March 6th, 2019

Talking about billionaires is necessarily weird.

One, the numbers involved are literally mind-boggling; you will never grasp what Jeff Bezos’s $131 billion pre-divorce (you were thinking with the wrong brain, there, Jeff, you adulterous ass) wealth means in any sort of real terms, particularly as it is composed of other numbers in the form of stock and speculations and projections.

Two, “billionaires” don’t appear in nature; it’s not an essential quality of anyone. The people making up Forbes’ 2019 “Billionaires: The Richest People in the World” list are the artificial construct of a particular political order that values certain skills and qualities, most-importantly being lucky/having lady fortuna smile on you (talk about wheeling and dealing), and rewards them with power—you can call it preference maximization or something if you want to pretend economics is distinguishable from politics—in the form of $$$$ with lots of zeros after it.

That people are billionaires, then, is contingent; they could not be. And that means it’s an open moral question—a matter of justice—whether anyone should be.

(A long parenthetical: Justice is also generally involved in questions about things that do appear in nature, too, but there we usually need revelation to help provide the alternative to observed reality. Revelation in the case of “the richest people in the world” has a little less to say about distributive justice in a social order {if you ignore the Torah completely, as many Christians are happy to do} than it does to say about the rich’s relationship to their Creator and His Kingdom—their final question of justice and mercy. “Woe to you!” is the Lord’s usual refrain. Camels had better be pretty limber if they want to have hope for their eternal souls. Most eyes of needles, I can’t even get a Camel cigarette through. Being a billionaire sound pretty bad for you.)

So as it’s a matter of justice it means people, namely you, readers, are going to disagree about the topic, namely billionaires, before we even start talking, before I make any specific observations about the Forbes list. Again, it’s weird.

Just a couple thoughts from me, though it’s a very interesting list to look at and I’m sure we all have plenty more than two.

A) There’s a lot of inheritance on this list. Almost all the women on it inherited their wealth. A lot of the men did, too. What you think of that depends on if you think billionaires as a class should exist in the first place, but it should probably also stress your assumptions either way. If you like billionaires because you think they’ve earned their place in society by helping other people maximize preferences too, then…what about when they haven’t, not really? Just asking questions. (For the record I think inheritances, in and of themselves, are good. "A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just," and all that.)

B) The Americans on here are pretty awful at charity. Philanthropy is what citizens of the world do, and there are a lot of citizens of the world among the United States’ wealthiest. Instead of loving their neighbor—hey Silicon Valley/San Francisco you maybe don’t have to step in human shit on the way to work if you build affordable housing and fund rehab programs in your backyard—they fund big top-heavy foundations doing D.C. and U.N. (those two well-known temples to effectiveness) stuff, and finance liberalism’s neo-colonial missionary work. Liberal Christianity still knows how to evangelize! All the world will be baptized into the gospel of better condoms. Anyway, there’s not a lot of “this is my city, my region, my state, and I’m going to make it tangibly better and more beautiful” going on here.

I’ll close with some passages out of John Ruskin’s Unto this Last, because of course I will:

But inequalities of wealth, justly established, benefit the nation in the course of their establishment; and, nobly used, aid it yet more by their existence. That is to say, among every active and well-governed people, the various strength of individuals, tested by full exertion and specially applied to various need, issues in unequal, but harmonious results, receiving reward or authority according to its class and service; while, in the inactive or ill-governed nation, the gradations of decay and the victories of treason work out also their own rugged system of subjection and success; and substitute, for the melodious inequalities of concurrent power, the iniquitous dominances and depressions of guilt and misfortune...


Many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are; they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, . . . or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as “illth,” causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay...


THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

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