The Worthless Billionaires of 2022

Photo by The Royal Society, used under Creative Commons. Editing done by me.
John Scalzi

(Photo: The Royal Society, used under Creative Commons. Additional photoediting by me)

If I have one wish coming out of 2022, it’s that this is the year — finally — when the myth of the assumed competence and virtue of billionaires is buried in a shallow grave down by the river. 2022 was chock-a-block full of examples of people with more money than sense, losing a fair amount of that money and gaining no additional sense in return. Our most prominent trio of dimwitted poster children for this concept include Mark Zuckerberg, who has tanked his company’s stock chasing a social media revolution no one wants, including the people making it; Sam Bankman-Fried, who proved that the ponzi scheme is alive and well and has merely changed its name to “crypto;” and, of course, Elon Musk, who was revealed this year to be both incompetent and more than a little bit fashy, and whose antics are actively destroying two companies — Twitter and Tesla — and must be deeply thankful that a third (Space X) has long-term government contracts. As I’m writing this, Tesla’s stock price is down nine percent on the day. I’ve heard rumors Bill Gates has made a lot of money these days shorting the company’s stock. If true, at least someone is making a profit from Tesla; it’s not Musk or the company’s stock holders.

I feel vaguely smug about the billionaire comeuppance this year since The Kaiju Preservation Society, Travel By Bullet and Three Robots: Exit Strategies all whomped on jerk billionaires to a greater or lesser extent. TR:ES called out Musk by name, which a lot of Muskovites gave me grief for, but time has vindicated both me and the episode, as everyone now seems to agree that, given Musk’s hands-on butterfingering of Twitter, he’s the last person anyone would want to rely on to get us all to Mars. As for Bankman-Fried, several plot points of Travel By Bullet so closely mirror what’s actually happening at FTX and Alameda Research that I feel like I should sue him and some of his party pals for plagiarism, not that they have any money anymore. But the fact is I am no great soothsayer; I just understand that it’s easier to get rich when you have family money and/or are actively committing fraud.

Bankman-Fried is screwed; he’ll be spending a long time at the prison camp at Otisville or something similar. Musk will probably be fine financially, since, even if he’s no longer the World’s Richest Man™, he has more than enough margin to get by. But the idea that anyone who is not actively licking his boots still considers him a genius, or, indeed, even competent, is laughable. As for Zuckerberg, well, bless his heart, both he and Meta seem determined to ride the concept of Sunk Cost Fallacy all the way down to MySpaceLand.

(Oh! And also: Ye, aka Kanye West, who went full anti-Semite this year and because of it went from a billionaire on paper to — well, whatever he is now, being a billionaire sure ain’t it.)

(Oh! Oh! And also Donald Trump, currently hawking NFTs made with stolen art, whose tax returns show he’s better at not having money than having it, and who paid less in taxes over the last five years than almost every other American, because, on paper anyway, he’s a broke-ass loser.)

In all cases, damage, to a greater or lesser extent, has been done.

Which, well: Good. Being a billionaire is not a virtue. It doesn’t have to be an active detriment to one’s humanity (others can and do differ with me on this), but it doesn’t speak well of anyone either, and the valorization of billionaires for being billionaires is some real bullshit that has very clearly done more damage to the world than not. Musk and Trump and Ye and Zuckerberg and Bankman-Fried and any other billionaire do not deserve your respect simply for being rich, and that fact that people gave them respect because of that money allowed them to cover for their other and continuing ethical and moral deficiencies, of which there are many, and which continue to damage our society.

If 2022 sees the beginning of the end of indiscriminate billionaire worship, I will count that as a win. We can use all the wins we can get, coming into 2023.

— JS

42 Comments on “The Worthless Billionaires of 2022”

  1. Before anyone notes it: I am pretty well off, too, although not as much as any of the previously mentioned fellows. You should not valorize me, or another person in my fortunate position, for my/our money, either.

  2. On the flip side. I’m behind those billionaires who have pledged and started to give away their billions to charity or other places to improve society.

    (I’m not a billionaire…)

  3. It isn’t just billionaires that are assumed to be competent in fields other than what they are expert in. Look at Linus Pauling.

  4. Agreed, this year has a good crop of fu__ screw ups in the billionaire club, but this has been evident ever since billionaire was coined

  5. ::On the flip side. I’m behind those billionaires who have pledged and started to give away their billions to charity or other places to improve society.::

    I’m not because I have a wealthy Uncle and, as my younger brother said about him, he spent decades lording his wealth over our Dad, our Grandfather, the town he lived in, his own kids…and now that he’s in his Eighties, has had at last six heart bypass surgeries, and his wife predeceased him? He’s donating to charities left and right “Trying to buy his way into Heaven”.

    At least my Uncle’s (relatively) sincere in his desire to make things right before he steps on the rainbow – billionaires like Bill Gates show their true colors when their “charity” seems to make them richer by privatizing social services like health care and education.

  6. This song predates the public awareness of this particular muskovite but it has a sort of goth vibe that could be interpreted as being about him, maybe, kinda, sort of… in the sense that the lyrics could be about almost anything.

  7. I saw on Reddit a software expert who said they thought Space X rockets and Tesla card were cool. Then Musk revealed his vast incompetence with software via Twitter. So now they wonder just how good the cars and the rockets are.

  8. Absolutely!

    A measurement system that equates the amount of money one has (usually on paper) with intelligence, worth to society, or general “goodness” is a flawed system. Indeed, I would argue that it actually encourages harm to society in that the drive to accumulate and hoard wealth drives antisocial behaviors.

    I would also extend questioning of all such system in which “X symbol” equates to “Y indication of personal good.” For instance, the idea that having an MBA or a Doctorate somehow makes one a more worthy, or better, or smarter, or wiser than another is bunk – I’ve met plenty of holders of an MBA from prestigious schools who don’t understand the time-value of money and plenty of PhDs who are apparent sociopaths (and I say this as a holder of multiple degrees including an earned Doctorate). Even William James decried this push to what he called “Credentialism” at the end of the 19th century in response to a drive to require that professors at Harvard hold a Doctorate (he recognized that the credential had little to do with the ability to teach). As Karl Weick said,
    “People often confuse symbols with the thing symbolized. They believe that a Phi Beta Kappa key IS education, no matter how it is acquired (e.g., by cheating); that a rug on the floor IS power, no matter who says so; that a Cadillac IS status, whether the car is a repo, leased, rented, or purchased on time…Symbols are usually an inaccurate copy of things, and one treats them as tangible and true at some risk”
    – K. Weick, “The Social Psychology of Organizing”, 1979, p. 249.

  9. I think this year’s stories of billionaires just brings back some balance. They are human and not perfect.

    Zuckerberg was lucky and found something that worked, Facebook. I own and love my Quest 2 VR headset and it’s amazing. I’m glad he put cash into that company. But he made a mistake in pushing it in a direction that no one wants it to go… Not even his employees agree with that.

    I’m happy Elon Musk came along. What he’s done with SpaceX is what space fans have dreamed forever. Cost effective and reusable spacecraft. Aerospace industry couldn’t do it. The fact that he believed his own press, well he’s paying for that now with the disaster that Twitter is under his management.

    Cryptocurrencey…. Goodness, the whole lot of them. What a scam that is. Enough said.

    But there are some “good” billionaires. Bill Gates created wealth and with his foundation is giving much of it away. Is he perfect, nope. But at least I see some effort there.

    Billionaires, there are good ones and bad ones. We as a society just have to realize that. There is nothing inherently great having that much money. It’s what you do is what matters.

    I agree though with your main point that, “the myth of the assumed competence and virtue of billionaires is buried…” They aren’t magical, they are human.

  10. “Bill Gates created wealth and with his foundation is giving much of it away. Is he perfect, nope. But at least I see some effort there.”

    Exactly. I doubt Bill and I would ever be friends, but I think we’d not be enemies. Warren Buffet is about nothing but money, but he’s still managed to do some good with his. But there’s just something about making your money on inflated worth that both gives the billionaire who does it an inflated sense of their own worth and somehow makes them more heroic to their followers.

  11. The new Netflix movie “Glass Onion” is a full-on slam against Elon Musk, which is interesting considering it must have finished filming before he took over Twitter. Rian Johnson, or someone close to him, must have had an inside line on Musk.

  12. Even many of the billionaires pledging to ‘give away’ a lot of their generally ill-gotten gains are occupying ground barely above the swamp. Many of them are believers in the ‘effective altruism’ movement, which is a conceptualization so complex in its distortion that it would take volumes to unravel.
    Concepts like ‘altruism’ and ‘philanthropy’ are fundamentally moral – or, if you eschew the notion of a divine source wherewith to define morality – ethical. As such, they are neither economic nor functional in nature, and the idea of ‘effectiveness’ being measurable in tangible terms such as ‘cost-effective’ is also distorted.
    Yes, certainly it’s possible to debate whether a million dollars spent on mosquito nets to prevent children from getting malaria is in some way ‘less effective’ than a million dollars spent researching how to eradicate malaria. (Via a vaccine? Whoops… maybe not – more likely some groovy sciencey modification of mosquito DNA requiring highly educated scientists and expensively equipped labs….)
    But if your motivation is to keep children healthy so that they have a chance for something better from their lives, the nature of your philanthropic impulse is qualitatively different if you see ‘handing out mosquito nets’ as a first step within reach now, than if you see ‘investing in a laboratory with a bunch of scientists that can potentially eradicate malaria and possibly also use all that cool knowledge and equipment to make some kind of marketable thing that will return Big Money on the investment’.
    Don’t get me wrong – both are worthwhile philanthropies. Both have great potential to benefit humankind. But there is a fundamental humility in an approach to philanthropy that springs from awareness that you cannot see all ends, and that your task is not only to benefit others, but to become yourself a more compassionate, humble, enlightened human being. This is different from the ‘noblesse oblige’ or even the ‘good marketing strategy’ of Being Seen To Do Great Good.
    Contrast the approaches of billionaires Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott, as an case study.

  13. Yeah. Turns out super rich people are likely also jerkoffs.
    Happy Holidays Sir. Best to you and yours!

  14. Every billionaire has the choice to become a mere 900millionaire. Just give away enough of it and improve the world. (Or eff up spectacularly business-wise, but I don’t that counts here.)

    (Almost) every billionaire chooses not to do this. Mackenzie Scott is the only example I can think of who is at least trying. The rest continue to make their workers piss in bottles for low wages and only do the kind of charity that gets your name plastered on buildings.

    Nah. All billionaires who choose to stay billionaires are bastards.

  15. Ah, credentialism. It’s the lazy person’s way of evaluating someone. I saw it in my IT career. Originally, what was important was what you knew and what you had done. Interviewers would ask technical questions to evaluate your ability to do the job. Then we started getting credentialism. Microsoft saw a way of making money by charging for “certification” exams, and other businesses made money by selling classes on passing the certification exams. As a result, your HR idiots only had to check boxes to see if you had the credentials, rather than expending the brain power to question you to see how much you really knew.

  16. If they didn’t learn it from The Space Merchants, they aren’t going to learn it from you. 8-)

    But lets assess Musk. He was standing in the right place at the right time when PayPal was flush with eBay cash and was willing to pay a stupid amount of money for an also-ran online bank called, run by Musk.

    He used that money to leverage himself into organizing venture capital funding, which he did for Tesla, in the process forcing out the actual founders of Tesla. He’s been fighting a Wikipedia was ever since to change that history to something more suitable.

    SpaceX is built on government developed technology and survives only with massive government subsidies. That whole colonizing Mars jazz? It is impossible to live there without spending your life in a hole in the ground since there is no magnetic field or atmosphere to protect you from cosmic radiation. Think of being confined to an x-ray machine that is stuck permanently on. Musk wants to terraform it with a new atmosphere, but there is a reason it no longer has the one it started with — Mars is so small that the most probable velocity for most gas molecules is greater than Mars’ escape velocity, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.

    Now think about the fact that in order to get there you have to do the equivalent of riding on an airliner in coach class for two years. Sounds like a good trip, Elon. Bon voyage!

    Of companies that Musk has created himself, The Boring Company exists only as a tourist attraction in Vegas and otherwise is most notable for ghosting a lot of interested cities. It’s worse than Google Fiber. As far as Neuralink goes, sure, there is some legitimate research there and I imagine there are a number of cult members who see nothing wrong with letting Musk stick electrodes in their brains. Not me. And the humanoid robot? Honda worked on it for two decades and never really cracked it. So far Musk has a guy in a robot suit and a thing that has to be wheeled in on a dolly. He’s not likely to succeed either because what the animal perceptual and motor cortex is capable of doing is nothing short of astonishing and has turned out to be more difficult to do algorithmically than even self driving cars. Machine learning cannot solve every problem unless you think every problem can be solved purely by memory.

    So what do we have? Two successful companies and three marginal to not at all. Successful ones built on someone else’s technology. One survives by government contracts. The other is successful because it has to date been the only game in town, but it isn’t anymore. I’m pretty sure Tesla’s value has peaked and is now on the way down. It is priced WAY too high compared to other car companies, and stiff competition is beginning to appear at much lower price points. On top of that, Tesla is notorious for poor build quality and came up dead last among all automakers of any sort in the last Consumer Reports reliability survey.

    I have a hard time calling that genius. Add to that that his behavior on Twitter has revealed him to be the most delicate of snowflakes, dedicated to his own freedom of speech, which he interprets as freedom to force you to listen to him. Please.

  17. It seems to me that while talent can bring money, perhaps lots of it, being a billionaire is somewhat of a moral failing as it requires the decision to collect the thousands of millions required to reach that status as opposed to being happy with “mere” millions while giving away the rest, preferably quietly. That would be my desire in the, admittedly unlikely, circumstance of my aquiring billions.

  18. We recognize that years of study are necessary for expertise in the sciences.
    So… why do we ask for John Doe’s opinion? Kyrie is a very good basketball player, but his ideas about medicine are just plain stupid. There are surely a lot of doctors who know nothing about basketball.
    I accept Paul Krugman’s expertise because I’ve read just about everything he’s written over the last decade. He hasn’t often been wrong, and when he has been, he has recognized the fact, and tried to understand where he went wrong.
    I accept John Scalzi’s expertise about writing because I have read everything he has ever published – it’s that good. I do not consider Scalzi an expert on current events… but rather an intelligent observer. That’s not bad.

  19. Listened to travel by bullet a few days ago. DH and I agreed how spookily you are able to predict the future. Not a lot of science fiction authors are able to do it so accurately. (I hear Glass Onion was also prescient.)

  20. pjcamp, your comment about SpaceX existing on government subsidies couldn’t be more wrong. They earn money from private and government customers. Supplying a service for money is not a subsidy. It’s a contract, and SpaceX’s prices are lower than anyone else’s. SpaceX has saved the government billions of dollars with their low prices and excellent Falcon 9 Rocket and Dragon capsules.

  21. Yeah, SpaceX has built amazing technology. Large despite Musk rather than because of him. Keep in mind SpaceX is actually run by Gwynne Shotwell.

    But no, it isn’t ‘government developed technology’. When was the last time you saw NASA reuse the same booster more than 10 times? Or land two boosters side by side simultaneously with absolute precision?

  22. Then there is the REAL richest man – Putin. Nobody knows how much money he has but we all know his moral failings and he is the absolute worse of the billionaire class.

  23. I often think of a line by business guru Harvey McKay to the effect that if you think $10 million is enough, you’ll never have $10 million. Similarly, I don’t think it’s possible to be a billionaire without worshipping mammon to an extreme degree.
    Unfortunately the impulse to defer to privilege isn’t disappearing. The NYT ran an article on Bankman-Fried discussing how people in the Bahamas really like him and think he’s a good person. At a much lower level of wealth and privilege, the wife of a prestigious plastic surgeon in LA recently killed two kids when she drove at 80 MPH through a residential street. A profile in LA Magazine (I think) paints her as a tragic figure — she should be living her best life but now she’s a pariah in her neighborhood! How unfair!

  24. I’ve been saying much the same thing for decades. Being a billionaire means you are only really good at two things: exploiting your workers and hoarding your wealth. Neither of those is indicative of a good human being, and are, in fact, anathema to it.

    Someone once said that after your first $2 million, it’s really just greed. I inflation-adjust that to $5 million or a bit more, but the concept is still sound. No one needs a billion dollars, they just want it.

  25. I might valorize you for a history of essays that include your thought processes on things I didn’t know I didn’t know enough about, thus helping me in my longterm work to pretend to be human.

    Also, I’m not convinced ‘valorize’ is a real word, though the innerwebs claim that many seemingly respectable dictionaries support it.

  26. For all the damage Musk has done to Twitter, both SpaceX and Tesla seem to be doing just fine as far as I can tell. OK, Tesla’s share price has deflated rapidly, possibly somewhat faster than their peers, but their sales are still growing and seem likely to carry on growing in the short and medium term . You may dislike Musk, he may be overrated, bur Tesla has driven the electric vehicle revolution and has yet to face serious competition outside China. Model 3 and Model Y sales are still growing worldwide and the Tesla Semi will be ramping up over the next few years. They may even start delivering Cybertrucks in 2023. If they can deliver the next generation 25,000 USD small car, that will likely sell in large quantities as well, not to mention growth in the Powerwall and Megapack business.
    Musk’s reputation and Tesla’s share price may have taken a hit, but the real business isn’t going to notice.

  27. Not the first time a one trick pony thought it could do all the tricks. Money & enthusiasm + talent can accomplish a lot, if the money & enthusiasm stay out of the talent’s hair.

  28. Linus Pauling is a mixed bag, no? He got the Nobel Peace Prize, narrowly missed a second Chemistry prize for DNA structure (he nearly lit on the correct structure but for tautomers (if his aunt had testicles, I know)), and smacked down on the discoverer of quasicrystals (which got their own Nobel). He had some competence outside of his domain of expertise and also was (sometimes) not great within his likely domain of expertise.
    Some of the global warming critics are likely better examples of playing outside their expertise.

  29. To be fair to billionaires, some of them are valued that way because they own stock in companies they created and are loath to give up control. They are the insecure billionaires.

    The rest are selfish assholes.

    Despite SpaceX, pjcamp is mostly on target.

  30. @Iaian mentioned the new Knives Out movie “The Glass Onion” – bloody brilliant. @Scalzi, I suspect you and yours will enjoy it, even if you didn’t care very much for the first one

  31. Bill Gates got rich by a path similar to zuckerberg and musk. He got lucky, was in the right place at the right time, and bought out someone else’s work, then turned around and sold the shit out if it.

    Gates also dabbled in monopolization issues. Window used to run from the command line. And there were two command line operating systems: msdos and a competor called drdos.

    If you ran windows on drdos, windows detected it was the competition, and would display a vague warning message, and then run windows. Anyone who was concerned and called microsoft support was told “if you use msdos, the warning goes away”, and ran drdos out of business.

    There was also the issue of bundling the browser with the windows software.

    MS Word is an unsecure piece of shit. But he always kept changing the file format so competing products got squeezed out.

    In short, Bill Gates can suck a bag of dicks.

    Like most billionaires, his “philanthropy” to help some people is only made possible by his willingness to fuck over a whole other group of people.

    Fuck Bill Gates.

    Elon Musk is a pedo guy. Also winner of the thinnest skinned asshole fuckup in human history. A full on fascist. Who makes a huge chunk of his money off the government.

    “Tesla has driven the electric vehicle revolution”

    Tesla was founded by someone else then Elmo bought it from them.

    And half the reason people bought teslas from Musk was for that thing advertised as “full self driving mode” that, god i can only hope, the FTC nails Musk to the fucking wall with for false advertising.

    “If they can deliver the next generation 25,000 USD small car, that will likely sell in large quantities as well,”

    Chevy Bolt has a 250 mile range and only costs $26k. TODAY.

    Model3 has 270 mile range and starts at… holy fuck…. $48k??? Fuck elmo.

    “Musk’s reputation and Tesla’s share price may have taken a hit, but the real business isn’t going to notice.”

    Yeah. No. Rednecks and rightwingers and fascists and racists arent driving teslas. Thats Elon’s fan base now. The people who buy electric cars tend to be left wing, liberal progressive, tree huggers. They sure as fuck are not buying their car from Baby Hitler 2.0.

    People who had wanted a cybertruck are now buying ford lightning or rivians instead, people who wanted a model 3 are buying bolts, because tree huggers, leftists, and progressives tend to see fascists and say “fuck that guy” and take their money elsewhere.

    Tesla burned their buyers base to the ground. And they’re getting out perfomed by Chevy and Ford.

    Right now, the only people wanting a tesla or defending Elmo who arent straight up fascists? Are libertarians who still believe in a libertarian utopia on Mars.

    But we all now know exactly what that will look like. Elmo will play the part of Victor Cohaagen and will sell air subscriptions to his devout followers for $8 a month.

  32. I admit, even I have fallen for the ‘money makes you smart’ fallacy.

    Then a Trump comes along and the delusion is cleansed, for a while. I keep reminding myself that half the world is below average intelligence and if we are honest, most of those on the right side of that Bell curve live in East Asia.

    Honestly, it’s not the fault of rich people. They remain innocent victims of our stupidity and eagerness to project on them.

    A handful of cultures exhibit more immunity than others. I always found the Greeks, still steeped in old knowledge, treat wealth as an affliction of the mind.

  33. “Tesla burned their buyers base to the ground.”
    That’s just wishful thinking. 90% of their US buyers and 99% of the rest of the world don’t care.
    And they’re getting out perfomed by Chevy and Ford.”
    Chevy’s annual Bolt production is maybe 1% of Model 3 production, maybe even less than that? Ford is the only western car company that’s got a serious competitive proposition and they are still a long way from catching up. The real threat to Tesla is the Chinese auto makers like BYD.

  34. John
    Read your books for years, and recommended them to many chums.. but never guessed you were also so spot on with social observation!
    Its not the just the billionaires, consider the the whole cofraternity of the entitled: the Silicon Valley money, the influences, the politicians and the chumocracy of Eton/Oxford over-confidence that wrecked the UK this year.
    Douglas Adam was right…

  35. “Honestly, it’s not the fault of rich people. They remain innocent victims of our stupidity and eagerness to project on them.”

    I’m inclined to go with this interpretation.

    Say what you want about the Twitter debacle, the spectacle of angry poors swinging on the nuts of one of the richest men in the world like he’s their personal Lord and Savior is a sad parable for our times.

    The entire concept of cryptocurrency is based on that much-quoted one-liner usually attributed to PT Barnum.

    Maybe the old chestnut is true and we only get the heroes we deserve.

  36. BurntCustard: “That’s just wishful thinking.”

    Dude. Elmo isnt going to pay you. And shills who dont get paid are otherwise known as a suckup or stooge.

    Tesla has like 3/4 the market because he hasnt had any serious competition. They can only lose from here.

    “90% of their US buyers and 99% of the rest of the world don’t care.”

    Again, unpaid shilling has no future.

    See elektrek article titled “Tesla is becoming a partisan brand, says survey” its from december 2022.

    People care. Tesla is going to become the mypillowguy of electric cars. Musk is going for libertarians, who are just gullible, and fascists who like his ideology.

    Even you care. Thats why youre an unpaid shill.

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