Opinion | There are no ethical billionaires

By Sarah Liez, Senior Staff Columnist

In a capitalist economy with few limits on how a person can acquire and maintain their wealth, we live with an abundance of billionaires. Social media, news sources and politics constantly bombard us with the idea of “$1 billion” to the extent that we’ve become numb to it. As a result, the majority of Americans, myself included, fail to properly conceptualize just how much a billion truly is.

Through the typical immoral strategies used to earn and maintain a billion dollars — such as investments in big oil, technology expansion reliant on the abuse of natural resources and manufacturing reliant on the mistreatment of workers — I have recently come to believe that no one can truly be a good person while owning a billion dollars. Not to mention, the understanding that an individual with a billion dollars — in accumulated wealth, assets and investments — actively chooses not to ease the suffering of millions, even billions worldwide, instead hoarding a fortune that is too much for one person to reasonably spend.

In order to understand why a person cannot morally own a billion dollars, one must first understand exactly how much money that truly is. So how much is one billion, really? Here are a few examples to help us conceptualize the amount — a million seconds is roughly equal to eleven days, whereas a billion seconds is roughly equal to 31.5 years. If you had a million dollars and spent $1000 a day, you would run out of money in three years. In contrast, if you had a billion dollars and spent the same amount each day, it would take you 2,740 years to spend your wealth. If you earned $7,000 an hour every day since the birth of Jesus Christ, you’d have a whopping $124 billion by the end of 2022 and would still have made less money than 58-year-old Jeff Bezos — whose estimated net worth is $138.2 billion.

A billion dollars, in reality, is an alarming amount of wealth for one person to earn and maintain. Even while most billionaires dedicate large sums of money to charitable causes and philanthropic organizations, these are small sums in comparison to their overall wealth. Even more, they often use their money to minimally mitigate the large, negative impacts of their own financial practices. Mark Zuckerburg, for example, donates millions each year to combat the housing crisis in Silicon Valley — one that he created himself through mass gentrification.

Even “charitable” billionaires known for donating their fortune to valuable causes are not in the clear ethics-wise. Oprah Winfrey is a great example of this phenomenon, working herself out of poverty and into wealth and fame through the “Oprah Winfrey Show” from 1986 to 2011. The $2.9 billion she’s acquired from this show, however, does not go towards entirely ethical expenses. She owns a $42 million private jet and has taken multiple cruises via private yachts worth tens of millions of dollars — both of which are known for their catastrophic carbon emissions. She’s also spent over $100 million on property around the world — including in many highly desired locations such as Maui, Hawaii and Montecito, California — which takes away and raises the price of valuable land from working-class, indigenous individuals.

Even while Winfrey has donated hundreds of millions over the years to a number of charitable organizations — from schools in South Africa to the Time’s Up campaign — her immense private spending has produced considerable environmental damage while simultaneously exposing the massive fortune she keeps for herself.

While we do exist in a free-market economy and it is not any individual’s responsibility to spend their money on others living in poverty and squalor, billionaires have the undeniable power to do something major at little cost to themselves. A billion dollars is far more than a single person needs to survive or even enjoy life. Yet, these individuals continue to perform charitable acts for the public eye while spending the vast majority of their wealth on personal, environmentally destructive means, hoarding insane amounts of money while the majority of individuals on Earth struggle to afford basic necessities.

This is why, as of 2019, the wealthiest 1% of American families own roughly 34% of the country’s wealth, whereas the bottom 50% of American families own nearly 2% — all while the wealthiest pay only 25.6% of all taxes.

Furthermore, billionaires exhibit a link between corruption and extreme wealth, often using unethical means to earn and hoard money that others desperately need, simultaneously wielding insane political power in the process. As United States House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once said, “No one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars.”

Capitalist systems create billionaires by enabling the abuse of others. Jeff Bezos, for example, is known to place his Amazon workers in horrendous conditions in order to maximize their labor, even forcing individuals to skip bathroom breaks in order to keep their jobs.

Billionaires thrive off of the abuse of their workers. They do not make the products they sell themselves — rather, they oversee thousands of workers who create these products for them. In order to turn over a profit of a billion dollars, these workers are, more often than not, underpaid and subject to physical and other abuses. Billionaires make their money off the backs of novel immigrants, minority groups and those living in poverty who are desperate enough for a job that they will accept any pay or conditions if it means a stable wage.

Simultaneously, these billionaires save money by ignoring environmental needs, choosing to leave enormous carbon footprints rather than pay the price for renewable, clean energy and other environmentally friendly practices. Again, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos knowingly emitted roughly 71.44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 — a powerful greenhouse gas that rapidly warms our planet, causing mass environmental disaster — in 2018 alone. This number is greater than the carbon footprint of many small countries, such as that of Switzerland.

The business models of many billionaires further relies on the concept of overconsumption. This entails lowering prices to increase purchasing demand, consequently manufacturing intentionally low-quality items for the appeal of cheapness. This culture of overconsumption imposed by large, wealthy companies encourages consumers to buy and toss products to their delight, appealing to fast-fashion trends especially.

The resources required to make, package and ship these products all over the world increase as companies such as Amazon sell more and more. The cycle intensifies, repeats, and Jeff Bezos gains money while our climate crisis worsens.

As the wealth gap between rich and poor widens globally each year, billionaires threaten the lives of everyone on Earth. They earn their money by abusing their workers, reaping the planet of its limited resources and paying politicians to keep rules and regulations in their favor. Even seemingly philanthropic and kind billionaires choose to maintain their wealth rather than alleviate the poverty of millions, even if they did acquire their money through seemingly ethical means. It is about time that we all realize — there are no ethical billionaires.

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected].