I read a post last month informing me that even if I started saving $10,000 a week when the Egyptian pyramids were built, I still wouldn’t be as rich as Jeff Bezos. I almost threw up. Another post titled “billionaires shouldn’t exist” circulated Instagram this summer, accessibly detailing the obscenity of extreme wealth. Before reading it, I knew vaguely that the top 1% alone was wealthier than the bottom 90% combined, but something so unjust and seemingly impossible is hard for anyone with the least bit of a conscience to fully comprehend. Human brains don’t even know how to process big numbers like that—especially ones like mine that shamelessly can’t do math on a regular day.
There are stark differences between a person who has worked for their money and earned success, and one who has stepped into wealth and called it a career. Surgery is not only a necessary service but one of the highest-paying careers in the U.S, yet a surgeon will never obtain Jeff Bezos’ wealth—and rightfully so. I don’t think any person is capable of justifying the morality or necessity of extreme wealth because it is neither moral nor necessary.
The post notes that 44% of billionaires acquired their wealth through inheritance. The rest of them acquired it through cruel exploitation of the working class. The post then cites Meagan Day, who deemed billionaires the most powerful “unelected” political figures in an article for Jacobin. She explained that the wealthy have the ability to influence the defunding of government-assistance programs and tax cuts for corporations and the rich, in turn affecting lower classes. As shown in studies comparing policy preferences between the wealthy and the general public, the former have extremely warped senses of reality—yet their finances grant them the privilege to impact policy. So the working class continues to work to make ends meet, with government support lessening and their hard labor generating wealth that will never be theirs. Jeff Bezos is currently worth $200 billion, while the median income of U.S. families is $75,000. As of August 2020, the national average income of an Amazon worker is $32,055.
The people that sustain Amazon’s internationally demanded services are receiving a lower income than the average U.S family. And they will never see the wealth that Bezos has obtained through the grueling conditions they endure.
We’ve essentially meme-ified the fact that he alone has enough money to end multitudes of global crises—all to cope with the fact that he refuses to do so. In a world where devastating numbers of people suffer from poverty, and where systemic racism, global warming, and patriarchy run rampant, billionaires are quite literally sitting on money that could eradicate some of these issues and supply reparations for others. Poverty remains a widespread issue because of this hierarchy and the ways we neglect our people.
It’s impossible to rationalize why anyone believes it is ethical to hold onto money that could change the world. It feels sinister to me. There’s the argument that if it’s yours, it’s yours—the conservative “no-handouts” notion that denies the reality of social systems that are tailored to disenfranchise minority groups—but it’s an argument that I can’t get behind. Legally, there’s nothing requiring a billionaire’s kindness or the relinquishing of their standing in the 1%. Morally, though, there’s so much at stake.
Even the most philanthropic of figures cannot navigate the intrinsic evil of excessive wealth. The people that uphold globally demanded services work in unsafe conditions and receive unfair wages; the norms that allow this treatment of the working class are impenetrable and have already done their damage.
Mackenzie Scott, who has pledged to give away her estimated net worth of $36 billion, is a rare example of wealth redistribution. She didn’t just open her purse and donate $1.7 billion, she funded HBCUs and other organizations tending to marginalized communities, planning to continue to do so “until the safe is empty.” Scott personally acknowledges her wealth as a “disproportionate amount of money” and her direct no-strings-attached donations are honorable, as opposed to foundations that serve a giver’s interest. But it’s interesting to watch the dialogue of praise unfold—there are people who face scrutiny and hardship, and she’s using the whopping sum she owns to help them. Why do we clap for that? Because our appreciation of generosity stems from a culture that expects very little from the people in power.
Billionaires have gone ahead and dehumanized themselves; their affluence and apathy has detached them from the common experience. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen mutual aid raise money for bail funds, help people pay rent and medical bills, and fill neighborhood pantries while the rich stayed mute. The general public is going above and beyond to ensure people can access food, shelter, and healthcare while the median net worth of today’s Congress Members is $1 million and our representatives are worth over $3 billion combined.
Advocacy for basic rights is the bare minimum. Until opportunity is truly equal—in all the intricate senses of that word—a life of luxury is a life of bloodied hands.
By Angelica Crisostomo
Illustration by Seb Westcott