In the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate in Nevada, MSNBC journalist Chuck Todd asked candidate Bernie Sanders a probing question, “What did you mean that you don’t think they [billionaires] should exist?”
Sanders described the effects of an economic system that allows for “a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income.” Todd then turned to candidate Mike Bloomberg to ask the provocative question: “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
For any concrete thing, to have the state of being that implies a presence in the world. For everything else, to be present in thought alone in some people’s minds, which implies that such things can as easily not exist as exist.
People exist in the real world. The idea represented by the word “billionaire” is a description not of an individual person but of a relationship between a being and an idea of worth translated into the terms of monetary value.
Sanders answered Todd’s question by explaining the meaning of his remark in moral terms. He gave an example, complaining that when one person’s wealth is more than that of “the bottom 125 million” living in the same society, it should be deemed “wrong” and “immoral.”
Morality is of course an abstract, culturally-determined concept. The principles that define it for any group of people are variable. Nevertheless, every human society proposes and finds multiple ways of enforcing a widely shared sense of morality. This sense of morality provides guidelines for both spontaneous human interaction and the drafting of laws.
Sanders appeals to this general sense of morality that some people call “decency.” He pertinently answers Todd’s question, making it clear that the meaning of “billionaires shouldn’t exist” is very simply that society would function better if it could find ways of limiting excessive wealth. In no way does it suggest that billionaires should be removed from society. But Chuck Todd’s second question, addressed to Mike Bloomberg, shows that he has no patience with subtle or even obvious distinctions. He asks Bloomberg whether he himself, as a person (and not as a billionaire) should exist. It’s as if Todd hasn’t been listening to Sanders’ response but is simply reading his next prepared question.
Bloomberg shows a deeper understanding of Sanders’ meaning when he answers Todd’s question with these words: “I can’t speak for all billionaires.” Unlike Todd, he acknowledges that the question is about the morality of being a billionaire rather than about any given billionaire’s right to exist. He then defends himself by affirming that he’s “giving it all away to make this country better,” which sounds very moral indeed, if slightly hypocritical, because in reality he has been using mountains of his money to buy advertising and the loyalty of local politicians across the nation.
Todd adds to his own confusion when he frames a new question to Bloomberg: “Have you earned too much … should you have earned that much money?” Now he has moved to the moral plane in contrast to his earlier existential questions. “Should” signifies something that is morally permissible. The appropriate answer to that would involve defining the limits of permissible behavior. But Todd is a journalist, not a philosopher. He asks the question not to explore the moral issue, but to provoke a defensive answer from Bloomberg, perhaps even hoping to goad the billionaire to attack Sanders for presuming to define how much money is permissible.
As is often the case with TV journalists like Chuck Todd, the meaning of the question is skewed by both the verb he chooses, to earn,” and the noun, “money.” He assumes that Bloomberg’s wealth was earned, whereas all everyone knows is that Bloomberg has accumulated what financial analysts refer to as a massive “net worth.” There is no reason to assume Bloomberg “earned” it. In practical terms, it’s impossible to imagine anyone earning that amount of money, which is precisely what Sanders suggested by calling it “grotesque.” The basic meaning of the verb “to earn” is “to receive money for work that you do.” Can anyone do $60 billion worth of work, even over an entire lifetime?
By calling Bloomberg’s fortune “money,” Todd takes another liberty with the language and an even greater liberty with the logic of the debate. The net worth of a capitalist is the result of two operating principles. The first is that it’s the billionaire’s investments that are doing the work, not the billionaire. And, as Sanders aptly points out, other people had a hand in the process: “Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that, as well.”
Even Bloomberg was careful to avoid claiming he “earned” his billions. He boasted: “I’m a philanthropist who didn’t inherit his money but made his money.” Making is not the same thing as earning. The distinction is important, but Chuck Todd again shows little interest in linguistic distinctions.
The concern with concentrated wealth is nothing new in history, even if the media treat it as if it was a problem that has only arisen in the last 10 years. In his famous book, “Utopia,” 16th-century English humanist Thomas More expressed his astonishment at the spontaneous admiration people could have for the wealthy, not because of their moral qualities, but exclusively because of their wealth. He mentioned “the folly of those, who, when they see a rich man, though they owe him nothing, and are not in the least dependent on his bounty, are ready to pay him divine honours because he is rich.”
This could be taken for a description of some of today’s establishment Democrats, who to a large extent do in fact depend on billionaires’ bounty. Then there is the case of The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, who tells us that a fundamental reason he supports Bloomberg is because he is rich. In his recent pitch for the former New York mayor, Friedman admired the fact that Bloomberg “has the resources to build a machine big enough to take on the Trump machine.”
This gives us an idea of Friedman’s idea of utopia: It is a political system in which a person with extraordinary means can build a “machine” that will take over the government and then restore order by establishing the rules of behavior for the entire population. Friedman would undoubtedly counter that the purpose of the machine only concerns winning elections, but observers of modern democracy are well aware of how political machines work.
Thomas More imagined a society that didn’t worship private wealth. In his Utopia, all excess wealth went into a kind of universal insurance fund. He didn’t call it “Medicare for all” because it was about much more than health services. The society he describes didn’t see money as something to be desired, but something that was useful for responding to needs: “Having no use for money among themselves, but keeping it as a provision against events which seldom happen, and between which are generally long intervals, they value it no farther than it deserves, that is, in proportion to its use.”
As English King Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas More was well aware of the relationship between money and power. He realized that if one person controls the equivalent of the monetary wealth of a nation, or simply the equivalent of the monetary wealth of a good proportion of the population, the power it confers on that person will lead inevitably to abuse, precisely because people tend to admire wealth.
Students of history know that on July 6, 1535, More himself paid the ultimate price when he was beheaded on the orders of his boss, Henry VIII. Henry used the Protestant Reformation to seize the Catholic Church’s rich holdings and become a royal billionaire. According to Peter Ackroyd, author of “Tudors, The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I,” More objected to Henry’s opportunistic exploitation of the revolt against the Catholic Church principally because he saw the Reformation as a threat to the stability of society as a whole.
More was prescient in ways that Henry VIII was not. The Reformation inaugurated a series of devastating religious wars across Europe that lasted until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. But More also may have underestimated the significance of a parallel phenomenon taking place in European politics: the emergence of the nation-state. This new form of political and social organization had begun replacing the medieval feudal order. The Reformation provided a powerful impetus toward consolidating power around nation-states.
Today, 500 years after the publication of “Utopia,” the global political culture built around the notion of the nation-state is under pressure. Two major factors have contributed to that pressure: the trend toward excessive militarization and the disastrous effects a global capitalist economy built around the competition of nation-states has had on the environment.
The resistance to the decline of the nation-state has now taken the form of a trend toward concentrating power in the hands of determined individuals who, by virtue of their authoritarian proclivities or their personal fortunes, can impose their personal views on the democracies that elect them. This is the age of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron and Victor Orban, all of whom understand how money, power, an oligarchic community of wealthy people and a media-friendly personality work together to reinforce their nation’s identity in competition not only with other nations, but also with other peoples (races, religions) and especially with alternative systems of social organization.
And, in some very real sense, this is all possible because billionaires not only exist but thrive inside the economies of these nation-states, even in the ones that call themselves communist.
[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.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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