Do Billionaires Have Too Much Money?

Editor’s note: In this Future View, students discuss billionaires and wealth disparity. Next week we’ll ask, “Responding to Covid, American colleges increasingly relied on remote learning, and, once in place, these distance learning courses are proving hard to halt. Is this move towards online classes for traditional college education a good trend?” Students should click here to submit opinions of fewer than 250 words before May 3. The best responses will be published that night.

The proper question to ask is not whether America’s overall disparity of wealth is increasing, but whether the standard of living is improving across the board. And the answer to that is yes. Widespread advances in technology have helped improve the overall quality of life across the nation. Phones, computers and e-commerce are such examples. Behind each influential technology stand billionaires who played instrumental roles in its development. We should consider their wealth as a small percentage of the overall value that they helped create, with most of the gains being captured by consumers.

A cursory glance at the group of ultra-wealthy Americans reveals that much of their money was earned meritoriously, through a combination of skill, hard work and drive. In 2021 reports showed that over 70% of the 400 richest men in the US and 88% of millionaires are self-made. We should see those vast fortunes as the pinnacle of the American Dream, not as phenomena to ridicule.

—Jeffrey Wolberg, Columbia University, computer science

Innovation Creates Value

Successful business moguls like

Elon Musk

are a fruit of US culture, not symptoms of its rot. The ability to build and succeed is an inseparable part of the American Dream, which has drawn people to this nation for generations and created one of the most competitive and inventive societies on earth. The billionaire technocrat and the mom-and-pop shop down the street are both created by this ideal.

While the degree to which Americans realize this dream varies widely, society needs to be careful not to confuse wealth equality with baseline living standards. The economy is not zero-sum, and the commerce made by innovation creates value across socioeconomic ranks.

Mr. Musk may be richer than Smaug, but the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by his enterprises, his revolutionary automotive and green technologies, and the prospect of commercialized space travel as a competitive industry contribute more to the rest of us than he could ever personally profit. One may have likewise found Henry Ford’s opulent wealth irksome when he first put automobiles on the assembly line in 1913, but it’s worth not having to commute by horse or bicycle.

Are the outcomes fair or proportionate? No. And these tech moguls can have grating personalities. But just as one must separate the art from the artist, Americans should laud our economy’s rapid growth even if we do not find ourselves personally invested in the people behind it.

—Nathan Biller, Colgate University, history and political science

This Is Nothing New

Disdain for extremely successful entrepreneurs isn’t surprising given the rise of redistributionist ideology in some political corners. It’s an increasingly common political ploy to frame the wealth of Elon Musk as uniquely bad for the rest of us.

Thus, for example, though the acquisitions of media companies by billionaires is nothing new, Mr. Musk’s purchase of

Twitter

has been met by some with hysteria.

Jeff Bezos

owns the Washington Post and Laurene Powell Jobs owns the Atlantic, but blue-check-marked journalists claim Mr. Musk’s acquisition is novel and dangerous.

This country faced periods of immense economic inequality in the 1920s and the 1870s. Tycoons from that was such as

J. P. Morgan,

Washington Duke and Leland Stanford left a lasting mark on our society—their names are scattered all across prestigious universities, companies and museums. Wealth is nothing new. What’s particular to our time is the urging by progressives to get billionaires to succumb to their cultural control.

—Andrew Swanson, Hamilton College, economics

Musk’s Wealth Is Speculative

People have every right to scoff at the extreme wealth disparities that exist in America today. It doesn’t make sense for money to be hoarded by a few people while everyone else has to spend their lives making do.

The general populace, however, does not understand the limits of Elon Musk’s wealth. He may well be worth hundreds of billions, but that wealth doesn’t exist in a bank account. Much is speculative, based on the companies he operates. ace of 2021,

Tesla

was valued higher than such automakers as

Toyota

or

General Motors,

despite its lack of legacy and larger market share. It’s easy to imagine that this valuation could decrease, which would drastically decrease Mr. Musk’s wealth.

The average person would be outraged to see his wealth diminish from factors outside his control. Mr. Musk is playing a game of speculation. He sometimes makes promises his companies don’t keep, and the market eventually corrects rogue speculation. Mr. Musk happens to thrive with speculative wealth, while others prefer a bank account’s stability.

—Nicholas Hiser, Stanford University, symbolic systems

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