But in early 2019 — with progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez releasing popular plans aimed at curbing extreme wealth — it looked like we were ready for a new social order. It looked like we were ready to abolish billionaires, as I put it.
I argued that we ought to enact economic policies that recoup some of the booty from the super-wealthy, but more important, instead of worshiping these masters of the universe, we should begin to look upon billionaires with moral suspicion. We should wonder about the kind of person who would hold claim to that level of wealth in a world weeping with so much suffering.
Typing these words now I want to reach out and shake myself out of my delusions — what a sweet summer child I was to believe my fellow Americans would put billionaires on the run. The anti-billionaire boomlet died with the Democratic presidential primaries. Since then billionaires have grown only wealthier and more powerful than ever. Now it feels like we can’t quit them — even after a pandemic in which billionaires prospered beyond all measure while so many others suffered great loss, we are nowhere close to putting any significant curbs on extreme wealth.
The world is enthralled with billionaires, almost shamelessly so. In just the last couple weeks, one billionaire, Elon Musk, sent cryptocurrency markets reeling by pumping a “memecoin,” successfully tested a prototype rocket meant to travel to Mars, and then took a charming turn as the host of “Saturday Night Live.” Bill and Melinda Gates, already both lauded and vilified (often unfairly, sometimes on the mark) for their role in global public health, announced a divorce whose cause and ramifications are just beginning to unravel. And besides the boat story, Bezos is the subject of an excellent new book, “Amazon Unbound,” by the Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone. In it, Bezos emerges as the ur-billionaire of our time, the deft wielder of a fortune so vast that he and his company are becoming “perilously close to invincible,” Stone writes.
As a matter of politics, that proposition is hard to refute. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden declined to “demonize” the wealthy and told rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for their standard of living — a promise he has kept. The Biden White House has proposed tax increases on the wealthy, but the president has remained far from a tax on accumulated wealth or other efforts to snip the wings of the extremely wealthy. On the right, there may be growing suspicion of “woke corporations,” but on policy, Republicans remain glued to the interests of billionaires, not least the self-proclaimed billionaire who just left the White House.