I was reading about Jeff Bezos’ new boat last week when I began to understand one of my greatest failures as a pundit. This might seem an outsize reaction to a bit of maritime news, but as Bloomberg reported, Bezos’ is no ordinary boat. It is, instead, a “superyacht” — a 417-foot, three-mast sailing vessel that could be one of the largest such yachts ever built, if not in length then perhaps in moral recklessness. In a boom time for billionaires, Bloomberg says, the market for these most elephantine of yachts is roaring.
There was one detail that sent me reeling: At a cost of more than $500 million, you’d think the Amazon founder’s yacht would be outfitted with every luxury. Nope — it lacks a helipad, which couldn’t be accommodated because of the boat’s enormous sails. Bezos’ partner, Lauren Sanchez, is a helicopter pilot, so how would she get on and off the big boat? For the world’s richest man the answer is obvious — another boat. The Bezos superyacht will be accompanied by a smaller yacht — maybe call it Lil Yachty — whose primary function is as a place to land and park the helicopter.
Hence my heartburn: Two years ago, I was part of a boomlet in lefty opinion circles calling for American society to reconsider our fondness for billionaires. To me it seemed self-evidently immoral for anyone to possess a billion American dollars in wealth. We could argue where exactly the line was, but a billion was indefensibly beyond it — it’s far more money than anyone needs, even accounting for life’s most excessive lavishes, and far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however quickly he can ship you toilet paper.
The problem with billionaires was not just the obscenity of their wealth, though in a society where millions of people go without food, that was certainly part of it. It was also that their wealth was rarely questioned, even though it’s clear that extreme wealth corrupts — it buys power, especially political power, and uses that power to perpetuate its winnings at the expense of the rest of us, ultimately corroding democracy.
But in early 2019 — with progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez releasing popular plans aimed at curbing extreme wealth — it looked like we were ready for a new social order. It looked like we were ready to abolish billionaires, as I put it.
I argued that we ought to enact economic policies that recoup some of the booty from the super-wealthy, but more important, instead of worshiping these masters of the universe, we should begin to look upon billionaires with moral suspicion. We should wonder about the kind of person who would hold claim to that level of wealth in a world weeping with so much suffering.
Typing these words now I want to reach out and shake myself out of my delusions — what a sweet summer child I was to believe my fellow Americans would put billionaires on the run. The anti-billionaire boomlet died with the Democratic presidential primaries. Since then billionaires have grown only wealthier and more powerful than ever. Now it feels like we can’t quit them — even after a pandemic in which billionaires prospered beyond all measure while so many others suffered great loss, we are nowhere close to putting any significant curbs on extreme wealth.
The world is enthralled with billionaires, almost shamelessly so. In just the last couple weeks, one billionaire, Elon Musk, sent cryptocurrency markets reeling by pumping a “memecoin,” successfully tested a prototype rocket meant to travel to Mars, and then took a charming turn as the host of “Saturday Night Live.” Bill and Melinda Gates, already both lauded and vilified (often unfairly, sometimes on the mark) for their role in global public health, announced a divorce whose cause and ramifications are just beginning to unravel. And besides the boat story, Bezos is the subject of an excellent new book, “Amazon Unbound,” by the Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone. In it, Bezos emerges as the ur-billionaire of our time, the deft wielder of a fortune so vast that he and his company are becoming “perilously close to invincible,” Stone writes.
As a matter of politics, that proposition is hard to refute. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden declined to “demonize” the wealthy and told rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for their standard of living — a promise he has kept. The Biden White House has proposed tax increases on the wealthy, but the president has remained far from a tax on accumulated wealth or other efforts to snip the wings of the extremely wealthy. On the right, there may be growing suspicion of “woke corporations,” but on policy, Republicans remain glued to the interests of billionaires, not least the self-proclaimed billionaire who just left the White House.
How did I so misread the moment — why was I ever so optimistic that we could curb the power of the richest among us? I could say something self-serving, like that I overestimated my fellow Americans’ sense of shame, but the truth is that I got caught up in the moment. Traumatic as it was, for a time the Trump era seemed to open up wide possibilities on the left — remember that early in the Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders and Warren were top contenders. There suddenly seemed new space to question some of America’s fundamental cultural tenets, among them the idea that excessive wealth should be considered a mark of benevolence rather than greed.
But the pandemic quickly short-circuited these possibilities. As the incompetence of the government came into full view, billionaires began to look like our saviors — Bezos was keeping our houses stocked, Gates was minding public health and Musk was building the climate-friendly future. So when billionaires grew billions of dollars richer while the world locked down, hardly a peep of criticism rang out.
Now the billionaires are unleashed and untouchable. Behold their mighty yachts — and their other, smaller yachts, too, God help us.
Office Hours With Farhad Manjoo
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