We don’t talk about wealth the way we used to five or ten years ago. Occupy Wall Street changed the vernacular when the movement popularized the term “the one per cent” to describe a wealthy elite with supranational power and goals. Now the word “oligarchy” is making its way into mainstream discussions, and more people are beginning to pay attention to exactly what that all that money can buy: elections and governments. It’s not just the uber-wealthy who are pushing back against that narrative aggressively, though.
The crumbs from a billionaire’s table are feasts to a vassal class, which includes media and government. These people can do very well for themselves, and they don’t have to get leaned on particularly hard (or even at all sometimes) to put on their capes and fly to defense of their masters. It doesn’t stop there, though. A lot of average people with unremarkable jobs, subpar health insurance (if any at all), and no hope of receiving a pension are vociferous defenders of the billionaire class. I’ve always found it odd. I didn’t know there were so many people who thought it was possible to earn a billion dollars, much less to do it ethically. You have to break more than a few backs and exploit a whole lot of people to hoard that kind of wealth. Why are so many of the people whose backs are being broken on the side of the billionaire class?
Part of the issue is that one billion is such a staggeringly large number that people can’t quite grasp the scale of it. A billionaire isn’t simply a very rich person, which is how they are often portrayed. Millionaires are rich. The wealthiest billionaires control the equivalent of some countries’ GDPs. As there have been more discussions around the issue, comparisons of “a million” to “a billion” have been making the rounds to help people grasp the magnitude of the difference. A million seconds is about 12 days. A billion seconds is about 31 years. If you earned $50,000 a day, it would take 20 days to earn a million dollars and almost 55 years to earn a billion.
Aspirations of upward mobility rooted in a Calvinistic work ethic also underpin much of the admiration billionaires receive. Hard work leads to prosperity. There’s no such thing as easy money. People firmly believe these myths, particularly in the United States, even though the American Dream stalled out along with rising wages over 40 years ago. The prosperity that followed World War II didn’t last as long as the stagnation that began in the late 70s has. Even so, working harder for longer and for less is lauded in some circles, because many people believe wealth is attributed to deservingness — one follows from the other. Proving themselves to be deserving through self-flagellatingly taxing work is the first step on the path to becoming wealthy. Lurking in the notion of deservingness is a lot of the heavy lifting of getting poor people to defend billionaires.
Many of the people racing to defend the reputations of men who own yachts the size of apartment buildings aren’t particularly hard workers, though. Some like to pretend they’re “grinding” and working towards building wealth, but a lot of it is posturing. Others with a bit more self-awareness can admit their lack of work ethic, but they admire people who “had great ideas” and made a lot of money from them. It’s there in the vagueness of “a great idea” that I think people attach themselves to the billionaire class in their fantasies. They are one great idea away from proving everyone wrong, and becoming the envy of their friends and enemies, of the world. They aren’t a medical emergency away from utter financial devastation — they are temporarily embarrassed billionaires.
I write a lot about the intersection of sports with social justice, and sports is an arena that provides a good lens through which to analyze the conundrum of the average Joe who identifies with a billionaire. Whenever highly paid professional athletes are in conflict with the extraordinarily wealthy people who own most top-shelf sports franchises, a large contingent of fans consistently sides with the owners, many of whom inherited their wealth and ownership of the teams. The players, most of whom come from humble circumstances, are derided as selfish and greedy for wanting a larger share of the enormous sums of money their highly specialized labor generates. The hard work part of the reward equation evaporates, and protecting the pocket books of the billionaire owners is all that matters. Millionaires, who made it out of hard-scrabble circumstances against astronomical odds, become the enemy. I think it’s in part because the fantasy of a nebulous “great idea” leading to success doesn’t stand up in sports.
You can’t fake or fast talk your way to victory on a football field or baseball diamond. You get exposed, and it happens quickly. Also, talent matters. A lot of the talk about hard work is meant to mask that. No one could outwork Usain Bolt’s raw talent. Not when he was working hard too. Accepting that is frustrating. Nearly all athletes who compete at a high level were identified to be trained up by the time they were 12 or 13 years-old (and that’s late for some sports). People’s lofty dreams of athletic achievement are brought back down to reality when they’re pretty young. The herd is culled mercilessly. Meritocracies are unforgiving, and a whole lot of people don’t really want to live in one. It’s too disappointing to accept that they’re average. They’d rather cultivate the fantasy of starting the next Instagram than accept reality. They identify as what they aspire to be — a billionaire tech founder, etc. — instead of accepting what they are.
Sports also expose how closely those notions that deservingness is created by hard work are influenced by the class and race of the workers. People who do certain kinds of work are more deserving than others. All the sweaty grunting athletes do is too much like manual labor, which is low-paid and viewed as low-skill. It’s not that simple, though. Professional golfers and tennis players receive nowhere near as much ire as basketball or football players for earning ridiculous sums of money to play games well. Fans demand almost cringing humility from athletes from certain backgrounds to crush any notion they might have of rising above their station, of thinking they’re better than the rest of us. They have to be brought down a few pegs.
Most billionaires earn their fortunes in business or finance — fields that, unlike sports, the average person doesn’t understand. A Fortune 500 company is very different from even a very successful local chain store, and investment banks are incredibly well-disguised casinos. The mystique protects people who make their fortunes as hedge fund managers or tech founders from judgment. There is also a veneer of respectability attached to wealth. We are conditioned from cradle to grave to respond to certain class markers with deference. Resisting those cues is coded as envy. The propaganda is ubiquitous and not always easy to discern. Wanting to be on the receiving end of that deference is understandable, but I’m glad the bubble is being burst, and people are being asked to challenge their beliefs about obscene wealth and its role in society.
Originally published on my Patreon.