Do We Really Need Billionaires?
There are nine zeroes in the number one billion, it looks something like 1,00,00,00,000. According to Google; It takes approximately 79 years to count to a billion. That means if you started at birth it would take some people all their life to finish counting.
In the time it took you to read this sentence Jeff Bezos has already made 37,150 USD.
In March 2018, Forbes reported that it had identified 2,208 billionaires from 72 countries and territories. Collectively, this group was worth $9.1 trillion. According to a January 2018 report by Oxfam, 82% of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the wealthiest one percent. On the other hand, in 2015 it was estimated that 736 million people live below the poverty line.
The Corona Virus pandemic has compelled people to say that “we are all on the same boat”, but are we really? Doesn’t one man’s boat have a life time supply of the finest goods, whereas another man’s is ridden with holes that could cause him to drown at any given point of time?
While health professionals risk their lives to save the lives of the masses, the man who benefited the most as a result of the pandemic, is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who has seen his fortune expand by nearly $35bn as people have turned to online shopping more so during this pandemic.
How are they so rich?
The vast fortunes amassed by those around the globe are most likely amassed in the same manner. The Walton family’s $163 billion fortune, that grew as a result of the growth of their retail corporation chain, Walmart, was known to have paid its workers wages that were less than poverty line. Jeff Bezos the CEO of Amazon, came under the radar lately because it was brought to light that his employees were paid pathetically low wages at Amazon for years and were further forced to work in deplorable conditions. It is estimated that a normal Amazon worker would take more than 4 million years of saving their entire income to accumulate their boss’s fortune. And we are talking about workers in the world’s richest country. It then becomes unimaginable to think of the plight of a say, a laborer in South Asia or in Africa.
Is a billionaire then worth more than everyone else’s labor combined?
The situation is much the same elsewhere. The share of income or profits collected by the company is disproportionate to the amount paid to its workers, essentially the back bone of the organization. This has had a snow ball effect and has contributed to rising levels of economic inequality around the globe.
Only the crashing economy that we have had to encounter as a result of an unprecedented pandemic, has made us realize the gross inequalities that exist within our own country. The ultra wealthy have an obligation to step up and use their money for good. But so far, have they done so?
In the past there have been billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who have signed and encouraged other billionaires to sign ‘The Giving Pledge’, through which they dedicate majority of their wealth to giving to the under privileged. However, the response by the ultra rich has been shameful, at best the most it can account to, is a drop in the ocean.
When Speaking about India, we popularly refer to the tycoon class as the ‘Bollygarchs’, who constitute only about 1% of the total population. With the rise of the ultra rich since 2004 in India, the economic gap between the rich and the poor has been pulled apart all the more. India boasts 119 billionaires, in which the top 10% of income earners now take home 55% of national income.
What do they do with such exorbitant amounts of wealth?
From expensive yachts and vintage cars to private jets and gold towers you name it and a billionaire owns it, what to an average man seems like a fantasy, they have or can get, right at their finger tips.
Apart from trips to private islands on their private jets, an average billionaire would also devote enormous energy and money to controlling governments. In an attempt to consolidate their powers, we see billionaires at the head of the world’s three leading countries; namely Donald Trump in the United States, Vladmir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. Even though China claims to be a communist state, all three countries have passed a number of policies that would further encourage the acquisition of wealth and subsequently the discouragement of equality and human rights.
It is no secret that India's tycoons play a pivotal role in Asia’s most expensive elections. Funding of this kind makes a government forever indebted to these ultra rich and this lobbying of power erodes democratic governance in democratic countries. Crony capitalism and politics go hand in hand, much like the well known scandals that led up to Modi’s election in 2014, it is no secret that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's re-election bid has received huge financial backing from corporate India.
The implications of which, for example, doubled India’s current richest man, Mukesh Ambani’s wealth from about $23 billion to $55 billion within the first four years of the Modi government ie, between 2014 and 2019.
While the rich in India claim to give to the poor, it is important to note that they are not doing everything they can to close the economic gap. One way to narrow the gap is by paying taxes; however it is not an uncommon practice for philanthropists to be exempted from doing so.
“While charity might involve feeding few poor people on a single day, philanthropy would require investing in non-profits that work to decrease or end hunger altogether. By this measure, rich Indians might be charitable, but not enough of them are philanthropists.” States Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of Dasra, a strategic philanthropy firm.
Similarities can be drawn between the concerns of the west and India in relation to philanthropy. Philanthropy no doubt is growing in India, but the question that we need to ask is if it’s growing in proportion to the wealth amassed. In India, we find that the rich are tight fisted in comparison to those in other countries. This might be because the wealth that the rich in India have acquired is fairly new and hence, they don’t feel secure enough to part with it. Some billionaires are just more willing to give their wealth away than others.
Another criticism says that this form of plutocratic philanthropy sees to it that the priorities of the super rich; such as funding for private hospitals, are implemented, over the priorities of the general public; such as funding for government hospitals. Another debate is that these billionaires accumulate wealth much faster than they give away.
In India however there exists no formal means to track philanthropy. With tax laws being so complex and there not being much incentives for giving, reports on philanthropy in India “rely on multiple sources, from the government to third-party trackers to individual declarations.” In India people don’t like to make a show of giving and a lot of people give anonymously which further complicates the tracking process. As observed by Ingrid Srinath, director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Delhi's Ashoka University.
One means to keep a check on the ultra rich can by enacting a global cap on wealth and incomes as well as bringing reforms to the taxation system.
There has always been a looming doubt on whether the money earned by billionaires is truly a result of hard work. It is safe to say that there are not many billionaires who have earned their money through fair practices. In almost all cases there have been ethically questionable practices employed. Such as underpaying workers or overworking them; exporting jobs or exercising monopolies such as in the case of JIO.
For these reasons we must not only reduce the number of billionaires worldwide but must altogether make becoming a billionaire impossible.