What’s the Right Question to Ask About the World’s Billionaires?

A cartoon sketch of "Mr Money Bags" as Walt Rakowich wonders what we should be asking about the world's billionaires.

Throughout history Americans have demonstrated a collective grit and ingenuity, resulting in society-changing milestones, inventions, and personal prosperity. In fact, there is so much individual affluence in our country today as a result of our ability to pursue a personal vision that, for the first time, people are asking, “Should we have billionaires?”

That’s an interesting question—especially in a country where we take pride in supporting the American dream. Understandably, maybe there’s a bit of skepticism behind that question.

Regardless of the question’s motivation, I can understand Bill Gates’ recent comments in a Forbes interview: “I think it’s fascinating that for the first time in my life people are saying, ‘Okay, should you have billionaires?’ ‘Should you have a wealth tax?’ I think it’s a fine discussion. My opinion is that there should be an estate tax and maybe even higher than we have today…”

As for disincentivizing the entrepreneurial spirit, Gates says, “The idea that there shouldn’t be billionaires—I’m afraid if you really implemented something like that, that the amount you would gain would be much less than the amount you would lose.”

Perhaps an equally important question Gates could have been asked is how people of means choose to apply their influence. Though this question more specifically addresses our potential concerns, chances are the answer is just as muddy. We often see examples of influencers with great means letting greed or questionable ethics guide their spending decisions, yet we also observe industrious leaders who’ve thoughtfully and intentionally put their resources to good use.

We have to be vigilant viewers and listeners about someone’s desire to use their influence. 

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Because I choose to have hope in the human spirit, and I’m inspired by the generosity I’ve observed in people around me, I return to what I’ve focused on since I began blogging. When individuals of any kind apply thoughtful influence with positive motives, outcomes are usually beneficial. Maybe it’s no different than if the person has wealth. That’s not to say it’s easy if your intentions are good. As Warren Buffett once said, “It is far easier to make money than to give it away effectively.”

More to Buffett’s point, it’s not enough to accept good deeds at face value. As we’ve seen in current events and thanks to the internet, transparency can be your best strategy or your worst nightmare. We have to be vigilant viewers and listeners about someone’s desire to use their influence.

Rather than ask if we have too much prosperity in our country, let’s focus on posing the tougher questions about how affluent individuals are using their influence. If we can hold the wealthy to a higher standard, then perhaps the question, “Should we have more billionaires?” might be easier to answer.

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