15 votes

Can you be a good billionaire?

25 comments

  1. screenbeard
    Link
    The first question the author poses made me think of J.K. Rowling, who in 2016 was thought to be a billionaire. However by 2017 she was thought to be sitting on about 600M due to philanthropy and...

    The first question the author poses made me think of J.K. Rowling, who in 2016 was thought to be a billionaire. However by 2017 she was thought to be sitting on about 600M due to philanthropy and happily paying the highest possible UK tax bracket.

    While I don't agree with her more recent anti-trans activism, she was the first billionaire I thought of who maybe got there without the labour of millions of others (not directly by being CEO anyway) and therefore not being "evil" in the sense this article uses. The fact she gave so much away and didn't hoard it to continue being a billionaire makes her the perfect example of the exception that proves the rule: she wasn't evil, gave it away and is no longer a billionaire.

    22 votes
  2. skybrian
    Link
    This article uses physical supplies to make it easy to understand, but this doesn't really grapple philosophically with not necessarily hoarding anything physical, but instead having an excessive...

    This article uses physical supplies to make it easy to understand, but this doesn't really grapple philosophically with not necessarily hoarding anything physical, but instead having an excessive amount of legal rights to buy things, someday. (And this is one way of thinking about money, as a transferrable legal right.)

    An abundance of physical goods are in stores and in manufacturing capacity to be called upon (just-in-time manufacturing), available to anyone with the money. Having a legal right to buy something, without exercising it, doesn't prevent anyone else from getting it. It's usually the lack of money by other people that's preventing it.

    So yes, of course donating the money would help them get it, but at the federal level, this legal right could also be created out of nothing. Congress could vote it into existence if there were a consensus to do it, and we've seen some of that during the pandemic.

    Beyond that, the trouble is supply bottlenecks. We've seen recently that some things go into short supply when there's a lot of demand for them. There's the question of whether this lack of supply is temporary and will disappear as manufacturers respond to it, or whether (especially with housing) something more needs to be done to free it up.

    I also think it's not good to have an excessive amount of legal rights lying around unused, because of what might happen if they all get exercised at once. It sort of sounds like a bank run, doesn't it? I'm not sure if it would really work that way, though. We see runs on toilet paper but no billionaire is trying to be the king of toilet paper.

    When does hoarding resources necessary for survival actually happen? In one sense, retail stores are doing this all the time (preventing shoplifting), but that's because they want to be paid. And another recent example is vaccines.

    7 votes
  3. [23]
    JXM
    (edited )
    Link
    No. In my view, you don’t become a billionaire by doing/being good, therefore there can’t be such a good thing as a good billionaire. EDIT: As others have pointed out, you can become a billionaire...

    No. In my view, you don’t become a billionaire by doing/being good, therefore there can’t be such a good thing as a good billionaire.

    EDIT: As others have pointed out, you can become a billionaire without being an inherently bad person so I think my original comment is a bit too black and white. I think the idea of billionaires is bad (no one needs/should have that much money or the power that comes with it) but that doesn't mean that you can't become a billionaire without being completely terrible. As with most things, there is an amount of nuance to it that is hard to capture in a single comment.

    7 votes
    1. skybrian
      Link Parent
      This is basically proof by lack of imagination. Sometimes more money requires no more labor, just the same work and a much larger audience. And that’s how celebrities like Oprah Winfrey do it....

      This is basically proof by lack of imagination. Sometimes more money requires no more labor, just the same work and a much larger audience. And that’s how celebrities like Oprah Winfrey do it.

      Software sometimes works similarly.

      But I’m not going to get into whether any particular person actually is good. I think it’s somewhat rare because that level of money and sometimes fame are hard to deal with.

      5 votes
    2. [3]
      MimicSquid
      Link Parent
      That seems like an odd way of determining it. I didn't become a student by doing good, but I was a good student. I didn't become a husband by being a good husband, but I am a good husband.

      That seems like an odd way of determining it. I didn't become a student by doing good, but I was a good student. I didn't become a husband by being a good husband, but I am a good husband.

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        JXM
        Link Parent
        I guess I phrased it poorly, but I don’t believe you can become a billionaire without being a bad person. In order to amass that much wealth, you have to be ruthless when it comes to business and...

        I guess I phrased it poorly, but I don’t believe you can become a billionaire without being a bad person.

        In order to amass that much wealth, you have to be ruthless when it comes to business and willing to screw others over (be they partners or employees).

        At least from what I can see from the current crop of billionaires.

        It’s possible there are exceptions, but I can’t think of any billionaires that didn’t screw someone over or turned out to be terrible people.

        4 votes
        1. MimicSquid
          Link Parent
          Given that at least 1/3 of billionaires inherited their wealth, they probably weren't inherently a bad person to get their money. That doesn't mean that they're bad for what they've done since,...

          Given that at least 1/3 of billionaires inherited their wealth, they probably weren't inherently a bad person to get their money. That doesn't mean that they're bad for what they've done since, but unless "being born rich" is enough to make someone inherently a bad person, there's some difficulties here.

          7 votes
    3. [18]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      While it is highly unlikely for someone to become a billionaire without employing exploitative means, that is certainly a non negligible possibility. Suppose I invent a pill that instantly...

      While it is highly unlikely for someone to become a billionaire without employing exploitative means, that is certainly a non negligible possibility. Suppose I invent a pill that instantly purifies 10'000 liters of water, helping billions all over the world. I charge one dollar per pill, and quickly acquire the sum of 1 billion dollars, which I promptly employ for the further betterment of humankind. What about that would make me a bad billionaire?

      2 votes
      1. [16]
        spctrvl
        Link Parent
        Nothing, if you're producing those pills entirely yourself. But realistically, in order to produce in the quantities needed to become a billionaire, you need to hire a bunch of people and form...

        Nothing, if you're producing those pills entirely yourself. But realistically, in order to produce in the quantities needed to become a billionaire, you need to hire a bunch of people and form some sort of company. This could be done ethically in the form of a co-op. But if you became a billionaire from that, it's because you didn't form a co-op, and aren't paying your employees the full value the company gets out of their labor: you're exploiting them by pocketing the difference between what you pay them and what they're worth. The only way to become a billionaire is to exploit the labor of others, or have ancestors that did. Hard work only goes so far, especially under an economic system which ensures wage laborers are almost never paid the full value of their labor.

        8 votes
        1. [10]
          mrbig
          Link Parent
          Huh, suppose I treat my employees very well?

          Huh, suppose I treat my employees very well?

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            Kremor
            Link Parent
            This is a pointless exercise as there's no evidence anyone can become billionaire doing those things.

            This is a pointless exercise as there's no evidence anyone can become billionaire doing those things.

            5 votes
            1. mrbig
              Link Parent
              That's the entire point of the article though -- an speculation about possibility.

              That's the entire point of the article though -- an speculation about possibility.

              3 votes
          2. [3]
            Comment deleted by author
            Link Parent
            1. papasquat
              Link Parent
              This assumes the economy is a zero sum game, which we know it is not.

              still a billionaire who withholds one billion dollars from the economy

              This assumes the economy is a zero sum game, which we know it is not.

              3 votes
            2. mrbig
              (edited )
              Link Parent
              I'm pretty sure this answer, as well as others on this thread, is an example of the perfect solution fallacy:

              I'm pretty sure this answer, as well as others on this thread, is an example of the perfect solution fallacy:

              The perfect solution fallacy is a related informal fallacy that occurs when an argument assumes that a perfect solution exists or that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented. This is an example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple component elements of a situation or problem, and, as a result, reduces complex problems to a pair of binary extremes.

              2 votes
          3. [5]
            spctrvl
            Link Parent
            You're still necessarily underpaying them, otherwise there's nowhere for that billion dollars of personal wealth to come from.

            You're still necessarily underpaying them, otherwise there's nowhere for that billion dollars of personal wealth to come from.

            4 votes
            1. [4]
              papasquat
              Link Parent
              If the average widget maker makes $5 an hour, but I pay mine $10 an hour for doing essentially the same work, because I can afford to because my widgets are so much better designed than the...

              If the average widget maker makes $5 an hour, but I pay mine $10 an hour for doing essentially the same work, because I can afford to because my widgets are so much better designed than the competition that I can sell them for double the price, am I really underpaying my workers?

              The competitive advantage isn't coming from my workers, and they're still getting paid more than they would have at any other company for doing the exact same work.

              1 vote
              1. [3]
                spctrvl
                (edited )
                Link Parent
                Is the widget maker bringing in significantly more than $10 an hour in revenue? If not, then congratulations, you're an ethical employer not exploiting your workers, and therefore not a...

                Is the widget maker bringing in significantly more than $10 an hour in revenue? If not, then congratulations, you're an ethical employer not exploiting your workers, and therefore not a billionaire. If they do, then you're underpaying them. The fact that they would get a worse deal elsewhere doesn't change that.

                5 votes
                1. [2]
                  papasquat
                  Link Parent
                  Why? They would get a worse deal EVERYWHERE else. If you're paying double what all of your competitors are paying, how could you be underpaying?

                  Why? They would get a worse deal EVERYWHERE else. If you're paying double what all of your competitors are paying, how could you be underpaying?

                  1 vote
                  1. spctrvl
                    Link Parent
                    The best deal in town can still be a bad deal, and usually is in the wage labor market, that's the whole point. If you're pocketing enough money to become a billionaire, that's because your...

                    The best deal in town can still be a bad deal, and usually is in the wage labor market, that's the whole point. If you're pocketing enough money to become a billionaire, that's because your workers are generating far more money and value for you than they get in wages and benefits, ergo, they're underpaid and exploited. Even if they'd make less at some other private company working to enrich a different owner, they'd make more if they owned the company they worked at, that's the comparison.

                    3 votes
        2. [5]
          vegai
          Link Parent
          What are they worth and how is that determined? Some value between zero and what the product sells for? Certainly being the first mover is also worth quite a bit?

          aren't paying your employees the full value the company gets out of their labor: you're exploiting them by pocketing the difference between what you pay them and what they're worth.

          What are they worth and how is that determined? Some value between zero and what the product sells for? Certainly being the first mover is also worth quite a bit?

          1 vote
          1. [4]
            spctrvl
            Link Parent
            You hire a person because that person's labor generates a certain amount of revenue for the company, and then you compensate them from those revenues. While it's difficult to determine how much a...

            You hire a person because that person's labor generates a certain amount of revenue for the company, and then you compensate them from those revenues. While it's difficult to determine how much a person individually brings in, it's obvious that if the CEO is pocketing billions in profits, the average employee is bringing in much more money to the company and its higher-ups than they're being paid out, i.e. being exploited. In terms of how fair compensation could be determined, really the only thing for it is a democratic business structure like a co-op, where the workers and the owners are the same people. That way you can have a level playing field to design a pay schedule, and you don't have disproportionate compensation from stock shenanigans.

            4 votes
            1. [3]
              vegai
              Link Parent
              Wouldn't a free job market trivially decide fair compensation? I'm paid the optimum between "as much as I dare to demand" and "as little as the employer is able to pay". If I'm unhappy about the...

              In terms of how fair compensation could be determined, really the only thing for it is a democratic business structure like a co-op, where the workers and the owners are the same people.

              Wouldn't a free job market trivially decide fair compensation? I'm paid the optimum between "as much as I dare to demand" and "as little as the employer is able to pay". If I'm unhappy about the pay, I can choose another job or if there are none available, learn new skills and choose another job. Why would I deserve more than that?

              2 votes
              1. spctrvl
                Link Parent
                Maybe it would, if we had a free job market. But we don't have such a market, since the owner class has disproportionate power to dictate conditions of employment on pain of destitution, so the...

                Maybe it would, if we had a free job market. But we don't have such a market, since the owner class has disproportionate power to dictate conditions of employment on pain of destitution, so the choice doesn't matter all that much, as you're almost certainly being exploited no matter where you work. It's a lot easier for an employer to shop around for an employee than vice versa, especially with such considerations as access to healthcare, so working conditions will always be a race to the bottom so long as we maintain this hierarchical relationship.

                8 votes
              2. Greg
                Link Parent
                Depends entirely on your definition of fair (and your definition of free job market, for that matter - are employers free to collude in minimising employee pay, for example?). Is it fair to expect...

                Depends entirely on your definition of fair (and your definition of free job market, for that matter - are employers free to collude in minimising employee pay, for example?). Is it fair to expect food and shelter? Time off? Workplace safety?

                Does the pay you deserve scale with supply and demand? How about with the contribution of the work to community wellbeing? Or with the amount of training you've undergone?

                Questions of fairness and justice are enormously broad and deeply philosophical. Market distribution is decently efficient for balancing supply and demand, but there's a far larger and more interesting conversation to be had about how that relates to what's fair.

                4 votes
      2. JXM
        Link Parent
        If that happens, I am absolutely willing to concede that I am wrong.

        If that happens, I am absolutely willing to concede that I am wrong.

        2 votes