Not many people can single-handedly transform the world — but billionaires can.
Billionaires collectively have trillions of dollars parked in private foundations and donor-advised funds, tax havens, assets, and investment funds. It’s hard to visualize that kind of money, but the analogy of time is useful. A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years. And a trillion seconds is 31,688 years.
An Oxfam analysis prior to the pandemic found that billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest 4.6 billion people combined, and the richest 22 men own as much wealth as all of the women in Africa. Worldwide, an estimated 689 million people live on less than $1.90 a day.
The overwhelming majority of humans will never come close to possessing $1 million. Since COVID-19 emerged, inequalities have only grown more pronounced — during the pandemic, billionaires in the United States added $1.8 trillion to their collective net worth.
Liquidating just their pandemic earnings would be enough to ease the daily suffering of billions of people and protect biodiversity at a time when millions of species face extinction.
In fact, helping all countries comfortably adapt to climate change would cost $1.8 trillion — a clean transfer of wealth that would prevent hundreds of millions of people from dying and being displaced by climate disasters. In doing so, they’d be saving countries $7.1 trillion in climate costs.
For a lower price tag, $6 billion could prevent 41 million people from starving this year. For less than $10 billion, billionaires could fully fund the UN’s refugee programs, helping to resettle some of the most vulnerable people in the world. And for $35 billion annually, billionaires could close the global funding gap for education, ensuring that every child can go to school.
Yet most of the world’s super wealthy hardly donate to charitable causes, and they’re becoming less generous over time, with a few notable exceptions. Forbes’ 400 Philanthropy Score found that the number of American billionaires who gave away 20% of their annual income sharply declined between 2018 and 2019. Most of them gave away less than 1% of their income during this period.
So what are they spending their money on?
1. Private Islands and Land
Billionaires love to buy vast tracts of land. Most of the time, the uber-wealthy buy land — such as remote islands — for lavish villas and estates. Sometimes, they dispossess communities and harm the environment in the process.
They could instead follow the lead of billionaires like Hansjörg Wyss who have bought land and then established wildlife reserves to protect plants, animals, and broader ecosystems. Land could also simply be returned to Indigenous people through a process known as “land back” after centuries of colonial violence and dispossession.
2. Private Planes and Mega Yachts
Billionaires love to burn fossil fuels. Whether it’s through their private planes, mega yachts, or armadas of cars, billionaires use up a lot of oil as they get from point A to point B. The movie theaters and heated swimming pools in their mansions also need a lot of electricity from energy grids powered by natural gas and coal.
All told, billionaires have carbon footprints several thousands of times greater than the average person, according to an analysis by researchers at Indiana University.
Instead of disproportionately heating the atmosphere, billionaires could fund initiatives aimed at protecting the planet such as research into renewable energy and environmental conservation and restoration programs.
3. Trips to Space
Who hasn’t looked up at the stars to marvel at the grandeur of the universe? For billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, who have poured billions of dollars into personal space flight programs, the sight of a clear night sky is apparently not good enough. Bezos, in particular, forked out over $5.5 billion for four minutes in suborbital space aboard his Blue Origin vessel.
Since the billionaires competing to go to space are not inventing new technology, why not instead pay for a more useful technological advancement such as community electricity? Around the world, there are still 770 million people who lack electricity, which prevents them from not just using a computer but also benefiting from light bulbs, refrigerators, and air conditioners. In the context of a heat wave, lacking an air conditioner can be the difference between life and death.
4. Doomsday Shelters
Many billionaires seem to think the world is doomed and spend vast sums of money buying properties in remote parts of the world to escape the looming apocalypse. They also build underground bunkers and stock them with years worth of food, water, and toys to ward off boredom.
But the world isn’t doomed, contrary to pessimistic forecasts. Transforming the global economy will be expensive, but billionaires have more than enough means to fund a just transition.
5. Pursuing Eternity
No human has lived forever. But that hasn’t stopped some billionaires from trying to scheme their way into infinity. A new market has emerged in recent years to offer youthful blood transfusions, cryogenic freezing beds, and even digital consciousness (à la the film Her).
While the race to extend life gobbles up trust funds, more than half of the global population lacks adequate health care, more than 5 million children continue to die each year from preventable diseases, and more than 2.5 billion people are unable to get vaccinated against COVID-19 anytime soon. Looked at from a humanitarian perspective, there’s a more straightforward way to extend life spans than uploading your mind to the cloud — funding public health.
6. Tax Havens
It’s not cheap to hire lawyers to create shell companies to funnel your income to tax havens. But it’s a lot cheaper than paying taxes, apparently. The top 1% of earners worldwide are on track to evade more than $5 trillion in taxes over the next decade.
Many US billionaires, meanwhile, have a tax rate of 0%. An estimated $1 trillion sits in private foundations and hundreds of billions of dollars are currently parked in donor-advised funds and tax-free investment accounts. This money, if deployed as intended, could provide much-needed resources to charity organizations.
While tax evasion may be a rite of passage for the uber wealthy, it undermines the ability of governments everywhere to fund education systems, provide health care, establish and take care of basic infrastructure, and fund other essential duties that people depend upon.
There’s no such thing as a self-made billionaire. All billionaires became rich because of economic and social conditions that provided the resources, labor, and legal frameworks in which their wealth accrued. Billionaires took extraordinary advantage of the social contract that people within a society abide by; tax evasion thwarts that very social contract and makes it harder for other people to gain even the most basic of human rights.
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