If wealth was purely a measure of one’s contribution to society than people would deserve respect in proportion to their wealth; that the wealthy do deserve respect and deference is suggested by our social norms. But correlation doesn’t mean causation.
The wealthy receive special treatment because there is a monetary incentive for others to treat them this way. It is in our own self-interest to treat those with the most money with the most respect. But it is not in our collective interest to do so: when wealth is categorically treated as a measure of respectability it makes our culture covet wealth blindly: ambition forsakes altruism.
It is pointless to refer to the ultra-wealthy as though they are a type. They span the spectrum of personality and ideology like every other socio-economic class. (If I am to say that wealth is not a valid basis for appraising character, than that must go for the ultra-rich, as well.) But it is hard to explain how a person either generous or humble could come to command the material resources that take thousands of other people to produce. Sometimes I catch myself reading and thinking too much about those who pursue laissez-faire ideals with tunnel-visioned fervor. I give myself a hard time. But my interest is not, I don’t believe, the cult of choreographed personalities: capitalism is a belief system with many logical fallacies (“phallacies”?). Power and acquisitiveness create addictions, and addictions create social diseases that manifest in ways you simply could not make up: I find these stories to be poignant lessons about how life should be lived.
After Martin Shkreli bought a pharmaceutical company last year he raised the price of the life-saving drug it produced, Daraprim, by 55.55 times overnight. People who needed Daraprim to fight their rare, and fatal, parasitic disease, now owed him $75,000 for a single bottle of the pills.
Shkreli did not help develop the medicine: not only had it had been around for generations, he lacked the skill set to do so. Shkreli did not view a career in medicine as a way to help people. In medicated and controlled illness, problem and solution, he saw a vulnerability to exploit. Put another way, he made an investment, and then leveraged that investment to maximize personal profit, as his culture taught him to do. “Should be a very handsome investment,” he wrote his stockholders.
Martin Shkreli’s choice is not an isolated aberration. In a 2016 investigative report by the U.S. Senate, his Turing Pharmaceuticals was one of the four highest-profile companies representing a wider trend. In a broader sense, the same story is playing out on many different levels of American culture. The one that I’m most familiar with is a type of extortion exerted on people who see value in land preservation.
Tom Chapman calls himself “a landowner advocate.” His mission is to point out the “hypocrisy” of those who believe that federal land is priceless, and at the same time, that it should be exempted from market forces. Chapman’s calling card is buying property adjacent to natural areas that are especially fragile, beloved, or both, and then drawing up plans for gratuitous developments. (Inholdings in wilderness are especially effective.) When the public objects he sells the land to the government at the price of top-tier resort real estate and pockets millions of dollars. This is extortion because he makes money by not causing harm.
Outside of my home of Livingston, Montana, we have the fall-out of a Tom Chapman copycat. In 1992 Jim Sievers, a San Francisco real estate developer, bought 140 acres—the legacy of an unproductive mineral claim from the late 19th century—deep in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s largest wilderness area. “In all the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness,” he boasted, “this is the tiara, the crown jewel.” Sievers played the good guy, forced into an unfortunate but inevitable bind placed by our economic system: “I’m trying to preserve that wilderness piece,” he said, “(and) I don’t need any more money.” At the same time, understand, he had a responsibility, a “fiduciary responsibility” to his children’s “trust fund”—and if the Forest Service wouldn’t buy the mineral rights to his property (“They’re going to cost plenty,” he intimated) he would be forced to start bulldozing a road across the wilderness to his land, where he would then build a gold mine. Fortunately, land managers called his bluff—the proposal was completely unfeasible. Bulldozers still made it in there (delivered by air), but today, the parcel hosts only a helicopter-accessed vacation cabin.
‘Following the money,’ they call it. Where does money lead us? It leads us toward the opposite of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” whatever that is. If you are in the medical field money leads toward cosmetic surgery, designer babies, and that ultimate vanity cause of the person who suffers for already having everything: the key to human immortality. “(Immortality is) about a future (where)… life is fair,” maintains Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris. Only a Google CEO would suggest that life is not fair primarily in the sense that even billionaires have to die. By pouring hundreds of millions of their own money into this literary archetype of human hubris, while funding for public-minded science and technology is cut across the board, billionaires distort the entire human endeavor.
In a plutocracy, real problems—like overpopulation—are ignored or evaded; they become worse. The ultra-rich respond by going on the defensive, insulating themselves, plotting escape plans from the disaster that they see as inevitable—thereby precipitating it. A recent article by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker documents the increasingly elaborate preparations billionaires are taking to survive the apocalypse. They buy condo space in underground bunkers guarded by gun turrets; talk militias. One privileged prepper estimates over half of American billionaires have jumped on board—stockpiled years of food, snapped up Western ranches and New Zealand farms, hoarded gold. Gold, that most symbolic of commodities, which is only real in the sense that its pursuit guarantees the utter annihilation of natural environments. The misallocation of resources becomes more absurd, the disparity between rich and poor becomes more cutting.
Achieving wealth has become a way to escape responsibility to society. That’s what Donald Trump meant when he told his television audience that he likes being rich because he can just grab women “by the pussy.” He also has gold inlaid in his floor. With a few notable exceptions, extreme wealth is not reinvested in improving society as intended. Self-interest is the driving motivation for wealth so self-interest is what is rewarded; the most self-interested control the most resources and they set the standards by which society operates. American billionaires haven’t needed to make an articulate case that their interests are in line with anybody else’s because, lucky for them, we have been trained well. We just keep following the money.