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Ban Billionaires! – Don't tax them, exile them to their yachts

    2023-04-24
    Time to read: 15 min
    Earlier this month the American president, Mr Joe Biden, proposed a minimum tax of 25% on billionaires. It is unclear whether such a proposal could ever gain traction in the land that invented the billionaire as a special class of modern man. Be that as it may, specially taxing billionaires will only solve short-term budget shortfalls. Billionaires are much more problematic than merely their electromagnetic greed indicates. As a class, they are highly disruptive of nearly everything good and all things beautiful, as their continued capture of taste and of our time should demonstrate.

     

    Jonathan Swift once offered a ‘Modest Proposal’ to get rid of the hordes of poor and underfed in Ireland, by purchasing and eating the children of the poor, which would solve both problems at once. We now need a similar modest proposal to sort out the billionaire problem, these ‘overmighty subjects’ in Thomas Hobbes’ phrase. Here is one: Don’t tax them, ban them to their yachts. Let them come ashore once a year for a Davos-style reunion on Borneo. But otherwise, it’s a ‘Waterworld’ for them. Unless, that is, they want to shed their golden handcuffs and swim ashore to re-join our human(e) world, which they would be welcome to do at anytime. By ‘billionaire’, I don’t just mean those who literally have a billion US dollars of assets, but also anyone controlling more personal or corporate wealth than the annual GDP of any single member of the United Nations (let’s call this the ‘UN Index’).     

    There are three sets of billionaires that should be launched first from the pier. One is comprised of the internationalists, corporate ‘citizens of the world’, including the very top of the entertainment and arts world, and anyone whose money is derived from handling their business (so, at least Gates, Beyoncé, Buffett). The second set is composed of nationalist ‘subsidy sultans,’ who gain competitive advantage through capture of tax revenue or development aid, making their own or other lands poorer and Switzerland richer (most of Silicon Valley, Musk, Trump, and all African and South American billionaires who have ever held a government post, or profited from mineral extraction or mining). There is a third set that merely squeezes the wealth from its people’s land because it is the declared ruling class or royal family – the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. I’ll offer a separate proposal for them, since they seem more comfortable surrounded by sand and glass than sea.

    The three primary reasons for this modest proposal relate to the three great domains in which billionaires offend: aesthetics, taste, and health and safety.

    Billionaires make the world ugly

    Billionaires tend to have bad taste, especially self-made ones. Their outsized effect on the industries downstream from them – combined with their oversized personalities operating under middling, mostly instrumental intelligences – tends to encourage the rest of us not to develop aesthetic judgment or even a ‘fashion sense’, but just to follow them.

    In popular taste, a great recent offender is Kanye West, and so his membership of the billionaires’ club has been allowed to lapse. But Ralph Lauren and Steve Jobs are equally guilty. Apple’s products under his leadership were cute and future-quaint, but also heavy, over-designed, over-priced, cumbersome to use in any but Jobs’ chosen way, and ultimately ugly. It took us ten years to realize these truths, in no small part because Steve Jobs hoodwinked a generation into loving his products, mostly by giving that generation a less repulsive-looking pleasure-delivery (and tracking) device than other tech companies were offering, and insisting it was beautiful until we agreed. 

    We might turn to the world of ‘fine art,’ which has been corrupted beyond recognition by billionaires’ patronage-profiteering. We would not have to put up with Koons or Hurst or Tracey Emin without billionaires’ desire to make a market out of things that are literally corpses, faeces, or rubbish. Move to the built environment: any modern building that you have ever seen that diminishes your humanity was built by a billionaire. I mean any glass-fronted skyscraper that shows you in its endless mirrors how very small you are before its Ozymandian glory, excluding even your gaze from its bespoke interior, only sending light back at you, like a reverse black hole. They are not meant to be enjoyed, they are meant to be honoured and praised as the idols of god-men, the new Towers of Babel. Obviously, these were put up by the first billionaires early in the twentieth century (at the time, mostly still known as ‘millionaires’). And since there is nothing a billionaire is more than a creature of the fashion of his peers, the quest for taller and bigger and more opulent has continued ever since. Donald Trump is the billionaire-on-paper who proves the rule. The Emirates are the place where the vice has been practiced as a national pastime.

    They have semi-literate taste

    Is there anything uglier than the fashion accessories of billionaires? Let’s set aside the women for a moment, if only because billionaire culture is highly male inflected. Over-sized, gold Rolex yacht watches are monstrous things, appended to the arm of a billi-punk in a track suit, like cancerous glitter. The only things worse than industrial billi-trend watches are the special-issue ones from Richard Mille or Urwerk. You know the ones I mean: they look as though Dungeons and Dragons sired a child with Game of Thrones, which was then aborted and sold for its parts to the watchmaker.

    Particularly worrisome is the subset of billionaires who were never required to read a book in between playing endless hours of World of Warcraft, punctuated only by furtive visits to porn sites for frantic bouts of self-abuse – and therefore never learned how analogies work. ‘Tech Bro Billionaires’ is what we might call this special subset of the species. They, like fast clocks, can be right more than twice a day. But the rest of the time, they are only indicating the importance of things they fancy, and want us to fancy so that they can buy more glitter-cancer. They sell us solutions based on the poorest of analogies, and in bad-faith hope in a future where the problems created by their computing forbears are solved by their own profitable distractions.  

    For instance, they are the kind of people who decide we can solve a local storage problem, by storing things in a ‘cloud.’ I mean, really, clouds are vapour, metaphorically ephemeral. Only angels can survive in the clouds. I just flew through one with an airplane, incidentally (a cloud, not an angel, as far as I could tell). Clouds appear and disappear based on meteorological changes, which we cannot control. So, why don’t you store your life’s memories there? While you are at it, pay for this ‘storage’ with a ‘crypto currency,’ which is not an actual currency (it is indexed to nothing but hype, and so is almost as unreliable as a state fiat) nor ‘crypto,’ at least by the prefix’s standard implication of secrecy. Once ‘crypto’ is public, presumably it is no longer ‘crypto.’ What it is, is a scam, a scheme, a self-enrichment con for a few Tech Bro Billionaires.

    Those who defend these or other billionaires are either blinded by the bling, or worried they will lose their preferred billionaire shield. ‘Musk saved Twitter!’ says the right. ‘Soros saved the world from the right!’ says the left. But this is like the logic of the escalation of nuclear armament. We learn to love the bomb not because we particularly want a nuclear weapon. We love it because we fear our neighbour having one whilst we are left without one. Billionaire-philia is an arms race. You have your Musk, I have my Kardashian, truly an eau de toilette. Open up the list of the 500 richest people in the world. We could do without all of them as billionaires, without diminishing our way of life by anything truly necessary for happiness.

    It’s unhealthy to be a billionaire (and a bit gross)

    It is probably more unhealthy to be a billionaire than to smoke cigarettes or to eat only meat or to sit at a computer all day coding. It's unhealthy for us non-billionaires, too, like cultural second-hand smoke. 

    Billionaires, like markets, vacillate between fear and hubris. When they are afraid, they can purchase comfort. When they are hubristic, they can buy glory. The hobbies of billionaires entice and titillate us, that reptile part of us and that child in us who wants what he wants and he wants it now. Excessive passion once satisfied tends to grow. The Greeks would decorate their statues with genitalia of a modest proportion. It was thought that large sexual organs indicated out-sized passions. Undue desire is a danger to oneself and to others. Massive concentrations of resources set at the disposal of so few individual pleasure centres, are like fungible pleasure organs. Bezos would destroy an historic Dutch bridge to have an over-sized yacht built where he wanted it built. Remember Michael Jackson’s ‘Neverland Ranch’? It had both the bones of the Elephant Man and a room to fondle invited children – and he never even delayed gratification long enough to become an actual billionaire.

    More generally, even when on their best behaviour, billionaires are in the habit of trying to own curious things: plutonium, a tiger farm, a harem, a plurality of all the advertising space on the internet. They know, deep down, that something has gone awry in the relation between desire, its satisfaction, and the outsized effects it has on others. So, they surround themselves with slogans on their lucre-lined path to the one-tenth of one-half of one percent. ‘Don’t be evil’ was the motto of the Google founders. But then, ‘Don’t be evil’ was quietly retired round about the time that the entire leadership of the company realized that it would have to be read as meaning just its opposite, that is, if they wished to continue their day jobs as billionaires running Google.  

    What is to be done?

    I’ve already given the clue away. Send them all out to sea, with their money, but converted into something that weighs as much as it is worth. Do this, Mr Biden, by setting a date, after which it is illegal to be found being a billionaire in your land (‘billionaire’ here  would be the ‘UN Index’ mentioned above). Owning a nuclear weapon is illegal, and so, on this plan, would be owning more than a billion dollars of assets. Encourage other nations to follow suit, denying development or military aid to any land that aids or abets a billionaire. The billionaires themselves would be asked to choose to leave or to divest – give it all away – and stay.    

    You might agree that this modest proposal is superior to the plan some have of eating billionaires, or just eating the rich generally. I don’t think things have descended yet to the point where the richest are more valuable for their meat than for their absence. But if inflation stays too high for too long, we might return to this consideration.   

    Some billionaires prefer sand or space to the sea, you say. And in this case, I think we should take their preferences seriously.  Some already want to take ships to Mars. Let’s encourage these one-way trips as ‘bring along a friend’ rides only for billionaires. One could scarcely imagine a more fitting fulfilment of what radical feminists think megalomaniacal men dream about than so many self-powered white phalluses penetrating Virgin Space.

    Finally, what about the Saudis and the like? Well, the Arabian peninsula is a sacred place, set apart. Dig a moat around it (already 75% complete, I believe), and institute a no-fly zone. Forbid Germany and Italy from supplying it with fast cars, and Britain from providing limos. Fence off the Arabian peninsula with a giant glass wall, made from desert sands, designed to looks like so many sky-scrapers in the distance, each reflecting the billionaires’ own light right back at them – so that their eyes are never undisturbed by the idols of their industry.

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