Americans have a love-hate relationship with billionaires.
The billionaire, not orange, is the new black. One billionaire at present is running, rather erratically, for President and another – a media tech mogul, no less – is waiting in the wings, salivating at the prospect of spending a billion dollars on his own run. The entire American political process, certainly on the Republican side, has been transformed by those fabulous billionaire Koch brothers. On the Democrat side of the aisle, the conversation is all about the one-percenters and economic inequality and, that preferred political vehicle of choice of billionaires, the Super PAC. Last but not least, Showtime just green lighted the fascinating Billions for another season almost immediately after the pilot aired.
What is behind this new found American fascination with plutocrats? It is not so new found, this fascination. Before there was Tony Stark or even naughty Christian Grey, there was Citizen Charles Foster Kane, and before that there was Jay Gatsby. America has always been an aspirational
country, which explains Trump’s initial success in national polls. Americans, in the past, didn’t begrudge the billionaire class because, of course, there was always the possibility that through hard work and American grit, one could find oneself on the Forbes 400 list.
The pendulum swings. The economic crash of 2007 took the blush off the rose of the one percent. Billionaires no longer seemed, to the average American, as benevolent figures of mirth and joviality. There is no way around spinning the malevolence of offshore global tax havens and complex trust mechanisms that shield inherited wealth from federal taxes. Super PACs, through an entrenched aristocracy, now regularly influence government to favor the interests of corporations. And the fabulous Koch Industries – the business arm of those climate-change denying brothers – is one of the largest environmental polluters on the planet.
Still, the fascination endures. Billionaires are larger than life figures with larger than life appetites. They are human beings on steroids; their divorces and real estate holdings are telenovelas in real time. They arduously toil – or inherit – so that they can rest their surgically- tightened little tushies in the best properties. Shopping is more than a verb, it is a way of life breathlessly chronicled in the gossip pages. They are surrounded by art, preferably of the Impressionist period. They don’t just do yachts anymore: they do superyachts. And speaking of superyachting: Paul Allen, recently crashed his mega yacht – named, almost improbably, “Tatoosh” – into a goddam coral reef. You could not, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, make this shit up.
The media gleefully paints billionaires in purple, Sith-like prose because, quite frankly, billionaires oftentimes behave like dark lords of the Sith. There are weighty journalistic questions now about whether or not the Las Vegas Review-Journal will be able to maintain its journalistic independence in covering Sith-like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who just bought the paper through a shell company. In January, an advisor to the paper told Review-Journal staff to ease up on how they covered Mr. Adelson. Charmed, I’m goddam sure.
For every bad billionaire, there is a good bilionaire – or at least a bad billionaire with a swell PR team. Bill Gates, for instance, has certainly made
the world a better place, pitting his hyper-competitive personality against malaria. Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as Warren Buffett and dozens
of other billionaires have taken “The Giving Pledge,” promising the majority of their net worth to charity. Bravo. And reclusive South African billionaire Allan Grey has already transferred the controlling interests of Allan Grey Investments to philanthropy.
Alturism, however, is not easy for billionaires. Hyper-competitive types – as billionaires usually are – don’t usually like to give up the goods with no
strings attached (i.e. their name on a hospital wing or school library). Last December, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was giving 99 percent of
his net wealth to charity. Borborygmopus was the media frenzy that ensued. Zuckerberg, who understands something about SEO and how writers on a deadline think, was automatically declared a secular saint by the internet. It was so easy to run with a Zuckerberg Donates 99 Percent of His Fortune headline. Then Jesse Eisinger of Pro Publica alerted the media that, in fact, Zuckerberg’s clever little maneuver, while kind (charmed, again I’m sure), also shielded the majority of his assets from the taxman. “Mr. Zuckerberg created an investment vehicle,” Eisinger informed the press. “Sorry for the slightly less sexy headline,” he apologized.
Being a billionaire means never having to say you are sorry.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Ugandan Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival to name a few.