On Being Rich, But Not That Rich
Do we have the right to criticize billionaires when we are still, comparatively, very wealthy?
If you’re on Twitter, you probably saw Jack Dorsey (co-founder and CEO of Twitter dot com) tweet about “fasting” and asking people if their experiences tallied with his 22-hour fast, or three-day water fast. Apparently, he finds the days go by slower.
The irony, people were quick to point out in the replies, is that Jack is vastly wealthy. Like, very, very wealthy. He will never have to experience hunger that isn’t by choice. And as Twitter becomes more lucrative, he’s only getting richer.
He could ask the people at soup kitchens or homeless shelters what it’s like to be hungry, as in a very real way he may have caused some of them to become homeless. Instead, he posts something #brofound (thank you @VictorDesklamp) and nevertheless avoids censure.
Unlike many other founders or CEOs of successful tech companies, Jack isn’t a philanthropist.
“…I have given over 15 million shares…back to both Square and the Start Small Foundation, a new organization I created to meaningfully invest in the folks who inspire us: artists, musicians, and local businesses, with a special focus on under served communities around the world.” — Jack Dorsey
The one charitable initiative he started seems to not exist. It doesn’t have a website, a Twitter account, and it isn’t listed under section 501(c)3 of the U.S. tax code. Not only does he not seem to donate much at all, he appears to have lied about the giving he does do.
In 2019, rich people are getting richer. Poor people are getting poorer. And rich people make token donations (or don’t support others at all) while posting vague pseudo-scientific posts about fasting, without considering the number of people they could be benefiting if they parted with even a small amount of their wealth. And I can say with absolute certainty, that’s not right.
There’s just one problem: I’m pretty rich, too.
Not by these ridiculous standards, of course. But by using this online calculator I can see that I’m in the top 10% of wealthy people. That’s pretty damn rich. And it kind of takes away the bite of my criticism when I can apply the same logic to myself.
While I do donate, it’s not a lot, nor even as much as I could feasibly give. I save most of my spare money in case of emergency, against future accidents or emergencies.
And while Jack may spend his spare income on a “lavish $10 million cliffside mansion…fit for a bond villain,” I spend mine on cat treats instead of food for hungry people.
Is he really any worse than I am?
The problem of scale.
This is the argument that people bring up whenever folks start saying that rich people should donate more.
“Regular people don’t donate much. Just because other people have worked hard and have more, why should they give it all away?”
Let’s look away from the fact that poor people actually donate more than rich people.
The issue here is our puny brains can’t understand money at this scale. My salary puts me in the top 10% of humans in terms of wealth. That’s a lot, yes. But the jump between me and the people in the top 1% is staggering.
If I gave away half my wealth — 50% of my salary going forward and 50% of what I have saved up — I would be put under the poverty line. I could do it, I would still live relatively comfortably, but I would struggle.
If Jack donated 99% of his income for this year (not even counting anything he has saved up), he would still be in the richest 0.1% of people worldwide. He can afford to give on such a grander scale than I, or anyone like me, can imagine. So when he chooses not to, I reserve the right to criticize.
I have a lot to be grateful for. I have so much that I was born into, so much that I am lucky to have. I’ve also worked hard to accumulate more. I can give more than I do at the moment and still have a very comfortable life.
But I’m not going to stand for people who say that we should all be held to the same standards of generosity.
We can’t conceive of the amount of good the top richest 1000 people in the world could do if they donated just a quarter of their wealth, and it’s not fair to compare to those of us who have a lot — but not that much.
We can all do more. But when the scales are tipped so far in the favor of so few, we need to hold those wealthy monoliths to a higher standard than the rest of us.