Despite their exponentially growing fortunes, life is becoming harder for the world’s richest billionaires. The Guardian’s Warren Murray offers his top story of the day with this headline: “Billionaires ‘worried by own sheer wealth.’”
The Swiss bank UBS has been studying the dilemma. It estimates that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires have grown this year “by more than a quarter to a record” $10.2 trillion. In contrast, the World Bank warned on October 7 “that the coronavirus pandemic could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty this year.” The executive director of Britain’s High Pay Centre, Luke Hilyard, characterizes the growing wealth of billionaires as “an ugly phenomenon from a moral perspective” that is “also economically and socially destructive.”
The article in The Guardian quotes UBS banker Josef Stadler, who explains why the wealthy have been growing wealthier by the hour in a time of dire crisis for the rest of humanity. It is simply because “they were able to buy shares when markets were crashing and were rewarded when global stocks rebounded.”
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Murray describes Stadler as the “head of super-rich banking” at UBS. This must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. The level of pressure a banker of the super-rich must constantly be subjected to must be mind-boggling. Only someone with a solid personality and a special mental make-up could have the courage to carry out a job like that.
Imagine what it entails. On one bad day, you may find yourself with the nerve-wracking task of explaining to one of your clients who has followed advice you gave at a moment of market volatility that, in the past 24 hours, that same client has lost $7 billion (out of more than $100 billion). How will the now impoverished centi-billionaire explain this to their spouse in the evening after coming home for dinner after a hard day’s work? Now we know why Jeff Bezos insists on washing the dishes.
Like any observant restaurant owner catering to a loyal clientele, the banker of the super-rich keeps track of their clients’ tastes and what they expect to be fed. The Guardian reports this essential bit of wisdom offered by the UBS banker: “Stadler said billionaires typically have ‘significant risk appetite’ and were confident to gamble some of their considerable fortunes.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The desire commonly felt by extremely wealthy people to become much richer than they already are, safe in the knowledge that even if they lose everything they risk, they will be able to laugh it off as a case of misjudgment, but if it is successful, it will provide them with the exciting challenge of seeking new ways to spend even more money they absolutely do not need.
Historians have never settled the question of whether Marie Antoinette actually had an appetite for brioche. She did seem to understand that, for any human being, if a necessity such as bread is lacking and one has access to a less appropriate substitute, they should go for it. It isn’t a question of appetite or taste, but of meeting the minimal needs signaled by hunger. What both the Austrian Marie Antoinette and the Swiss Josef Stadler have revealed is that society has constructed various approaches not only to meeting the natural demands defined by the reflex of hunger, but also to allocating the privileges associated with appetite.
Some people are hungry simply because their body is deprived of sustenance. Hunger drives them toward acts of consumption designed to assure their survival. Such people are likely to be ready to take any number of risks for their next meal, including theft and the possible consequence of incarceration, as Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean demonstrated in “Les Misérables.” They understand that the consequences of failure to eat regularly may be dire. And even the consequences of success, if it involves theft, may be dire.
Others feel hungry just because their circadian clock tells them it’s time to eat. Eating defines their daily rhythm. They would feel empty without a planned meal or the random snacks modern consumers depend on to calm their hunger pangs and ease their minds. Though he may have been unconsciously quoting Molière — whose character, the miser Harpagon, objected to spending too much on food — Benjamin Franklin famously asserted as a moral imperative, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” In other words, learn to control your appetite.
As Stadler the banker reveals, appetite applies to more than food. The well-fed can develop an appetite for things they had never previously tried. Instead of serving to guarantee their survival, the appetite they cultivate seeks to feed their vanity. Between the case of those concerned with eating for survival and those who focus on feeding their vanity, the stakes are very different. For the former, appetite is about life or death. The risk they run is the loss of life. For the latter, it is at most a vague feeling of disappointment and possibly a blow to their self-esteem.
Josef Stadler tells us the super-rich possess the confidence “to gamble some of their considerable fortunes.” Gambling has two synonyms: gaming and playing. In French, all three ideas are represented by the same verb, jouer, which at its base simply means “play.” The word “gamble” is a recent creation in the English language. In the late 16th century, the word “gamel,” which later became “gambel” and then “gamble” had come into the language with the meaning, “to play games.” It derives from “game,” reflecting the logic of French. By 1726, the accepted definition of “gambling” was: “risk something of value on a game of chance.”
Even in English, you can play the piano, play gin rummy or play the stock market. It should be obvious that people who participate in games have an appetite for play, a social activity that always involves uncertain outcomes. But in the world of investment, the related ideas of risk, gambling and betting rarely suggest an appetite for the social activity of playing, which implies sharing as well as largely riskless competing. Instead, in the world where money is the measure of everything, gambling signifies the cynical desire to increase one’s wealth at the expense of anyone willing to take a risk on their own welfare.
The website Investopedia explains that risk has little to do with appetite and everything to do with calculation. It’s something to be managed rather than indulged in. Risk management requires understanding the mathematical concept of deviation and then making decisions aimed at exploiting the factors of deviation. “In finance, standard deviation is a common metric associated with risk,” the website reads. Some people consider billionaires deviants, but not for this reason.
For the super-wealthy, the idea of risk deviates radically from the average person’s idea of it. As Stadler mentions, billionaires are now finally becoming aware that “the extent of their riches could lead to public and political anger.” Risking “some of their considerable fortunes,” as they have habitually done in the past, is child’s play compared to the potential risk of political anger. It’s the difference between an inconvenience and an existential danger.
If the growing awareness of the wealthy is real, what can we reasonably predict will happen in the near future? The super-rich could develop an appetite for finding effective ways of distributing their excess wealth. That would be a reasonable solution that might appease and even cancel the growing anger.
But how likely is it? In The Guardian’s article, Luke Hilyard identifies the forces at work in the economy. They have nothing to do with appetite or hunger pangs. “The problem is the power of interest on interest — that makes big money bigger,” he says. Concentrated wealth requires no appetite to grow. It doesn’t even require people making decisions. It just grows.
Today’s concentrated wealth exists within a system built to make it grow. The system even includes what many feel to be a moral imperative that politicians have adopted as a dogma: “growth is good.” This sadly but inevitably translates in many people’s minds as “greed is good.”
In this moment of extreme political uncertainty, is there any real likelihood that society can come to grips with the risks we all face collectively? And can we possibly redefine what it means to have a “healthy appetite?” There simply isn’t enough brioche to go around.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.