The Worthless Billionaires of 2022
(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.