Billionaires are an existential threat to democratic societies.
The history of humanity and of this earth is not one of billionaires, and the conditions necessary to maintain them have been conquered not by reason, not by resolve, but by force and at gunpoint.
A billionaire is defined as someone with total assets—investments, cash and other assets—worth over $1 billion, which can be accrued in a few ways: These assets can be inherited from a family member; previously existing assets have been invested for a return that leads to the accumulation of more than $1 billion; or an individual works and is paid enough to earn over $1 billion.
For the third scenario to be possible, an individual’s yearly salary would have to equal $50 million to earn $1 billion within 20 years, before taxes and excluding any expenses.
Generally speaking, we can assume that a billionaire accumulated their wealth through inheritance—such as one-third of the members of the Forbes 400—or investment.
The United States tax code only exacerbates the unequal distribution of wealth, and according to two University of California Berkeley professors, the effective tax rate on capital has dipped below income tax rate for the first time in U.S. modern history. If already being wealthy is more profitable than working, the wealthy will increasingly command a larger proportion of wealth among a smaller population.
French economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated this scenario in 2013 in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, writing that capital gains returns causes a “global dynamic of accumulation and distribution of wealth characterized by explosive trajectories and uncontrolled inegalitarian spirals.” Whenever this has happened in the past two centuries, income inequality grows and the growth rate of world output—production—decreases, Piketty stated.
The conditions that create a billionaire are the material conditions that support them. It is necessary for billionaires to have social, military and political control, and they achieved this through patronage, campaign donations and blackmail. Billionaires also maintain social control through their monopoly of the media and their influence on the U.S. education system, including promoting charter schools and supporting for-profit colleges that defraud students, as in the case of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Billionaires also preserve international control through oversight of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization: three of the world’s largest economic development and trade organizations, which have received scrutiny for pushing neoliberal, austerity measures on developing countries.
The ideological hegemony necessary to maintain billionaires ignores the bloody foundation of their existence. Throughout history, billionaire’s steered U.S. foreign policy, maintaining control through union-busting, anti-communism, international military intervention and international regime change via the National Endowment for Democracy and the non-profit industrial complex.
In the 20th century alone, wars have been waged against Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada, Vietnam, Korea and more, and billionaires supported regime change, oppression and coups in Latin American countries to ensure dangerous chemicals and cheap labor could be utilized in resource extraction efforts by American companies.
The billionaire owners of the United Fruit Company provoked a bloody civil war in Guatemala to ensure the company maintained complete control of the country’s only export route and squash land reforms that would have seized a tiny portion of the vast land they owned. The company, with the help of the CIA and U.S. state department, successfully orchestrated a covert operation that ended with a military coup and the ouster of Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954.
During the second World War, Nestle subsidiaries in Germany were found guilty of using Nazi slave labor during the Holocaust, and George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, managed accounts for companies profiting from Nazi businesses. In fact, the only American to be positively referenced in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf wasn’t a politician, general or religious figure. It was billionaire Henry Ford, who was also an owner of an independent newspaper that spread anti-Semitic propaganda.
The claim “should a billionaire exist?” at its crux is actually another question entirely: Is the exploitation of labor, the oppression of marginalized people and the purposeful underdevelopment and neocolonialism of the Global south an acceptable price to pay for the existence of the billionaire?
For there is no billionaire without capitalism, and there is no capitalism without slavery, colonialism, genocide and exploitation. A world without billionaires is a precondition for a world where all people can live with the right to dignity.