How To Understand Billionaires (In Four Easy Steps)
There are plenty of reasons to dislike billionaires. Maybe you think they’re parasites who exemplify capital’s need to sustain itself like a virus? Maybe you’re frustrated that none of those cowards have decided to be Batman yet? Or perhaps you simply find them annoying on Twitter?
This dude got about $5,000,000,000 from the US government, by the way.
I’m not here to tell you what to think about billionaires. If you’ve read any of my work or met me in person or have had me drunkenly lecture you at a bar, you know my feelings on them pretty well and/or can guess that I’m a fan of the solution that France came up with about 230 years ago. My purpose here is to talk about the dumbest, cruelest thing about the Elons Musks and the Jeffs Bezos of the world, which is this: billionaires don’t pay their fair share in taxes, even though doing so wouldn’t impact them literally at all. Let’s make like a 90s party rapper and break this down.
Yes, They Really Do This
That billionaires harvest orphan adrenochrome to power their shapeshifting abilities and keep their true lizardperson identities a secret is a dumb conspiracy theory. That billionaires expend social capital on ensuring taxes on them are as low as possible is a matter of public record. In fact, there’s a very good chance that you pay a higher tax rate than do billionaires: in 2018, the 400 richest families in America (including the McDuck dynasty, the Warbucks tribe, and the Richie Rich clan) paid a lower tax rate than did the bottom 50% of households.
Let me introduce something I call wealth/power. There are some things that are so inextricably linked that they’re actually the same concept, like space/time or Hummer/douche. The extravagantly wealthy have slowly shaped tax policy to be what it is, and it was absolutely an intentional process. Sixty-three billionaires donated to a single Trump campaign PAC, almost certainly because they wanted Trump to pass tax cuts on the billionaire class, which of course he did, after which the billionaires celebrated by dining on the finest river dolphin tartare paired with a delicate chalice of liquefied mummy. And it’s not just ostentatious political spending that billionaires use to dictate policy: there are subtler methods, of course.
Yeah. Subtle. Like appearing on TV with a large mustache as workaday everyman Beff Jezos who, gosh darnit, just thinks those billionaires earned that money. And yes, I’m doing some selection bias of my own here: when I was pulling those headlines for that image, there were also two, count em two, articles about why we should raise taxes on billionaires. All of this plays into the idea of the ‘benevolent billionaire,’ like Bill Gates, who says he wants taxes on the ultra-wealthy to be raised. Bill Gates! The lovable computer nerd, sweater vest enthusiast, and monopolist! See, not all billionaires are bad!
Well except that Bill Gates implied he’d vote for Donald Trump if even Elizabeth Warren’s extremely modest tax hike even had a remote chance of passing. (Which of course it never would, since Warren herself took a $14,600,000 “donation” from a single individual, the kind of person who has fifteen million just lying around to donate to a political campaign.) In fact, a lot of these articles mention Warren’s wealth tax, and Bernie Sanders’ tax plan for the ultra-rich is even higher. So at the end of the day, given the choice between a single-digit percentage increase in taxes and pushing the country in the general direction of fascism, even the most wholesome epic cuddly big chungus billionaires will get measured for black military uniforms.
I’m sure there’s at least one billionaire who really, truly believes that they should pay more. But to me that’s like saying that, while it is true that the invading Vargaxions can only reproduce by inserting their larvae into the thoracic cavity of a still-living human host, some of them feel really, really bad about doing it.
And if all of this doesn’t convince you that the billionaire class has been using the undue influence they wield to slowly erode the tax code (or that you think it’s somehow just), well, let me just tell you now that every car that passes you on taxpayer-funded public roads is laughing at the Don’t Tread on Me bumper sticker on the back of your PT Cruiser. Let me prove my point by utilizing the most powerful tool in a comedy writer’s arsenal: an extremely dry chart about historical tax rates!
Weird how the 50s, a decade renowned for skyrocketing the standard of living for the average American, also had the highest tax rate. Probably a coincidence!
Wait, crap, that’s not funny! Hold on, don’t leave! What if, uh...what if Guy Fieri was holding it? Is it funny now? NO WAIT what if Guy Fieri is holding it and doesn’t realize he’s about to be clownmurdered?
How Much Is A Billion?
Before we go further, let me take a moment to address something. Several readers are now looking up from their hentai games to push their glasses up their noses and smugly assert that just because billionaires have a high net worth, that’s not the same as having that much money in liquid assets. To which I say: I have a great new cryptocurrency to sell you! It’s called GullibleCoin. Just give me five hundred dollars and I’ll send you one GC. These babies are gonna go to the moon!
I have now used entirely too many words and several silly graphics to prove the first half of my point, which is that billionaires don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Now I want to illustrate the second half of my point: that doing so wouldn’t impact them at all. The best place to start is to understand how much money a billion really is. If you think you get how much money it is, you probably don’t.
It’s, like, so much money, dude. So much money. It’s such a staggering amount of money that no amount of comedic hyperbole can adequately convey it. It’s such a huge number that we can understand it abstractly, like how we understand that David Lynch must occasionally go grocery shopping, but we can’t really picture it.
There’s plenty of resources online dedicated to trying to get people to appreciate just how pants-shittingly huge a billion dollars is, many of which are in no way useful. If you took a billion dollars in singles and laid them on the ground, it would cover 1,936 football fields. If you did that with Jeff Bezos’ entire fortune, it would cover roughly 387,200.007 football fields. Ah. Much more useful. Yeah, it’s definitely easier to picture 387,300.007 football fields, those things that you famously see more than one of next to each other.
Most of the things you see online trying to get you to understand how much a billion dollars is aren’t really that illustrative, because the scale is just too large. It’s like trying to wrap your mind around the depth of the ocean, or the vastness of space, or yo’ mama. There are a few demonstrations that I’ve actually found helpful, but overall, there’s only one thing that really helped me appreciate how much a billion is.
Let’s say you have a billion dollars. I don’t know, maybe due to a bizarre hierarchical technicality you learn that you’re actually 27th in line to be the Sultan of Brunei, so you’re given a billion dollars as a welcome-to-the-royal family gift. Maybe you’re the guy that’s been scalping every PS5 in the world. Maybe you invented a printer that actually works and isn’t powered by spite-demons. It doesn’t matter how you got it. You have a billion dollars. How do you spend it? Write down everything in the world your heart desires. Go ahead. Go crazy. You’ll need a new place to live, right? How about this modest, tasteful place here in Los Angeles?
Okay, you’ve got a swank new place to live with a truly absurd number of bathrooms, glass walls, and not one but two ritual chambers to throw your Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy/potluck. How will you drive to and from whatever stupid rich person hobby you decide to adopt, such as space travel, golf, or having health care? You can’t just drive a car. Oh, no. You need the BEST car. You need ... a Bugatti La Voiture Noire, the world’s most expensive car. It costs $18.7 million. Perfect! You know what, let’s take five. Wait, we’ll also need a carry for getting groceries. Let’s throw in Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, too. Sorry, Peter Jackson, it’s ours now!
Okay, we’ve got a house and cars ... what are we missing? Oh, yeah! A private island. Wait, how are we going to get from our mansion in LA to our island? A private jet? Please, don’t insult me with such base proletarian vulgarities—what am I, a lowly Kardashian? We’ll take the jetpack! And it goes without saying we’ll need a gold toilet. But not just any gold toilet, oh no: we’re not some tacky nouveau-riche tech billionaire. We want the gold toilet that has absorbed the stately ass-warmth of Sir Winston Churchill himself!
Whew! Quite a shopping spree! Doing a little math here, we’ve spent, let’s see … less than a quarter of a billion dollars. $244,550,000, to be exact. If you have Oprah money, this is, to use a technical fiduciary term, “chump change.” And speaking for myself, I don’t really want any of that crap (well, maybe the island). If I were to calculate the cost of everything I actually wanted in life, I would be absolutely shocked if it totaled over five million dollars, and most of that is the Mad Max car.
You’re Still Not Getting How Big A Billion Is
That last entry laboriously pointed out what an absolutely neuron-burningly gigantic amount of money a billion is, right? And I didn’t even bother to point out that Jeff Bezos is worth nearly TWO HUNDRED TIMES THAT. He could buy Star Wars and not even feel it. Not the movies, not the props—literally, he could buy the concept of Star Wars and it would be just about 2% of his net worth. If he wanted to be a humanitarian and make the world better, he could buy the entire Billy Joel catalogue and save us all from ever hearing that awful music again—it would only cost him $225,000,000, or 0.13% of his worth. But here’s the issue with any demonstration of how much monetary value a billion has: it’s ultimately going to give people the wrong idea.
Why? Because it’s not an amount of money. It is unlimited money. There is no amount. It is, in effect, like playing a videogame with the Infinite Money cheat turned on. No matter how hard you tried, it would be nearly impossible to run out of money. Let’s say you’re worth exactly ten billion dollars. You have no money coming in. Instead of investing your money in oil futures or space porn or whatever, you put all of your money into a savings account with a measly 1% interest rate—that means you’d be making a hundred million dollars a year. Phrased another way, if you spend less than a hundred million dollars a year (which, remember, it is extremely difficult to spend that much money), you’d be making money. And you’d have even more money the following year.
Let’s say you keep your megacocaine habit in check, don’t bathe in printer ink, and only buy racehorses to make them fight to the death on special occasions: you somehow, someway, manage to only spend $60,000,000 a year. Hmm, an individual Olive Garden breadstick costs ... let’s call it forty cents, and there’s 31,536,000 seconds in a year ... yep, you could buy a breadstick every single second and have actual Never Ending Breadsticks, and it would only cost you $12,614,400 a year.
That’s just for ten billion dollars at a 1% return. People like Jeff Bezos have far more money and, presumably, know all the arcane accounting secrets to get a far bigger R.O.I. And they’re also making income on top of it all! Remember how Bill Gates was willing to throw the country into the jaws of nationalism to avoid a 2% tax? Well, if we taxed all income earned over a billion dollars at 100%, assuming a 1% interest rate on the billion they have saved, they’d still be able to spend a ten million dollars a year. Ten. Million. Dollars. That’s $0.32 a second. If you dropped a dollar bill, it literally wouldn’t be worth the time it takes to pick it up. I come from a family of peasant Russian misery-farmers and dirt-poor German bakers (‘Kuechenberg’ literally means ‘Cake Mountain’): despite having several relatives who played in the NFL, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we're talking more wealth than my entire patrilineal family has accrued since the beginning of recorded history.
Do you get it yet? Do you see where this is going? There is no material difference between a billion dollars and a hundred billion dollars. Both are infinite money. Do you think if someone was worth, hell, a trillion dollars that their life would be significantly different than Mark Zuckerberg’s, who’s only worth a little over a tenth of that? Aside from spending less money on live crickets and hand-engraved invitations to his reclusive estate to play “a game I think you’ll find most … invigorating,” the concrete, day-to-day reality of their lives would be the same. There’s an enormous gulf between a billion and a trillion, but both are an unspendable amount of money.
Why Do Billionaires Fight So Hard For Money They Can’t Spend?
That’s what keeps me up at night, man. That and wondering what if there actually are hot MILFs in my area and I’ve been callously ignoring their pleas. Am I … am I the monster???
Anyway, in 2010, Bill Gates announced his Giving Pledge—that is, he promised to donate half of his wealth to charity. Adjusted for inflation, he was worth $67 billion then. Now, despite giving away billions, he’s worth around twice as much. He just keeps getting richer so quickly he literally can’t give away money fast enough. If he wants to give back so badly, maybe he should, I don’t know, pay more in taxes? But the ultra-wealthy’s poisonous philanthropy is an entire other article. If a person with a billion dollars and a person with a hundred billion dollars live the same life, why do billionaires fight so hard to keep all that meaningless money? Why does Jeff Bezos spend so much money on influencing politics, not pay income taxes, yet was willing to cheat on his wife and lose $38,000,000,000? Why do they even care?
This is what I struggled with for years. The dumbest, cruelest thing about billionaires. And here is the answer I’ve arrived at: once you reach a certain threshold of wealth, something in your brain changes. I don’t know if it’s biochemical, or philosophical, or if when you get inducted into the Knights Templar they lobotomize you with a pick made from the femur of a saint, but something changes. You and me (“you” here meaning the average reader, and not Elon Musk, who is currently hate-reading this on his toilet and latrine-googling “do assassins charge less for comedy writers”), we think about money differently than the billionaires do.
See, for us, money has an absolute value. Money is food. Money is rent. If you find a hundred bucks on the street, you don’t think “this will add to my market value:” you think “Sweet! Now I only need another thirty-nine more bucks and I can get some sick cat armor!"
There’s the fundamental disconnect. Billionaires don’t see money as a representation of purchasing power. They see it as an absolute expression of social power. This pack of idiots thinks they actually earned that money. That they’re entitled to it, that to have it taxed higher is theft. To have less money would mean to have less social power. Why, if they had less, it would be tantamount to admitting that they aren’t the true rulers of the world, ordained by a flawless meritocracy, the peak of human potential! Or maybe with all their money they can buy a SARCASM DETECTOR for all that devastating SARCASM I just laid down on them! Consider yourselves SERVED, Most Powerful People in the History of the Planet! I expect this withering sarcasm will bring your kleptocracy tumbling down ‘round your ears any moment now!
No? It’s still standing? Well, here’s the less-generous interpretation: Billionaires simply see their money as a high score. They’re all competing with each other to see who can get the biggest number, like a truly solipsistic game of Super Mario Bros. that’s also destroying the world. Think of all the things billionaires could fund if they paid their fair share of taxes. The 400 richest Americans are worth a combined total of about $3,200,000,000,000: that’s over three TRILLION dollars. To eradicate world hunger—not hunger in the US, in the world—would cost $11,000,000,000 more annually, or about 0.3% of their combined wealth. A third of a single percent. If you were told you could end such unimaginable human misery for a third of a percent of what you have in your bank account, would you?
What about giving every one of the 38,000,000 Americans living in poverty $10,000, lifting every single person—EVERY ONE!—out of poverty, if it cost 5.8% of your wealth?
Or, for $295,380,000,000—9.2% of the total wealth of the 400 richest Americans—we could give every man, woman and child their very own bobcat. I’m not sure how this would affect society, but I’m pretty confident it would totally rule and, for better or worse, lead to many more maulings. This is the platform on which I will be running for Senate.
And what if America was better about funding the sciences? What could humanity accomplish with these kinds of resources? A higher standard of living, certainly. Possibly things we can’t even comprehend: an end to scarcity. Possibly even freeing us from the tyranny of death and aging.
Do you feel it, too? A yawning in the pit of your stomach? A smoldering fury at the casual, idiotic barbarity of it all? At the immutable vastness of this injustice? You’re not alone. The more I thought about it, the more I was unable to escape the conclusion that it is an inarguable moral evil that billionaires don’t do this. And for what? FOR WHAT? As I’ve gone to Herculean lengths to illustrate—this is the first time I’ve voluntarily done math in two decades—it wouldn’t affect them at all. They’d rather trade all of these beautiful things—an end to hunger, an end to poverty, an end to a tragically bobcatless America—for some numbers on a piece of paper. For a meaningless high score. That, my friends, is the dumbest, cruelest thing about billionaires.
Whew! Heavy stuff! What a bummer! So I’d like to leave you with a fun fact. You know, end on a high note! Did you know that in the late 18th century, immediately before the Revolution, the lowest 40% of earners held about 13% of the total wealth in France, while in modern America the lowest 40% of earners hold only 11.4% of the total wealth? Wow! What a fun, legally unrelated fact with no historical parallels whatsoever!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed or be a writer’s assistant in your room! He is also on Bad Movies for Bad People, the world’s FIRST and ONLY comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!).