The Moral Atrocity of the Billionaire
David R. Weiss – October 30, 2021
NOTE: In retrospect the tone of this piece is a bit overly strong at times, a bit lacking in nuance. But I’m leaving it as is, because quite a few folks read it in this form already. Plus, quite honestly, I was rightfully angry as I wrote. Most of us—myself included—cannot fathom the sheer enormity of a billion dollars. And, as Flannery O’Connor once said, “When you’re speaking to those unfamiliar with your world, you need to write in ways that shout.” This isn’t so much a personal attack on Elon Musk as it’s an indictment of the very notion of the billionaire. He’s simply the poster child of billionaires right now.
Elon Musk is worried that the government might try to tax his hoarded billions of wealth. Lucky for him, Senator Joe Manchin saved his day, calling the idea of taxing billionaires divisive, arguing that, just like everyone else they contribute to society, creating jobs, investing money, and even giving to charity. Manchin says, “It’s time that we all pull together and row together.”
I beg to differ. Billionaires aren’t pulling together or rowing together at all. Whatever they “give back” to society cannot begin to compensate for the way their obscene wealth distorts the fabric of human community and undermines the stability of the planet.
Let me say this softly, lest it seem like I’m screaming: by any possible measure of reference on this finite planet, billionaires have no right to exist. At all. (Oops, did I raise my voice there?) I’m serious. Billionaires are worse than the moral equivalent of serial killers because they are inescapably guilty of mass murder … and do so, not only with impunity, but with the grotesquely mistaken envy of others. The greed necessary to become a billionaire can only be described as a pathologically insatiable desire for “more” on a planet where finitude dictates that such a level of “more” will always and inevitably mean such a degree of “less” elsewhere causing suffering and death for other persons and the planet. You cannot hoard that much wealth except by reducing others to poverty.
By now you are maybe incredulous, even distraught at my tone. True, I rarely write such sharp words. But trust me, you have NO IDEA how much a billion dollars is—especially when held by one person.
Imagine YOU have a billion dollars—and no further income. So you have to spend this money carefully because it’s not getting replenished. Let’s suppose, as the ink is drying on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that you start spending $10,000 each day. Let me say that again: $10,000. Each and every day. 365.25 days a year (to account for leap years). From 1776 to 2021. 245 years. You’ll STILL have slightly over $100 MILLION in the bank. After spending $3,652,500 per year. For 245 years. That’s obscene wealth.
There are over 2000 billionaires in the world, about 630 of them in the U.S. Given that #400 on Forbes list of the 400 richest persons in the U.S. has a net worth of $2.9 billion, those 400 persons could’ve started dropping $10,000 a day around the time Columbus set sail for these parts, and every one of them would still have ALMOST A BILLION DOLLARS LEFT TODAY. They could spend $3,652,500 per year for 529 years and STILL have $967,827,500 in the bank. That’s a moral atrocity.
Elon Musk. Unhappy someone suggested taxing his billions. Earlier this week in one day his net worth jumped by $25 billion. That single day gain would let him spend $10,000 a day every day since Jesus’ birth (roughly 4 BCE)—that 365.25 days per year for 2025 years, or 739,631 days. At that pace, he’d have spent $7.4 billion, leaving him with $17.6 billion still burning a hole in his pocket. And leaving him, after two-thousand YEARS of living a millionaire lifestyle still at #40 on the Forbes list. Jesus Christ!! That’s a moral atrocity.
But that one day earning merely added to his already insanely obscene wealth, estimated by Forbes at $292 billion as of today. Elon could’ve started spending $10,000 each day, $3,652,500 each and every year … 26,000 YEARS AGO … and his net worth would STILL BE MORE THAN JEFF BEZOS’ CURRENT NET WORTH OF $195 BILLION. This is the guy tweeting his disdain that anyone would dare to tax his billions. This is beyond moral atrocity; it’s pathological evil.
And this on a planet where other people die for lack of food and water and housing and healthcare. Where the planet itself groans because of insatiable appetites. The supper wealthy—which is my book starts well shy of billionaire status—are stripping untold multitudes of their lives. Billionaires (and I’d add in multi-millionaires) are quietly engaged in mass killing. There is NO WAY on a finite planet to accumulate that degree of wealth without depriving others of the very means of life itself.
On some level, you COULD argue that we ought to kill the rich as an act of self-defense. The reality IS that dire. Nonetheless, that’s NOT my argument. I am NOT advocating stripping the wealthy of their lives. I am merely advocating that we strip them of their wealth. We should provide multiple opportunities for redistributing such wealth as fast as it accumulates via taxation, charitable giving, and community investment.
I don’t imagine that government will go after the super-wealthy through rigorous taxation anytime soon. Senator Wyden’s “billionaire tax” would’ve raised $345 billion in taxes from just the 20 richest Americans—without even denting their billionaire status. But with 278,000 folks in his home state of West Virginia live in poverty—including 100,000 kids facing daily food insecurity, Joe Manchin is worried that it’s somehow divisive if we “target” taxes at the billionaire class.
For the most part, what passes for “legitimate” government today serves primarily to “legitimate” the preservation of obscene wealth to the deep harm of the common good. If we truly grasped the obscenity of a single individual holding $1 billion dollars (let alone $100 or $200 billion), either the citizenry would demand that government takes immediate steps to reclaim the stolen goods of the community … or mob violence against the wealthy would ensue.
I don’t want a penny of Elon Musk’s wealth. But with 13 million children in the U.S. living in food insecurity, when I holler, “Why aren’t we taxing the hell out of billionaires?!” I’m asking for a friend. Actually, 13 million of them.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.