Peter Thiel made headlines shortly after his fight with gawker for allegedly buying into the “blood boy” trend. Paying big money for blood transfusions from young healthy people on the hope that it will help him live longer. Just a few months later the New Yorker published a piece entitled “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”. Which as could be assumed detailed the lavish bunkers, rural estates, and other measures billionaires are taking in preparation of what some feel is an impending and inevitable global collapse. Instead billionaires should push for policies such as a universal basic income to try and impede that “inevitable collapse.”
All of this taking place under a backdrop of increasing income inequality where an ever smaller number of people control large swathes of the global economy. Not all billionaires are content retreating into the inequality though and some view reversing the trend a moral necessity. And if they don’t view it as a moral necessity, they should still take it seriously, because reshaping the global income distribution might be the only way to keep the 21st century version of the guillotine in storage. At the very least it’s the only way to maintain the global system that made many of these people the blood boy buying, big bunker loving, billionaires they are today.
People around the world are incredibly disgruntled to put it lightly and the most well off among us would be wise to keep their finger on the pulse of that discontent. Which to be fair, is exactly what people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and most recently Mark Zuckerberg, have been doing all along.
Gates is well known for quite literally being the world’s wealthiest and most influential philanthropist. A trend he has tried to make popular among the billionaire class, which worked on Warren Buffett among others. Buffett himself has long advocated for economic policy which would hurt people like him with massive amounts of wealth. Buffett has long espoused a disdain for billionaire centric tax policy. Which Barack Obama paid homage to in his 2011 tax reform policy which would bring the minimum rate to those making over a million a year to 30%. Mark Zuckerberg has recently joined the egalitarian billionaire club and has started advocating for a universal basic income, a radical step many of his peers should learn from.
Specifically during a commencement speech at Harvard Zuckerberg claimed “we need to try new ideas like a Universal Basic Income so people have a cushion to try new ideas.” To show real life examples of the success this approach can yield Zuckerberg pointed to himself and the opportunities to take risks a basic standard of living yielded him. He also pointed to JK Rowling who he said “got rejected 12 times before publish Harry Potter.” Beyonce, Zuckerbeg said, “had to make hundreds of songs to get Halo.” In Zuckerberg’s words all of them benefitted from “having the freedom to fail.” Which in his mind is exactly what a Universal Basic Income could provide.
Whether or not a UBI is an effective way at providing poor people the freedom to fail is debateable, but the fact that Zuckerberg identified that such a freedom currently does not exist is key. Increasingly low income people in the United States do not have the freedom to fail, they don’t have the freedom to miss a rent payment without eviction, to take a sick day without being reprimanded, to go to the doctor without substantial copays or medical bills. A Universal Basic Income might not remedy all of those problems, but it would represent a substantial effort that may very well put a much needed floor on the standard of living of millions of Americans. The fact that the proposal is being pushed by a billionaire tech entrepreneur is all the better. Backers like Zuckerberg give a policy like Universal Basic Income an inherent amount of legitimacy and it’s a policy that billionaires should get behind quickly if history is any guide.
Rampant inequality has fueled some of the greatest bouts of political violence in human history. Economic inequality fueled the animosity that drove the French Revolution. It laid the seeds of what would become the brutal Soviet Union under Stalin. Economic inequality also has political consequences. It has helped fuel populist take overs from Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin. Brexit, Donald Trump, and unknown political events to come can all be directly linked to historic levels of income inequality. When the status quo is perceived to be broken people embrace radical politics on both sides of the political spectrum.
Clever opportunists who sell dreams to the disenchanted will always rise from discontent and those who benefited most from the status quo generally lose the most. If billionaires buying high tech bunkers is any sign, many of those who have benefited from a status quo millions of people are turning their backs on are well aware of the potential consequences to come. Instead of turning their backs on a society that filled their pockets the bunker builders would be wise to learn from the likes of Zuckerberg.
Public policy helped make billionaires rich. Radical shifts in public policy, or public perception, can easily take that away, or worse. Hopefully public policy, supported by those who have the most to lose, can also reverse these disastrous trends before the backlash becomes too much for our political institutions to bear.
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