained from wealth is plutocracy, and a wealthy person deserves power no more than any other unelected individual. All this from the man believed to be one of the “best” billionaires due to his philanthropy and promotion of the Giving Pledge that encourages billionaires to donate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Some billionaires are less compassionate. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, donated $98.5m to causes against homelessness within the past month. But his company Amazon paid $0 in federal taxes in 2018, whilst turning a profit of over $11bn. Bezos is also known to subject his Amazon employees to harsh, low-cost working conditions resulting in several deaths. To give a comparison, Donald Trump is worth about $3bn.
Arguments in favour of the existence of billionaires are generally economic. Countries with more billionaires tend to have more large, successful companies. This, in turn, means that these countries are more economically healthy. However, correlation does not imply causation. It is questionable whether in this age economic success is the true measure of a successful country. New Zealand has incorporated the Happiness Index metric into its budgeting strategy, viewing GDP alone as an outdated means of determining the welfare of its citizens. It’s time that more countries adopted New Zealand’s approach, for the sake of the planet and the people on it; infinite economic growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources, so what are we striving for? A ban on billionaires would provide less incentive for companies to grow, because of the taxes they would incur. This would also be beneficial in preventing the overwhelming influence companies like Amazon and Facebook now wield.