American capitalism is premised on many lies. None is more pernicious than the lie that it’s possible to deserve great wealth. This lie is the most necessary one — if people stop believing it, the entire system will crumble. This is “The Big Lie,” and it makes a lie about a single presidential election look like a minor gripe in comparison. Yet as important as this lie is to the self-preservation of the billionaire class, they cannot help themselves from continually acting in ways that make it hard for even the gullible American public to keep on believing it.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ new $500 million superyacht will also have a “support yacht,” to carry his helicopter. Amazon delivery drivers are forced to piss in bottles in order to make their deliveries on time. Jeff Bezos is the richest businessman in the world. Amazon spent vast sums of money to prevent the workers in one single Alabama warehouse from unionizing so that they could collectively bargain their wages and working conditions. Remember, Jeff Bezos’ new $500 million superyacht will also have a “support yacht,” to carry his helicopter. Amazon brags about paying $15 an hour for warehouse jobs that should be paying twice that much. Jeff Bezos made $70 billion last year.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk made $132 billion last year. This addition to his already considerable wealth has finally given him the ability to pursue his passions: Making bad tweets, encouraging regular people to make bad investments in pyramid-scheme style cryptocurrencies, and making an insufferable and unfunny Saturday Night Live appearance. Musk’s meandering path to becoming the nation’s most charmless celebrity has been enabled by thousands of employees of Tesla, who Musk has illegally discouraged from unionizing.
This strenuous commitment to union-busting from the world’s richest people should be understood not as an economic position — after all, a union at these companies would not change the fact that their founders have more money than they can ever spend — but rather as a sort of public reinforcement of The Big Lie. In the minds of the über wealthy, if a union won $2 per hour raises for hundreds of thousands of workers who are, as we speak, developing carpal tunnel syndrome picking items in a warehouse or assembling electric cars, that would amount to an intolerable pickpocketing of the wealth that those founders earned fair and square. Billionaire entrepreneurs deserve theoretically infinite wealth for thinking of good ideas; working people deserve just $15 an hour, and asking for more shows distasteful ingratitude.
The only way that the current economic arrangement in America can persist is if the rich are able to convince the public that their soaring wealth has nothing to do with the fate of the rest of us. It is the job of capitalist mythology to keep these things scrupulously separated, arguing for an atomized model of the world in which Great Men reap Just Rewards for Great Ideas and if you want to join them, all you need to do is to Work Hard. (And, consequently, if you are struggling, the fault is your own.) Never mind the fact that the idea that we all rise and fall on our individual talents, with no responsibility for the collective good, runs contrary to every major system of ethics created since Jesus’s apostles started peddling their stories.
In America, the public has to believe that it’s fine for Jeff Bezos to have $200 billion while Jeff Smith, an Amazon warehouse worker, has just dollars to his name and repetitive stress injuries and no health insurance. We must believe that it is normal and correct for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos together to have more money than the gross domestic product of Bangladesh, a nation of 170 million people. It is vital to the continued smooth operation of everything here that we all view this arrangement as Just Fine. Any change in this perception, and the flashing lights start going off deep inside the billionaire bunker.
The most meaningful shift that could happen in American public opinion is not the yearly fluctuation in affinities for Democrats or Republicans. It is not the broadening public acceptance of gay marriage or legal marijuana. It is not the shifting attitudes towards smoking or climate change or police brutality. The most meaningful shift that could happen would be for Americans to develop an intolerance towards the hoarding of wealth. The day that average citizens stop seeing billionaires as people to be envied and admired and start seeing them as antisocial hoarders monopolizing resources that could be directed towards life-or-death needs elsewhere will be the day that the inequality crisis that has been building since the Reagan era begins to end.
All that it would take for that change to come about would be for people to recognize the simple fact that billionaires do not exist in a vacuum. We all live in this world together. The people with the greatest resources have a responsibility to help the people with the least. That should not be a controversial viewpoint, in a nation full of ostensible Christians, and yet accepting it leads inevitably to a curdled disgust with the possession of absurd levels of wealth.
The philosopher Peter Singer famously noted that everyone agrees that if you come upon a child drowning in a shallow pond, you should jump in and save her, even if it means ruining the clothes you’re wearing — and the very same principle applies to people starving and suffering overseas, whether we can see them in front of us or not. We are morally obligated to help when we can, because the awful suffering in the world far outweighs the small sacrifice it would require of us. This simple moral guideline is so clearly valid that the arguments against it always reek of desperate attempts to stave off personal guilt, cobbled together for the sole purpose of justifying the excesses that we’ve long enjoyed.
For billionaires, this is very simple. In order to be good people, they need to give away their money. Fast. Now. They are sitting on what amounts to thousands of human lives. As soon as that sickens rather than inspires the general public, we will tax the billionaires away, as we should. For $500 million, ten million people could receive surgery that saves them from blindness. Instead, Jeff Bezos bought a superyacht, and a support yacht to carry his helicopter. But what do you expect him to do — land the helicopter directly on the main yacht? It would ruin the feng shui.
We all have problems, I guess.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.