There’s no such thing as an ethical billionaire 

GRAPHIC BY SOPHIE REICHERT/GRAPHICS CENTER

The media paints billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Bloomberg as self-made individuals who climb the wealth ladder with nothing but their talent and intelligence, but more often than not, that’s not accurate. Billionaires are not innocent examples of winning capitalism roulette — they are a product of our financial system’s gross catering to the elite. 

Adding zeros to a singular person’s net worth comes at the expense of societal wellbeing, pointing to the impossibility of becoming a billionaire ethically. We live in a backwards age in which poverty and wealth grow simultaneously and inversely.

In theory, people with higher incomes are taxed at a higher rate, since they have such an abundance of wealth. But in our corrupt reality, the vast majority of these people are being taxed way less than they should be. According to a study from the White House, America’s 400 wealthiest families paid an average of just 8.2% in federal individual income tax between 2010 and 2018. By comparison, the average American household pays 13.3% with an income that doesn’t come close to the country’s wealthiest families. With 37.9 million Americans living in poverty, there is no explanation or justification for the wealth that these billionaires hoard. 

Many billionaires grew their wealth and fame for important inventions, like Elon Musk with Tesla’s commitment to clean energy or Bill Gates’ groundbreaking Microsoft technology. But these innovations don’t excuse the lines these companies are willing to cross to maintain and expand their wealth. Especially when their inventions often fall short of their intentions — Tesla is electric but relies on lithium extraction that is harmful to the environment.

According to Forbes, there were 2,668 billionaires globally in 2022, and their collective wealth amounted to $12.7 trillion. To put things into perspective, let’s put these large sums into the context of time. If someone gave you $1,000 every day for a year, it would take you 2,740 years to accumulate $1 billion. So how did almost 3,000 people achieve this without the use of a time machine? Uneven playing fields and labor exploitation. 

Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, is the poster-child for how immense wealth and exploitation go hand in hand. According to CNBC, Musk has considered privatizing the mining and refining of lithium, which is used in Tesla’s car batteries, since its market price has skyrocketed upwards of 480% since 2021. Despite the pollution that mining produces, he has urged other entrepreneurs to jump in on the lithium refining business, as its lucrative potential is like “a license to print money,” he told Bloomberg

Musk operates his company with waning regard for his employees rights as workers. He and his henchmen at Tesla were found guilty in 2018 by the National Labor Relations Board for illegally firing an employee who was seeking to unionize. This past February, Tesla fired dozens of workers at their Buffalo plant for announcing a workers union campaign, according to Bloomberg Law

If you’re thinking about how all of this money could be used for something much more important than personal profit, you’re not alone. Over the past few years, the idea of taxing the rich at a higher rate has been widely accepted and amplified across the nation. The movement banded together under the name Tax March in 2017, and since has strongly advocated for our economic system to disperse wealth more equally and ethically. 

But where would all this money go if income taxes were proportionally collected? There are a plethora of socio-economic issues that could be aided by directing the obscene wealth of billionaires back to helping the society they take advantage of. For one example, it would take $20 billion to end homelessness in the U.S. according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a drop in the bucket compared to the collective wealth of all our domestic billionaires. 

While some billionaires participate in philanthropy and donate to charitable causes, their contributions do not forgive the immorality of their wealth. The sums they donate to other organizations is relatively miniscule compared to their overall net worth, and often just serve to give them bigger tax benefits. According to Business Insider, Musk and Jeff Bezos were two of 156 billionaires who donated less than 1% of their income in 2021. There is even talk of Musk becoming the world’s first trillionaire.

We need to stop and question how to prevent this mess from spreading further and becoming irreversible. Luckily, many Americans are already realizing that there are no ethical billionaires, and are agreeing that systems that benefit the accumulation of such wealth need to be changed for the better. In 2019, Pew Research found that 66% of Americans believe that the federal government and large corporations should have more responsibility in reducing wealth inequality. 

Surmounting the economic problem of billionaires and the wealth inequality they represent will require all of us to challenge capitalist norms.We need to recognize that our economic system has overstepped all moral and ethical lines, and it urgently needs to change. 

One thought on “There’s no such thing as an ethical billionaire 

  1. Great article but it lacks an existential explanation for why being a billionaire is inherently unethical. Not that I don’t agree with the premise, but a closer look at the philosophical components of the argument would yield stronger sentiments

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