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(My title comes from this 1963 essay.)

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Everyone’s laughing at Schultz’s request not to be called a billionaire; instead, he asks that we use the phrase ‘people of means.’ Some of the more amusing responses to his ‘billionaire’ problem:

I prefer ‘wealth extractors’

[how about] ‘money hoarders’

‘poverty profiteers’

Thank you Howard Schultz for calling out the dehumanising label ‘billionaire’ applied to people merely for causing vast swaths of the world to live in absolute, crushing misery. I vow to do better

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Why would a billionaire not wish to be called a billionaire? I can’t think of instances where millionaires asked not to be called millionaires. Michael Hiltzik wrote a recent column titled America is Falling Out of Love with Billionaires, so there does seem to be a problem of some sort. (“The plus side of Howard running is he’s making more people hate billionaires.”) What could it be?

Let’s start with Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs:

The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.

Millionaires can be pointlessly and destructively greedy, but only to a certain, reasonably comprehensible, extent. Billionaires can – nay, many of them, it appears, must – really go to town, in a way that strikes the rest of us as simply mentally ill. There will always be no-limits wealth defenders to tell us we’re envious or we’re going to destroy personal enterprise; but it’s hard to know how to be envious of people who desperately unenterprisingly do things like this:

Last week it was reported that Daniel Snyder, the owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, was spending $100 million on a 305-foot super-yacht complete with an on-board IMAX screening room. It’s his second yacht, after a 220-foot version.

At the same moment, hedge fund owner Ken Griffin was disclosed as the buyer of the most expensive home in America, a $238-million Manhattan penthouse. According to Bloomberg, he already owns two floors of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Chicago ($30 million), a Miami Beach penthouse ($60 million), another Chicago penthouse ($58.75 million) and another apartment in Manhattan ($40 million).

Titanic, duplicative, restless, vacuous greed unsettles us; it makes the ethical grotesquerie of one human being holding fourteen billion dollars extremely graphic. “Why,” asks Farhad Manjoo, ” should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?” What sort of people has our, uh, country of means spawned? Consider the vast antiquity of Robert Hughes’ 2004 comment on the billionaire art buyers of his day:

[T]he present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.

$104m? Try $450m.

Billionaires, notes Merryn Somerset Webb, typically exist

as a result of mismanaged monetary policy (free money can do a lot if you use it right); badly thought-out regulation; politically unacceptable rent-seeking; corruption; asset bubbles; a failure of anti-trust rules; or some miserable mixture of the lot.

Hiztlik quotes Keynes going deeper into the obscenity Hughes describes. Keynes found the emergent form of what he called “the money motive” repulsive, and hoped for an end to “many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues…. [T]he love of money as a possession [has become the goal] — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life. [This behavior] will [someday] be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

Billionaires represent the compulsive masturbators of their day, and more and more of them are doing it in public. Schultz knows this.

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2 Responses to “Howard Schultz’s Billionaire Problem – And Ours”

  1. Bill R Says:

    “I have never yet known a man admit that he was either rich or asleep: perhaps the poor man and the wakeful man have some great moral advantage.”
    ― Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Bill R: Nice!

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