Bashing Billionaires

Steve Jobs stepped down from his post as CEO of Apple yesterday. The internet instantly erupted in adulation. … Mr Jobs’s wealth … was built in no small part upon an intellectual-property regime that I and many others believe to retard progress. … Bill Gates used to get plenty of heat from the class warriors, but some time after … [he] devoted a huge portion of his fortune to his charitable foundation, he ascended to a sort of philanthropic secular sainthood. … But Mr Jobs has eschewed charity. …

[Yes,] charity very often does rather less to improve quality of life than selling people ever better products at ever lower prices. But this line of reasoning hasn’t convinced very many of us that, say, Charles and David Koch’s vast wealth is proof of their successful service to humankind. Mr Jobs’s relative immunity from the scorn of those otherwise keen to stick it to billionaires is due, I think, to the admiring pleasure wordsmiths takes in the elegance of the Apple devices they use for work, play, and status-signaling. …

Steve Jobs is a white wizard in wire rims who offers …. mesmerising portals to a better, beautiful, more enchanted world. … So who gives a fig if he doesn’t shower his billions upon worthy causes. … But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ’em, the greedy bastards. All of which is to say, our intuitions about economic desert and fair distribution are…complicated. (more)

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, medicine, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldn’t go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

Fast forward to today, and consider which billionaires are liked versus disliked. I’d bet that artistic billionaires like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey are among the most liked, even after one controls for how well know they are. Same for rich actors and talk show hosts. In contrast, billionaires who are merely associated with an ordinary business are probably the least popular.

Note that while it was pretty functional for foragers to tolerate artistic inequality more, an added tolerance today for artistic billionaires over mere business billionaires has few functional benefits. Your added envy and hostility to mere business billionaires is just an arbitrary dysfunctional vestige of times long since past. Yes it might feel better to bash them, but is that really a good enough reason to do so?

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  • Robert Koslover

    Yup, that makes a LOT of sense. But… I bet you’ll only get criticism/denial from the class-envy/anti-business/politically-left/ivory-tower/ crowd, who will develop no shortage of passionate (and possibly, quite eloquent!) objections to your reasoning here, all so that they can continue to feel comfortable in their hatred/jealously of rich entrepreneurs (especially those that are self-made, hard-working, rags-to-riches types without prestigious ivy-league educations).

    • wow, the heavy, deforming weight of your psychology.

      • Robert Koslover

        No, it’s not about heavy or deforming psychology per se; it’s simply a viewpoint formed over years of experience both spanning and observing academia, government service, and free-enterprise environments. And at least one example of what I predicted has already appeared below. See, for example, the comment by mjgeddes, who speaks lustfully of committing physical violence against the rich, stealing what they have, and forcing them to support those who mjgeddes finds more intellectually deserving, rather than accepting the unpleasant (at least, to mjgeddes) decisions of a free market. Note also how mjgeddes casually identifies rich folk as obtaining their wealth primarily through luck, rather than hard work. And if there are a sufficiently large number of comments on this blog topic, surely more examples will follow.

    • Robert Koslover,
      I think mjgeddes is a bit more on the side of the angels than you because he links his animus against the rich with their underfunding of existential risk minimizing organizations and causes. That’s a bit better than random or nihilistic trading in the “I need enemies” space.

      I get it that rich people annoy mjgeddes and credentialed elites annoy you. But I think there’s a difference in advocating use of the guillotiine to incentivize better behavior (with regards to civilizational survival) and advocating use of the guillotine against elites on the team you don’t identify with.

      • Robert Koslover

        Hah. Let me get this straight. Literally advocating violence and theft (as done by mjgeddes) is “on the side of angels.” But simply expressing contempt for the thinking of leftist “credentialed elites” means that I am necessarily “advocating use of the guillotine” on them. And then, to top it off, you attempt to rationalize mjgeddes’ outrageous stance by implying that such violence and theft could be important to “civilizational survival.” Sure… do it for the children, no doubt! Of course, you may have to kill some of their parents, but hey, it’s all for the greater good, right? (Hmmm. May I suggest that for your next scathing attack, you call me a racist?) Sigh. C’mon man, you’re smarter than that (and I mean that sincerely, based on your often sophisticated comments on this blog). Consider using that quite-decent brain of yours to reevaluate your assumptions here. Best regards.

    • Thomas Bartscher

      One question: How is what Steve Jobs did worth more then thousand times what anybody else in his enterprise did? Seriously, maybe *doubly* so, but a thousand times and more? How is that only through hard work. If he had worked so hard as his wealth implies, he would be dead from exhaustion.

  • DW

    Ok, so what’s the control group?

    Does the average local hooligan think he can credibly assert his ability to beat up Steve Jobs? Sure.

    Does he also think he can credibly assert he can beat up Derek Jeter? Yep. Pretty much anybody? Probably.

    Fame is far.

  • mjgeddes

    Perhaps people are so inclined to bash the buisness billionaires because most people have to slog and slave their guts out day in and day out for chicken-feed in jobs they hate, whilst the business billionares spend all day figuring out how to rip everyone else off whilst living it up on the fruits of what is largely blind luck? Whereas, artistic billionaires actually generate things of value you know?

    You know, we should get all the business billionares in a room, get representatives from all the transhumanist organizations (Sing Inst, Imm Inst, SENS, Humanity+, IEET etc, etc), then it should be outlined why the billionares should pay each of the above organizations the sum of $100 million. If they don’t pay, a big gorilla of a security guy should be standing by to kick ’em all right up the arse on the spot (literally bash ’em).

    • Scott

      No, I don’t think that is a good idea.

      Also I think “creates things of value” is a terrible metric to try to argue that artistic billionaires are better than business billionaires. Business billionaires provide electricity, water, food, shelter, commerce, financial support (mortgages etc) and so on.

      Artistic billionaires are appreciated only after you’ve taken all the business billionaires for granted.

      • I would actually say that if we contrast them with other rich folks, “artistics” tend to be more in a superstar winner-take-all system (athletes as well). The individual winner is fairly replaceable and somebody else would fill their position without much loss in value. We could also tax them more without worrying as much about supply-side effects. If Harry Potter had never been created, there would have been some other books that captured our imaginations.

    • roystgnr

      I opened up the comments section to suggest a hypothesis, but you’ve already beaten me to *illustrating* the hypothesis:

      “Artistic billionaires” deal directly with large masses of the public. The public chooses directly whether to buy or not to buy e.g. an Apple product. So most buyers feel they got their money’s worth, a few buyers feel they didn’t get their money’s worth but can avoid the company in the future, and most people who don’t buy recognize they didn’t lose anything.

      But what about “business billionaires”, who deal with other businessmen or with small subsets of the public? If I can’t understand how an energy supplier or an investment banker got rich, clearly they must have been “figuring out how to rip everyone else off”! Worse: if I can’t figure out how they got so much money in the first place, how can I choose not to do business with them anymore? I must be trapped!

  • Seems more like an angle or a posture than an attempt at comprehensive review.

    What does bashing billionaires mean? How does a technocrat approach the distribution of billionaires? There are at least three human impulses with regards with the very wealthy -attack, defend, and ignore. But I think the anti-existential risk technocrat should approach the very wealthy, like any other factor that technocrat needs to consider, from the perspective of optimizing our societal survival odds. I’m guessing that leads to some taxation to cover what gap that can’t be filled strictly with pigovian taxes on waste, and some tolerance of inequality because of the productivty gains that come from allowing certain resource inequalities to exist.

  • Anon

    Because people realize oil billionaires don’t pump up their own oil, but they don’t realize Jobs dosn’t design iThings himself? Using Rowling as a third type of example, she *did* do somehting personally valuable, and do deserve to get somewhat rich, and the fact that she got richer than she should by a few orders of magnitude dosn’t register due to scope insensitivity, nor does the fact that thousands of other who produced equivalent products got nothing for it due to more or less random chance.

    There is no person that can drill for oil or make a smartphone, or even a pencil as was illustrated in a nice film if I remember correctly. The product most billionaires produce is *management*. What the management is then used to produce should (according to unrefined intuition) not be a factor overwhelming the quality of the management.

    So what people are complain about might be, with a bit of squinting, interpreted as lacking fungibility in management, thinking of it as a service like digging or coding, rather than a position with privilege and status attached.

    Disclaimer: I’m not really paying attention or thinking things trough, so I probably butchered a few concepts. This shouldn’t matter since the things I wanted to comunicate was the flash of intuition not an interpretation of what it means after you corect obvius flaws.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      How would I go about calculating how rich a given individual should be, exactly?

  • Daniel Burfoot

    >However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal.

    The three main political factions are aligned with a particular type of inequality about one of the three dimensions – money, sex, and power – of fundamental, visceral concern to men. The liberals want to minimize wealth inequality. The libertarians want to minimize power inequality. The social conservatives, with their emphasis on monogamy and marriage, want to minimize inequality of sexual access.

    • anonynous

      The social conservatives, with their emphasis on monogamy and marriage, want to minimize inequality of sexual access.

      That hadn’t occurred to me before. It may be right, and if so, it puts social conservatives in a different light.

    • anonymous

      Wow. This is one of the most interesting comments I’ve read on a blog in a long time. To me, it puts both libertarians and social conservatives in a different light.

    • Anonymous Bear

      If your hypothesis holds, the existence of copyable porn, prostitution and future VR sex should reduce the popularity of conservativism. Furthermore, these alternative outlets should be welcomed by conservative forces, as the reduce the inequality of access to sexual gratification. This does not seem to have much face plausibility.

      • Anonymity, Yay!

        My impression is that social conservatives are better modeled by seeing them as more interested in sex’s function as a process of reproduction rather than a source of orgasms. Further, I think they have an interest in everyone having relatively equal “access” to “reproductive success” (possible to the point of being *compelled* to breed). Compare and contrast with liberal attempts to pull people out of poverty with minimum wage laws that are technically coercive but pragmatically function to signal emotional affiliation with poor people.

        In the same vein, social conservatives seem to see it as proper for people who disrupt their social-norm-based sexual regulatory systems to be deprived of parenting rights as a punishment. A glaring example would be their desire to deprive gays and lesbians of the right to adopt. My guess is that a nontrivial number of social conservatives are gay by inclination but behaviorally straight, and see homosexual behavior as “defecting” from prioritizing reproduction over romantic satisfaction.

  • Lord

    We celebrate that which enriches us and decry that which impoverishes us. Is that so hard to understand? Jobs may have gotten wealthy, but so have the rest of us who get to use his products. The Koch brothers may have gotten wealthy, but at our expense, for their rewards are not yielding greater production. Eventually alternative energy sources will grow and displace oil and this will be real creation, and one can say it is the result of those higher costs, but it is innovation that is celebrated, not rent seeking monopolies, even if innovation leads to temporary rent seeking monopolies. The real reason to decry those rent seeking monopolies is they last much longer than patent derived ones. Yes, higher oil creates jobs in this country, but sadly, fewer than it destroys, and it does so by imposing external costs on all of us.

  • Proper Dave

    I think I’m going to have to out-contrarian you on this one, I think this intuition is good and productive!

    There are many rent seekers and plain parasites in the real world. And the world is not as a whole rich, being a rent seeker or parasite may be “tolerable” in America (but not sustainably), but deadly elsewhere.

    So I think this “bias” is a good thing in contrary to your believes.

  • Lord, Koch Industries does a lot of stuff, not just energy. I don’t really understand how one product makes us wealthy but the other one is “at our expense”. Even if we reduced things to oil, that has fantastically increased our productivity. The Industrial Revolution could have hardly happened without fossil fuels, and oil today is essential for transportation. You could argue though that KI is replaceable and somebody else would have provided oil (though again I would say that is enabling our productivity and not “at our expense”), whereas Jobs is truly unique and without him certain products or acceptable substitutes simply would not exist.

    Proper Dave, parasites and rent seekers do exist. Even if we were rich enough to “afford” them I would be glad if we strongly tried to discourage rent seeking. But that only justifies hostility toward parasites (which I expect Hanson shares in some form), and we haven’t established that billionaires generally speaking are parasites or that “artistic” ones are not, which was the whole point of this post.

    • Lord

      Of course oil was a great innovation in its day, but is that day now? Yet they are being rewarded for nothing. How much better to levy taxes on it and use that to displace it. We could become the entrepreneurs, the innovators, and increase everyone’s wealth, not just those who have a resource monopoly. That is why it is at our expense, because it does nothing to increase our wealth, only deplete it. It is the innovators that will increase it but that will only occur afterwards.

    • Lord

      Or more simply, when higher real prices lead to more production and falling real prices, we are enriched. When higher real prices do not lead to more more production and instead only to higher real prices, we are impoverished.
      Levies on the latter are not about bashing or envy but about the most appropriate use of resources and how we can all become better off.

  • Marcus

    Well, the obvious straw man here is the person who’s bashing billionaires. Your PERCEPTION is thus.

    You’re describing your perception. And somehow this proves something to you.

  • MinibearRex

    I don’t quite buy the reasoning that wealth was a vastly greater threat to our ancestors than more artistic traits. It may have a bigger effect, but someone with enough charm and sex appeal to steal your mate can screw your chances of reproduction almost as much as lack of food can. I would guess the divergence in reactions is probably more due to the fact that trying to take power from the powerful was a more effective strategy than trying to take talent from the artistic.