Billionaires like to think that they’re entitled to their wealth. But almost every time they claim they are a million times more meritorious than the plebs, they demonstrate an ignorance and petulance which upends the myth of meritocracy. No one makes the argument against billionaires like billionaires.
Elon Musk, who is probably the richest person in history, demonstrated this truth once more over the weekend, when Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted a mild statement to his followers in support of increasing taxes on the very rich. “We must demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share. Period,” Sanders said. Musk responded to the 80-year-old Sanders: “I keep forgetting that you’re still alive.”
Fox News, predictably siding with the powerful, went with the headline “Elon Musk slams Bernie Sanders” and the comments filled up with Musk defenders. The rich pay most taxes, while the poor pay little, they claimed, so how can you say the rich don’t pay their fair share? Sanders is a millionaire himself, so how dare he criticize people who are much richer than he is? Musk creates jobs! Billionaires are our saviors! Bow to them!
But the truth is that the federal government creates a lot more jobs than Musk does. And Sanders, who Musk suggests is irrelevant, has been central to advancing Biden’s economic agenda. That included the massive $2 trillion Covid relief package at the beginning of the year, which sent direct payments to most taxpayers and created a massive drop in child poverty. It also includes the recent $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges without which Musk’s (poorly designed) electric cars would be virtually useless.
Musk benefits indirectly from the government maintaining a public highway system. But Tesla has also received more than $5 billion in government aid. In addition, people who purchase Tesla’s electric cars get tax credits; Musk relies on those to encourage sales.
In return for all this government aid, Musk pays almost nothing into the common pot. In 2018, he literally did not pay a cent on his fortune in taxes.
Most of us have never received $5 billion in aid from the government. If we had, we would probably remember it. When Musk says he forgot Sanders existed, he’s either being duplicitous or he doesn’t understand how his own company works. Either way, sneering at an elderly person’s health problems (Sanders had a heart attack in 2019) is crass and cruel. Musk doesn’t sound like a savvy, sober job creator. He sounds like a churlish and irresponsible fool.
And Musk’s ill-considered public behavior has harmed his company in the past. A 2018 podcast appearance in which he smoked cannabis and drank whiskey caused Tesla’s stock to plummet. He also caused an 8 percent drop in Bitcoin after saying on Twitter that Tesla planned to sell its holdings in May.
People who aren’t billionaires are regularly fired or imprisoned for cannabis use. An employee who irresponsibly divulged business decisions creating unplanned market fluctuations would almost certainly lose their job. Musk’s extreme wealth, though, shields him from most consequences.
Musk can wander around the public stage, insulting Senators, tanking prices, misleading people about his company’s reliance on government funding, and generally behaving in an ignorant and foolish manner. He will suffer no consequences. Indeed, he will be cheered on for that very ignorance and foolishness by people who want to identify with his wealth and power.
Wealth seems like its own justification. If you are the richest man in the world, or the richest man of all time, it seems logical that you must be doing something right. But often (as in Musk’s case) wealthy people just started out ahead and then ended up in the right place at the right time. After a certain point, it doesn’t matter how dunderheaded or unpleasant you are. The sheer inertia of wealth and privilege means you can tank company after company and still end up president of the United States.
Which is why one important function of government is to mitigate inequities. The very wealthy, no matter how entitled they think they are, have to recognize that they are in fact accountable to the rest of us.
Musk has the right to make an ass of himself on Twitter like everyone else. But when he does so, it’s a reminder that he is not better or smarter or more virtuous than his peers. He is not entitled by superior intelligence or effort to his massive windfall. He’s just some troll who got lucky. And when people get lucky, they should share that luck, so we all flourish.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies