By James Pethokoukis
When presented with left-wing (typically, it seems, but maybe that’s changing) complaints about American billionaires — the US has the most in the world in absolute terms and also more per capita than any large economy — I would point out that many, many of the superduper wealthy got that way by building a business. The US actually leads in that category, too.
At that point, the complaint would typically evolve to address the nature of those businesses — the tech billionaires in particular. They’re the new robber barons, making fortunes through addiction and surveillance! Amazon is killing the mall! They’re providing nothing of substance!
My counter to this is to point out how much we value social media, Amazon Prime, and our smartphones. These are important products and services offered by companies that hire lots of high-wage workers and spend a lot on R&D. And if you’re looking for a billionaire whose businesses make big-ticket items, how about Elon Musk? Electric cars, reusable rockets, solar panels. He seems like the sort of billionaire that even an inequality-worrying tech critic might have a few good words for.
But it turns out Musk falls short, too:
There is nothing new about this complaint. The same thing happened during Apollo, even as War on Poverty spending was ramping up and the space program was winding down. The US was a wealthy country and could do multiple things at once. And it’s even richer now and more able to multitask. The private-sector-driven space program took a big step forward last year even as we spent trillions on pandemic relief. Exploration and a Mars colony aside, this space revival could result in a multi-trillion space economy. And redistributing wealth is a whole lot easier when you’re creating lots more of it at the same time.
But I suppose none of that is too important if you’re in the “rich people are a policy mistake” camp. It doesn’t matter how you got what you have, just that you have it, and Sanders thinks you shouldn’t.