Billionaire Games: Did You Give Away Anything Before You Passed?

It’s hard not to be apocalyptic as the fatality curves rise and the threat of more waves of deadly infections dominate our thinking. Generalizations abound faster than a social-media talking-dog meme. Your ideas versus mine, your authorities versus mine, your “I told-you-sos” versus mine. But these are not the end times, although we may see a few economic end games before we’re done. Sadly, not all of us will be here to know which way the world went.

GDP versus PPP will be mentioned, globalist neo-liberalism, our wasteful and ecocidal fossil-fuel-driven lifestyle, …. New and improved SIR models will try to explain why some survived and others didn’t – the Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered/Removed numbers. For the record, I am a scared kid like many of us with little idea of what is going on. Fortunately, I know people much smarter than me. If I haven’t said so I am sorry.

I know now, as many of us do, that population density, viral load, pre-existing conditions (especially cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, hypertension, compromised immunity, smoking), age, pollution, clusters, and luck all play a part in becoming infected. Testing, contact tracing, isolation of the infected (symptomatic and asymptomatic), social distance, ICU facilities, and best-practice sharing are also essential to respond effectively during an outbreak, readily available ingredients in any country that values citizens over bottom-line accounting. I also know that those with wealth should pony up whatever they can to help, but don’t hold your breath for a David Geffen hospital superyacht coming anytime soon to a port near you.

The so-called “Giving Pledge” of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet aims to help by promising to give away theirs and other billionaires’ wealth. Alas too late to do any good if they wait until they die. Cooked up at a select billionaires’ dinner in 2010, the future fund is a Who’s Who of post-mortem philanthropy, worth an estimated $500 billion, and includes a few Bransons, Bronfmans, Zuckermans, and a Rockefeller. Over 200 gallant givers beam future joy to the world, their shiny happy faces morphing from black and white to rapturous colour when you mouseover an image on their website. Anyone can join the self-styled “movement of philanthropists,” a.k.a. the “ultra-wealthy,” that is, “If you have at least U.S. $1 billion in personal net worth and are ready to make a public pledge to donate the majority of your personal wealth to philanthropy.” Act now, don’t delay. The virtual check is in the future mail.

Storing such vast amounts may be dubious in regular, supposed egalitarian, times. Gollum and “my precious” springs to mind to illustrate the madness of hoarding such a gleaming collection of dead gold. In the midst of a pandemic, stuffing away hundreds of billions of dollars for private use all the while advertising your magnanimity is obscene. At last count, over 2,000 billionaires had more than $11 trillion stashed away. Time to trickle down what has been trickled up to the rentier class for over 50 years because of lax laws and hollowed-out lobbyist-run governments. Time to end our fear of reds under the beds before there are no beds.

What good is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if you never get to the rainbow? What good are taxes if they aren’t collected? Health versus money, human lives versus capital, unattainable future perfection versus today’s very real imperfect present?

Richard Branson even asked the British and Australian governments for a 1.2-billion-pound bailout for his Virgin airlines, though he really ought to ask the British Virgin Islands government for help, having lived there tax-free for the last 14 years as reported in The Guardian. That should just about cover the charitable money he intends to give back to the world when he dies. Please remember to keep 6 feet away from other billionaires at the bailout window as you queue for the money you plan to gift the little people when you die. Maybe Gates and Buffet should rename their pork-barrel appropriation the Taking Pledge.

One wonders how the ultra wealthy refuse to see how they have become the problem of our times, brazenly denying their shamelessness as they side-step government administration and declare their own lawless fiefdoms. That is, until they need assistance like the rest of us on occasion, especially when disaster strikes. True, government can be slower than molasses at times, but bureaucracy is rarely whimsical or self-destructive. If you privateers were as good as you claim and into more than stuffing your own strong-box coffers you might have a case.

Of course, the futility of excessive wealth is obvious to see now, given that low-income workers have been called upon to save lives as they deliver food, drive buses, and staff hospitals at great peril to themselves. No amount of irony can paper over how the essential workers fighting on the frontlines have shown up the unessential rich in these times of great need.

So too the myth of egalitarian diseases, when this plague as others kills more poor than wealthy. Diseases are rarely “great levellers.” In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, the British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett ably show that health has always been a function of income and wealth, citing numerous examples of death and destruction the greater the divide between rich and poor. Sadly, wellbeing correlates to zip code, mortality rates for the poor almost double the rich even before COVID-19 was released into the unequal habitats of the world.

Some of the ultra wealthy understand that owning too much is counterproductive to fostering a greater good and have tried to give back, at least while they are still alive. Some make sure we hear about their humanitarian largesse, a well-timed press release parroting their selflessness in the social pages. Of course, one can question the newsworthiness of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos “donating” a smaller percentage of his wealth to the masses than you or I do to our fellow consumers in a handful of loose change left in a “got a penny leave a penny need a penny take a penny” jar. Or indeed paying workers a fair wage, permitting regular bathroom breaks, or ensuring they have appropriate protective gear during a pandemic. At least with the Medicis we got Michelangelo, da Vinci, and the piano. With Bezos, Gates, and Buffet we get Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, smiling mouseover faces, and people killing people in ever more mindless shoot-‘em-up movies.

Trying to redress more than a few wrongs, the Rockefellers announced their own give back in 2014, stating that an $860-million family fund would divest all fossil-fuel holdings, signalling an end to their vast Standard Oil legacy inherited from the world’s first billionaire and progenitor of our oil-run world, John D. Rockefeller. Perhaps John D.’s progeny wanted to end the hokum that had long filled their lives, hoping to wash away over a century of oil-stained greed.

Typified by the petroleum king himself, John D. delivered the defining mantra of our modern age in an address at Brown University where his son was a student: “The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest … It is merely the working out of the law of nature and the law of God.” When you’re as rich as John D., you get to say whatever you want to justify yourself, purposely excluding all the bribed politicians and illegal practices along the way in his trite self-serving sermon. At his death, Rockefeller had amassed 1.6% of U.S. GDP, unsurpassed in the league of money lovers, putting him top shelf in the Hall of Fame of Social Darwinists (Gates topped out at 0.5%).

As the ravages of a global shutdown diminish in the coming months and even years, we will see if Bezos, Gates, Buffet, Branson, Bronfman, Zuckerman, or the Rockefellers suffer the downside of any natural laws at work. According to Business Insider, Bezos has already seen his wealth rise by over $20 billion to $140 billion since the start of 2020 because of an increase in Amazon deliveries as more people stay inside, while the company wants to add 175,000 workers to meet the demand despite health concerns and an increase in coronavirus cases in U.S. warehouses. One worker summed up the harsh reality: “I am feeling like I’m forced to make a decision whether I have to go to work or pay my bills.”

We will also see if empire suffers a similar recasting as billions around the world live out the consequences of a corrupted system. One can easily surmise a passing of the consumerist American empire, the latest and greatest in a long chain of money since Columbus first opened up the globalist waters. Call it creative destruction, import replacements, better-mousetrap building, the economic jargon of product reinvention and consumer need.

The newest new world will take time as lost supply chains scramble to re-establish themselves in the latest round of economic recreation. New empire acts in lockstep with new vision, seeing what others cannot. Only the heartless will claim a natural economic reckoning at work as order replaces chaos, evolution overcomes entropy, and beauty reimages madness in the midst of a pandemic. One only hopes our new Dear Leader won’t march us all over a cliff.

Having corralled the virus at the epicentre of today’s doom, China is poised to become economic top dog as its authoritative command structure bests the Western democracies stalled in a Depression-era slump and still arguing about left and right. A central authority needn’t confer with its citizenry to change plans when disaster or pandemic strikes, ably stopping the Titanic on a yuan, while the West is left behind to watch the unhinged rants of “I know you are but what I am,” broadcast daily from a slowly sinking ship.

Of course, left and right is a populist mirage, a meaningless ideal that suggests we choose our governmental betters as though Pepsi is somehow different than Coke (both coloured fizzy sugar water) or a Big Mac tastier than a Whopper (both processed fat-filled junk). You know there is no left and right when a self-professed socialist, Bernie Sanders, and one of the richest men in the world, Michael Bloomberg, share the same party stage and pretend to sell the same dream. The illusion of choice is the magician’s game, what you don’t see the illusionist’s best trick.

Money is the main marker of empire, a rare crowning seen whenever the new sweeps away the old. In The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times, Giovanni Arrighi called the late great powers “capital-accumulating” empires, counting four such world-beaters in history. First, there was the Genoese-backed Spanish (1450-1648) who plundered the New World for old glory and minted silver, followed by the Dutch who exploited the sea and spice trade in improved sailing boats (1628-1784). The British won the waters next as coal bested wind (1776-1914) followed by the Americans after oil finally replaced coal (1917-2020). Will the Chinese become the fifth, happily announcing their newly anointed global empire status as they change the narrative from viral epicentre to world saviour with boatloads of medical equipment and cut-rate loans for all?

In his meticulous analysis, Arrighi showed how empire eventually fails under the weight of too much gold, noting that the “socially polarizing effects of ‘financialization’” were already in evidence in Renaissance Italy. As far back as the 16th century, capital was becoming more important than production, making the rich even richer, where “the largest profits were made not in the buying and selling of commodities but in exchanging currencies for one and another.”

Empire death finally comes when the financial industry eclipses manufacturing, the grabbing-hand a victim of its own success. By the time the Americans ruled the waves, business had become more important than the state, transnational corporations reorganizing humans as never before, establishing corporate extraterritoriality that roamed the globe according to “world power policy.” Once the productive phase of material expansion is done, financial speculation is all that remains to run the numbers up. To keep up the appearances of a real economy.

According to Arrighi, the turning point in the American cycle of accumulation came in the 1970s, when “the volume of purely monetary transactions carried out in offshore money markets already exceeded the value of world trade many times over. From then on the financial expansion became unstoppable.” Ironically, unbridled accumulation sows the seed of its own demise, typical of all economic powers in their late stages. Ironically, a 30,000 Dow Jones, pumped up by ruthless speculation, is not a measure of success, but a portent of coming destruction. It is a sign of an inability to do anything but make money. Significantly, the most unnatural of economic orders does not aid all, but the select guardians of the trough. Supersized money, justice, and security, but not for all. At least, the rest of us, John and Jane Q Public, get to watch it all on TV.

Oxfam regularly cites how many fewer people own the world each year as the ultra wealthy “supercapitalists” control more wealth – tired statistics by now. How many pretend angels can dance on the demise of the real economy, where workers make, earn, and trade the fruits of our everyday labours? Does all that wealth even matter when a $10 mask is worth more than your life, when the millionaire class must rely on minimum-wage checkout clerks to access what used to be plentiful? Who will stoop to conquer what remains? Who will deliver our sanitized food boxes when there are no more workers left to haul them? A real economics of scarcity is roaring back to bite us all.

Power consumption follows lockstep with the accounts, from sail to coal to oil to renewables. China’s empire-in-waiting is already fuelling tomorrow’s energy-technology revolution as the uptake of maturing green energy slowly ascends (modern wind turbines, solar cells, and lithium-based storage batteries). Improved connectivity (5G), the internet of things (IoT), and real-time energy trading (blockchain) will soon be as common as tarmac, steel, and drive-thru restaurants. The future belongs to the photon and not the electron as innovation dresses another new emperor. It is no longer a question of if renewable energy will overtake our dinosaur-juiced past, but when. Parity may come as soon as 2050 (50-50-50).

But despite the obvious markers, change takes time, like a concrete dam trickling before the burst. In the United States, a beacon of last-century innovation, 70% of rural inhabitants weren’t even hooked up to the grid by 1940, widening the gap between city and country, while draft animals were still being listed in the accounts as late as 1960. However, no one should be surprised at how fast China has been remaking its coal-fired industrial base as more gigawatt-sized wind farms and solar farms are installed each year, some shaped to look like panda bears using different panel types.

Hopefully, the next empire is better at sharing than the last, as green-powered autonomous vehicles deliver our Styrofoam-packed groceries to our doorsteps. As people-less checkout counters add up our grocery bills, seamlessly rounding the pennies. Hopefully, we will escape the worst of the environmental damage in the changeover, Mother Earth as always the one constant empire.

We are in the midst of a new normal, still working out the details of who gets what. Money and energy are the countable markers of change, but we’ve reached a new low in the history of dying empire when ventilators are auctioned off to the highest bidder. We have been reduced to bidding against ourselves for our lives, yet another shameless act of an economy built by scoundrels. The end of empire comes not with fire, paperwork (as Frank Zappa imagined), or witless over-financialization, but when we no longer see the pain of others.

We’re about to find out how much financial slack is in the system, how much the rich have been stealing for over half a century with their paid-in-full governments as trillions of dollars are wiped off the ledgers. Sadly, we could chop the Forbes 500 wealth in half and none would bat an eye as they continue to count their lucre in the billions. When we count the costs of another greed-filled write-down, they will still have more financial wealth than half the world.

Of course, we can’t all be rich and some of us by our effort don’t deserve to be, but if those who can make a difference don’t turn over heaven and earth to help in a pandemic, we don’t have the right to call our civilization enlightened. “Everyone for himself” is not a motto for a civilized world. It’s the slogan of a collection of barbarians and “off-brand butt plugs.” I wasn’t taught that way and I know many others who weren’t either.

It’s time everyone was given the rights we’ve been promised. It’s time to flatten the inequality curve. To say “no” to what we don’t need and live within our means. It’s time to cast off our beggar’s clothes and throw out the lying suitors as Odysseus did when he finally returned home after a decade adrift. Billionaires need not apply unless they really care enough to help.


John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: