Knowing an obscenity when we see it

The Sunday Telegraph of London reported in early February that Bill Gates had commissioned the world’s first hydrogen-powered superyacht, for the bargain price of $544 million. The paper explained that “the custom build is based on blueprints for the 112-metre design ‘Aqua’ publicised last year at the Monaco Yacht Show by the Dutch marine architects Sinot to draw “environmentally sensitive billionaires.” It said the plans took ‘inspiration from the lifestyle of a discerning, forward-looking owner.’” 

It may be comforting to know that a $544 million yacht was going to an environmentally sensitive  and forward-looking billionaire, but maybe Mr. Gates, with an estimated net worth of $102 billion as of last month, which makes him the second richest man in the world, may just have wanted to show that “my yacht is bigger than your yacht” to the only man richer than he. That would be Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is estimated at $137 billion, even after he had to part with $38 billion for the biggest ever divorce settlement, which allowed him to trade his middle-aged wife for a much younger model. One month earlier, he also had purchased a brand new super-yacht said to be worth approximately $400 million. If that seems excessive, consider that Bezos earns $8,961,187 per hour, or roughly 315 times Amazon’s $28,466 median annual worker pay, according to Business Insider. 

Put this sum in another perspective: an Amazon worker earning the $15 average wage paid by Mr. Bezos would need to work about 597,412 hours, or 24 hours a day for about 68 years, just to earn what Bezos earns in one hour.

The only two centabillionaires in the world seem to be competing also in the purchase of expensive real estate. Bezos recently spent $165 million on a new Beverly Hills mansion, smashing the previous record for the most expensive home ever sold in California, which had been bought by a son of Rupert Murdoch. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and his wife Belinda purchased a $43 million 5,800-square-foot home in Del Mar, California, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. I hope they have enough room for the two of them and their three children.

Bezos recently spent $165 million on a new Beverly Hills mansion.

And these properties are only part of the real estate portfolio owned by these two moguls. Did I mention Bill Gates’ luxury car collection or Jeff Bezos’ $65-million Gulfstream G650ER private jet?

Some will not question a system that produces such fabulously wealthy individuals in a country where millions of children go to bed hungry, tens of millions lack medical insurance, untold numbers are homeless, there is resistance to increasing the minimum wage to the miserly sum of $15 an hour, and tens of thousands have died because of the coronavirus. But it reminds me of  Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in the 1964 Supreme Court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, where he delivered what has become the famous line related to the identification of “hard-core” pornography: the “I know it when I see it” statement. The gross disparity in wealth in our society is an infinitely bigger obscenity in plain view.

Some will justify such fabulous wealth with the argument that billionaires are needed as the “job creators” in our society. Others will argue that it’s not the role of government to provide a safety net to the people–that these billionaires can take care of the least fortunate through their charitable efforts. Also, some claim the rich in general got their riches because they took risks, were smarter than others, worked harder, or persisted more, so they deserve what they have. The others were deficient in some way and don’t deserve anything. Therefore, merely having wealth makes one superior. 

Except that billionaires, as all other businessmen, don’t set out to “create jobs.” No one does. And no one person actually creates them. We as a society create them, and if businessmen could, they would automate their production totally, leaving out humans altogether. Scientists are, in fact, working on this plan of leaving us out. In the meantime, the “job creators” actually try to cut jobs actively, even hiring experts on productivity to squeeze more out of their employees. When the economy goes south, these “job creators” have no trouble immediately laying off workers if they can sustain their profits. Making matters worse, the remaining employees are then asked to do more for the same or a lower salary. So, let’s not keep falling for this “job creators” frame.

Even all the smarts, the effort, the capability to be persistent, are a gift from society. Humanity produced a man and a woman to bring you to the world, and, if you were lucky, to raise you, to help you, to give you advice. It was bllind luck, not anything you did or can claim credit for, that you were born in this century and in the right country, and received the nurturing and education you needed. If you had been born in the Middle Ages, or in Afghanistan, your destiny would have been very different. It was your luck that you happen to have a particular skin color. It was your luck whether you were born male or female. It was even your luck that you had a healthy brain and the opportunity to develop it with good nutrition and stimulation. It was your luck whether your parents left you a substantial inheritance or left you nothing. It may have been your luck that your daddy graduated from a prestigious university, or that he gave it a substantial gift, so you could get admitted under a legacy program even though your own grades were not so good. Even more importantly, it was your luck that society had the infrastructure, technology, and knowledge base in place at the right moment to sustain the implementation of your brilliant ideas. So, let’s not keep falling for the myths of individual merit. You and your wealth are simply the result of myriad conditions and circumstances.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” – Jesus Christ

So you were lucky and got rich. Are you then generous with your charitable contributions? Some billionaires are generous, but the majority are incredibly chintzy. Gates and his wife, Melinda, admit it’s unfair they’re so rich and powerful. Instead of spending billions on themselves, they often donate it to charity through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They’ve also pledged to give away most of their fortune through the Giving Pledge, which they launched in 2010. Still, their values and needs are not necessarily those of the people, which in a democracy would be manifested by their votes and the acts of elected representatives. We at least pretend not to be an oligarchy.

According to an article in Vox, Jeff Bezos on the other hand gave an estimated 0.1 percent of his wealth in 2018. A list of the top 20 American billionaires shows that they range in giving merely from 0.0 percent to 0.7 percent of their wealth annually, except for Michael Bloomberg, who gave 1.7 percent, Gates, and Warren Buffet. Even the latter two only gave annually 2.6 percent and 3.9 percent of their wealth, respectively. According to Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, billionaires give less, relative to their wealth, than the average American. Most, however, profess to be either Christian or Jewish, and the Bible requires tithing, which etymologically suggests 1/10 of our income.

Still, Mark Zuckerberg, who donated 0.7 percent only, pushed back against Bernie Sanders’ proposed wealth tax arguing that the rich already donate plenty to charity, money that, he complained, would otherwise go to the government. The worst in a list compiled by Forbes of the stingiest billionaires is Donald Trump, who not only gives little if anything, but actually steals from his charitable foundations and was sued by New York’s attorney general for that reason.

Even when many billionaires contribute to charitable causes, they often do so for self-serving political reasons, creating income tax shelters used to funnel “dark money” to right wing institutions, which in turn advocate for tax breaks for the super-rich. As Robert Reich put it recently, referring to charitable giving related to the coronavirus crisis, “America’s billionaires are giving to charity – but much of it is self-serving rubbish.” Their “well-publicized philanthropy shows how afraid the super-rich are of [possibly] a larger social safety net–and higher taxes.” In fact, according to CNN Business, Columbia University researchers projected on April 16th that poverty rates in the United States could soon reach their highest levels in half a century while “the wealth of America’s billionaires actually increased by nearly 10% over just three weeks as the COVID-19 crisis took hold.”

As earlier reported in Progreso Weekly, “The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote that the [2020] World Economic Forum demonstrate[d] only one thing: ‘If the billionaire stranglehold over global politics is not broken, we are all going to fry in a future climate hell’ as billionaires are happy to watch the world burn if it means increased profits.” That’s because, as an increasing number of observers see it, “the problems of climate change, inequality and capitalism [are] bound together, it being impossible to solve the first two without a radical overhaul of the third.”

Bernie Sanders, therefore, was right: we don’t need billionaires any more than we need hard-core pornography. We can recognize a social obscenity when we see it.

Amaury Cruz is a writer, lawyer, and political activist from Miami Beach. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a Juris Doctor.