Billionaires Have Control Over Our Country. Why? 

A billionaire’s hands puppeteering the country. The top 1% has undeniable power over many systems in the US. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

“Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it,” wrote Elon Musk on April 13, 2022. It’s almost comical, something a corrupt mentor would say in a fantasy movie when preparing to exploit the susceptible main character, or a line from a high school sports coach, living vicariously through the achievements of their 14-year-old athletes. But Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is not in either of those situations. He’s a 50 year old man with a child named X Æ A-12 (what?) in an on-and-off relationship with pop singer Grimes. And oh right – he is also the richest person in the world. 

Musk recently bought several shares of Twitter. Not soon after, he released a statement on—get it—Twitter, stating his new proposal to not just hold a share in Twitter, but buy the entire company. According to him, in the proposal to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, he “invested in Twitter as [he] believe[s] in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and [he] believe[s] free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.” He then went on to write that “[he] now realize[s] the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.” 

Musk believes that something is wrong with an app. When a typical person believes something is wrong with an app, they usually complain about it, maybe write a 1-star review in the App Store, and begrudgingly keep using it. But Musk – a powerful entity whose amount of wealth can get him virtually anything, proposed to buy the app in its entirety. And on April 26, 2022, the proposal went through. So now, one man owns Twitter, an app that has never been owned by one singular person. The deal is expected to close later this year.

And that’s not a small purchase – he will be paying $54.20 per share, valuing the company at $44 billion. $44 billion is a large number to grapple with. 

Similarly, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and second-richest person in the world, wanted to travel to space, which is an opportunity typically reserved for only the highest trained and most qualified individuals. But through both influence and money (two powers that only grow exponentially when you have wealth like both men do), he was able to take his very own trip to space in 2021. 

The amount of wealth and influence both Bezos and Musk have, as well as the other billionaires in the world begs the questions: How should these people be spending their money? Should we enforce policies to control the swell in the wealth divide, or is this exactly what the American Dream entails – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? 

Musk is the richest person in the world, according to Forbes, who keeps an online database that tracks the wealth of the richest people in the world in an ever-updating list. Musk remains securely at the top of this list, with Bezos and Bernard Arnault (CEO of Louis Vuitton) taking second and third places, respectively. It is important to note, however; wealth at this level fluctuates day-to-day, because it is directly tied into stocks and investments. This is what makes it so hard to visualize the sheer amount of money these people have, because so little of it is in hard cash; the majority of it is reflected in assets and percent shares of large corporations. 

Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett (CEO of Berkshire Hathaway), possess the same amount of wealth as 50% of the people in the US have combined, according to an article by Inequality.org. What do they do with this money? Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, recently gave away a record $275 million dollars to Planned Parenthood as part of her pledge to donate a majority of her wealth, which she has from her 4% stock in Amazon. Bezos, however, has only given away 1.2% of his wealth, which is about $2.1 billion. Buffett has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to various charities and endowments by the time of his death. Buffett is also one of the few billionaires who has spoken publicly about the inequities between tax rates, stating in 2012 that he was paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. Gates, co-founder and CEO of Microsoft, and his wife Melinda Gates, have a foundation called the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Through their website, it’s noted that the pair has donated over “$36.8 billion so far to cure disease, save lives, and help the world’s neediest.” However, this isn’t the “who-can-donate-more-to-the-poor-Olympics.” Gates and Buffett are generally regarded as more charitable and overall “good” people than Bezos, but can you truly be “good” if you possess an unimaginable amount of wealth greater than virtually everyone in the world?

“Whenever you see those lists of billionaires, I think it’s important to ask ourselves, where did they start off and what opportunities were they given?” says Kimberly Livesay, social studies and economics teacher at Franklin High School. “Why is it so hard for other people to build generational wealth? What is the connection with [wealth] and systems, policies, practices within our country that have consistently put barriers up for communities of color?” There’s no doubt that the ability to gain wealth, property, and assets and pass it down through generations is something very few people can do. In the US, there are only eight Black billionaires, five of whom are in the entertainment business, a source of wealth that does not come from family money. These individuals truly “built themselves up from the ground” unlike their White counterparts, most of whom had family wealth. 

Credit card company Gravity Payments made news in 2015 when they raised employee wages to a minimum $70k per year, and the CEO took a personal $1 million pay cut as well. The company was heavily criticized for this radical business move, and many predicted its future failure. The higher pay has resulted in employees being able to start families, own homes, and live happier lives. But it has also resulted in company growth. In 2021, Gravity Payments had doubled their number of employees and tripled business, all while still paying each employee $70k per year.

On the other hand, Amazon is not a good place to work. It’s a simple fact. Poor and grueling work conditions in Amazon factories have all come to light in the past few years, with workers detailing limited bathroom breaks, work-related physical injuries, as well as mental and physical trauma endured during working hours. All for a $37,930 yearly paycheck. For Bezos, and other executives, paying low wages is strategic. They see workers as replaceable cogs in a machine. Corporations like Amazon don’t see the individual, they only see the profit. According to a graphic published in the New York Times Magazine, for the average Amazon employee to accumulate as much money as Bezos has, they would have had to start working 4.5 million years ago. Because Bezos makes $500 a second, it’s clear that the message stating “work hard and you will be successful” is not true. Only certain people will be successful, and this rhetoric is inescapable, since our country itself is founded on greed and capitalism, and built on the free labor of Black Americans. “Everything is systemic in this country, so you cannot divorce economic policy or the ability to gain wealth from all the other systems and institutions in this country,” Livesay says. “Economics in America is built off the institution of slavery.” 

There has been a recent push to tax the rich at higher rates than the rest of the public in order to “rebalance” this wealth divide. In fact, Biden’s proposed “Build Back Better” plan, while it’s unlikely to be implemented, would “impose a new surcharge on the top 0.02% of Americans,” according to the White House. “This framework will set the United States on course to meet its climate goals, create millions of good-paying jobs, enable more Americans to join and remain in the labor force, and grow our economy from the bottom up and the middle out,” says a project description from the White House website. “[The Build Back Better Plan] is basically taxing the rich on future wealth that they’re going to make. So it’s predicted wealth. And I really think that’s a great idea,” comments Livesay. “There are people who argue against [the plan]. I think it potentially doesn’t always work to tax billionaires, it hasn’t always worked in other countries, they have tried it and it hasn’t always gone well. I think that it’s hard to compare the US to other countries because all the economic systems are a little different.” She does note, however, that some of the pushback around the plan is because people wonder if it’s actually productive for the economy. She explains that taxing the top 1% sometimes disincentivizes them from further investing in the country. 

So does this mean the top 1% completely controls the actions of our government? Does the sheer amount of money they possess make it impossible to write legislation they disagree with? On a smaller scale, now that Musk has gained ownership of Twitter, he will be able to control the algorithm and content released on the app. But does he (and other billionaires) also have power to control the algorithm of our country just based on their impact on the economy? 

While plans like the Build Back Better plan and the Green New Deal have attempted to call out the inequitable wealth divide in the country and combat it, no definite steps have been taken towards redistribution. Reparations, or the reallocation of money towards groups like the Black and Indigenous communities who have been and are currently being exploited and given little or no opportunities to gain wealth and assets, is an unpopular proposal. The truth is, nearly no one is willing to give up their money, hard earned or not. But the wealth and power divide between the richest citizens and the poorest is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug much longer. 

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