Space-sized egos, tiny tax bills… Billionaires should be jettisoned

The time has come to abolish billionaires. I mean, it’s been coming for a while, but now the alarm is ringing.

It started ringing when it first became clear that the existence of billionaires revealed a huge failure in our economic system. When it first became clear where wealth comes from, a combination of inheritance, corruption and exploitation. When the benefits of billionaires, who have often been believed to helpfully provide a trickle-down of cash to the rest of us ordinaries, were revealed to be at best minimal and at worst devastating, as their tax avoidance fatally impacts education and healthcare. In June, ProPublica reported that American billionaires essentially pay no taxes – they didn’t break the rules; the rules were broken already. And in this way wealth begets wealth – a millionaire can become a billionaire by simply sitting very still.

It has been clear that billionaires should be abolished since they first started using their money to undermine democracy, buying influence in government, or impunity from justice, or favour from the media. Since global inequality became so vast that the 22 richest men in the world had more wealth than all the women in Africa. Since the pandemic created a record number of British billionaires in the same year where hundreds of thousands of less wealthy people lost their jobs. The world’s 500 richest people added $1.8tn to their fortunes last year, while in Kenya alone two million people fell into poverty. Since then, really.

But the time has come, because it is simply not possible to wait any longer. Billionaires must be abolished today, and the reason is not just all of that, all of the extremely compelling and upsetting arguments that reveal the mad bad state we are in, no, it is far more disturbing. The reason they must be abolished right now is because they are unacceptably, horribly naff. See, for evidence, the image of Richard Branson pumping the air after returning from space, in his best sunglasses with his special space chains round his chest, so happy because he had… beaten Jeff Bezos.

Branson started work on his “commercial spaceline” in 2004. In 2007, three employees were killed in an explosion during testing and in 2014 a pilot died when the spaceplane broke in half midair. At which point, I think the average person might have sat back and had a little think, a little biscuity moment to ask: why me, why this? Is offering really, really rich people the opportunity to visit space an important enough project that a number of my employees die trying? What is my driving force here? Am I using my powers for good, or am I instead partaking in history’s grandest pissing contest? Is that a respectable game for a 70-year-old rich man to play, when the planet is, among other things, melting?

Branson wasn’t expected to fly this time, they were going to do another test flight first, but when Bezos announced plans to be on the first passenger flight with his own space venture, Blue Origin (really the perfect name, because if you get too many stickers printed you can also launch an affordable men’s deodorant brand) Branson immediately changed his mind. Popped up to space. Had a look. Came back. The whole thing is so unutterably embarrassing it hurts my teeth.

It is impossible not to be distressingly uncool if you are a billionaire. It seems that money, while offering immense privilege, security and the ability to build a champagne gunge tank on a whim for reasons of vague spirituality, also saps you of both self-awareness and class. Take, for example, this anecdote about Branson’s rival Jeff Bezos, a man so rich he has evolved to look like a little coin bag stuffed with notes. He was at a breakfast meeting with the owner of a start-up he was planning to buy, and instead of porridge, or eggs, he ordered octopus. At this point in the story I stay with the waiter as he calmly replies, “Very good,” and walks smartly into the kitchen where he sinks to the floor, head in his hands and screams: “LADS THERE’S ANOTHER BILLIONAIRE DOING A METAPHOR ON TABLE SIX.” Bezos explained to the start-up guy: “You’re the octopus that I’m having for breakfast. When I look at the menu, you’re the thing I don’t understand, the thing I’ve never had. I must have the breakfast octopus.” Abolish billionaires.

Abolish billionaires, with their egos so large they can’t be contained upon a single planet, with their taxes so small they appear to have been photographed from space, with their branded philanthropy and greenwashed causes designed not to help the world, but to increase profit by reassuring customers they’re helping the world. Abolish billionaires, with their comedy breakfasts and electric surfboards (Zuckerberg) and Twitter poems (Musk) spinning their adolescent obsession with colonising space as a benevolent humanitarian effort. Abolish billionaires, with their abominable sunglasses. The time has come.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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