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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