First, a bold claim: it is a moral failure of our entire society that billionaires exist. Second, an even bolder claim: this shouldn’t be a controversial opinion. In fact, I think the single largest barrier to widespread acceptance of this idea, political clout of the billionaire class aside, is our inability to conceptualize just how rich the rich are. So, let me try to convince you that this ostensibly radical claim is a no-brainer.
Consider Peter Singer’s now-famous thought experiment of the shallow pond. One day, you see a small child drowning in this shallow pond. You are the only person around, so if you do not wade into the water, this child will die. However, the mud will ruin your clothes, and you’ll be out about $100. You’re in no danger yourself, so the decision comes down to whether you should save your money or the child.
If you’re like most people, you’re likely thinking, “of course I would save the child.” If that wasn’t your thought, well, I’m unlikely to convince you of anything from here on out. Sure, $100 is a fair bit of money to most people, but it’s a human life! Singer then pushes us to consider the similar case of a charity that can save a person’s life for $100. Ought we not donate for the exact same reason we would save the drowning child?
Opinions differ on this point, with a relevant objection being the fact that we are singularly responsible for the well-being of the drowning child in a way we aren’t for the person receiving charity. As the argument goes, there are millions of other people choosing not to donate money, so the moral weight of letting this child die is not as substantial when it is spread out among so many people. This is a legitimate criticism, but I believe it falls apart when we consider the unique position of the ultra-rich. To contextualize this argument, let’s crunch the numbers for what a life costs to one of the richest men in the world.
Jeff Bezos has a net worth of about 150 billion dollars. The most cost-effective way to save a life, buying mosquito nets to prevent malaria in Africa, costs just under $3340 per life saved. While this cost would vary as money is put in, I’ll still use it for a workable estimate. If we were to reroute $149 billion to charity – leaving Bezos with a cool one billion dollars – over 40 million lives would be saved. This works out to over 1.4 lives saved for every second in an entire year. More telling, however, is the relative cost per life saved to Jeff Bezos. To save one life would be for him to donate just over 0.0000022% of his wealth. The equivalent amount to the median American ($68,828 in wealth, per the 2011 census) is just 0.15 cents.
Hopefully it’s clear at this point that the moral weight for the countless preventable deaths worldwide is not borne by all of us equally. Neither you nor I could wade into the pond and save the millions drowning right now. The billionaire class, which made enough money in 2017 alone to end extreme poverty seven times over, has the means to drain the pond entirely. It is a societal moral failure that we accept their inaction. If the idea of a middle class citizen choosing to let 6 people die in order to save a single penny disgusts you, then so should Jeff Bezos.
How do we bring about meaningful change? How do we build a more moral society? We redefine what it means to be a billionaire. A billionaire is someone who decides that keeping 0.000334% of their wealth – a mere 30 cents to the median American – is more important than another person’s life. Every discussion of the ultra-rich should be framed in terms of the unimaginable greed needed at every moment to sustain this class. And, if this doesn’t work, there are always more political methods of wealth redistribution.
Hagan, Shelly. Billionaires Made So Much Money Last Year They Could End Extreme Poverty Seven Times. Money, 22 Jan. 2018, http://money.com/money/5112462/billionaires-made-so-much-money-last-year-they-could-end-extreme-poverty-seven-times/.
Karaian, Jason. “Jeff Bezos Is Rich Enough to Buy Many of the World’s Stock Markets Outright.” Prime Time, Quartz, 18 July 2018, https://qz.com/1330631/jeff-bezos-is-now-worth-150-billion-as-much-as-many-entire-stock-markets/.
Weller, Chris. The World’s Best Charity Can Save a Life for $3,337.06. Business Insider, 29 July 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/the-worlds-best-charity-can-save-a-life-for-333706-and-thats-a-steal-2015-7.October 22, 2018