Let’s face it, we’re obsessed with billionaires in this country. We have been as long as I can remember. Even as a child, stories about the reclusive Howard Hughes, who dated Hollywood starlets as a younger man and then spent his final years hiding out in a hotel in Las Vegas, growing his hair and fingernails and peeing in milk jugs, fascinated me.
We just went through a presidential election in which the billionaire president — at least he says so — ran for reelection and the Democratic field included fellow super-rich guys Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.
These days the ultra-wealthy are constantly in the news. There’s a space race between Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos and Bill Gates also appear to be in a competition for the most sordid divorce. When Gates isn’t blowing up his carefully constructed brainiac/nerd/dad image, he’s writing books and lecturing the rest of us about how we ought to behave if the world is to survive. Cryptocurrencies go nuts in the week leading up to Musk hosting “Saturday Night Live,” then plummet, supposedly because of a joke he made during the show.
It goes on and on. It seems we almost subconsciously equate wealth with intelligence. Perhaps even in prehistoric times, our ancient forebearers were in awe of the guy who had the most pointed sticks or the fanciest cave. When it comes to the otherworldly wealth obtained by billionaires, we can only imagine the amazing brains it must have taken to become so obscenely rich.
But at the same time, billionaires occupy a place of great disdain in modern society. They are seen as sucking up all the money and hoarding it for themselves. The proliferation of billionaires is seen by many as the canary in the coal mine that portends the inequalities that will eventually crush our republic and leave it a smoldering monument to something that once had at least the promise of greatness.
Mere millionaires now seem quaint. The race is on to become the first trillionaire — and we may well see that line crossed in the next decade if the accumulation of wealth continues. As we consider the eventuality that some of the people who now count their billions in the hundreds will one day count them by the thousands, it is shocking to discover there are still states that don’t have a single one of these modern Midases. And yes, Alabama is one of them.
According to Forbes.com’s 2021 compilation of the richest billionaires in each state, Alabama is one of seven states that can’t lay claim to even one mega-rich resident. We’re joined in that sad-sack boat by Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.
Looking at that list, I can’t help but wonder what common circumstance exists in each of these states that we’re unable to put even one barely billionaire over the line — you know, one who clocks in at $1.1 billion and is a bad day on the stock market away from having to go back to slumming it with the millionaires. What does our lack of people who have so much more than everyone else say about Alabama and the other billionaire-less states?
The first thought is that we’re especially poor. If the list of poverty rates and median household income put together by something called World Population Review is accurate — it has a fancy website, so how could it not be accurate? — the Seven Dwarves of billionairity definitely aren’t particularly rich. West Virginia ranks as the second-poorest state and Alabama fifth. But the rest land in the range between 25th and 41st poorest. And keep in mind that even among the top five poorest states, three have billionaires.
So maybe that’s not telling us the whole story. Still, none of the top 24 states with the highest median income and lower poverty rates makes do without a billionaire, so that at least suggests a state’s overall economy plays some role, or maybe having billionaires helps the state’s economy. Hmmm?
According to Forbes, there are now 724 billionaires in the U.S., and 58 percent of them live in just four states — California (173), New York (118), Florida (68) and Texas (64). That presents an opening for Alabama. Perhaps some nice glossy pamphlets extolling our virtues and pointing out our dearth of billionaires could convince one or two super-rich folks to move to the Yellowhammer State so they’re not running into someone wealthier than them at the 7-Eleven.
“Tired of running out to buy a $10,000 bottle of wine and seeing someone who could buy and sell you 10 times over? Alabama is your answer! Sugar-white beaches and poor people as far as the eye can see! Come get your butt kissed down South!”
Of course, it might just be easier to get Apple CEO Tim Cook to move back to Baldwin County, or at least claim residency here. Someone get to work on that.
Besides avoiding the ignominy of not placing anyone on the Forbes list, why should we want billionaires? What good will it do us?
I can’t help but notice some billionaires are pretty loose with the cash, supporting all kinds of local and statewide causes, naming buildings after themselves and propping up artistic endeavors. On a more personal note, several have purchased newspapers for exorbitant amounts of money, so I wouldn’t mind getting in on some of that action. But I guess there’s also a downside to having billionaires living amongst us — it appears many don’t pay taxes.
According to a bombshell new article by PropPublica.org, a nonprofit news organization focused on public money and abuses of power, some of the best-known billionaires — even some of those publicly advocating for higher taxes on the rich — are paying far less on the dollar than the rest of us poor slobs. A leaked trove of IRS documents shows Warren Buffett paid a .10 percent tax rate between 2014 and 2018. Yes, one-tenth of a percent.
Likewise, Bezos averaged a .98 percent rate, Bloomberg 1.3 percent and Musk 3.27 percent. How? By using all of the tax loopholes our elected leaders have put in place over the years that benefit those making ridiculous amounts of money.
So, I’m torn. Should we invite the super-rich to come live amongst us, to share their flights of fancy and lecture us on how to eat, sleep, travel and think, while simultaneously using teams of accountants to avoid paying more in taxes than your average grocery store clerk? Or should we just be proud to be one of the seven states being run by old-fashioned, back-room millionaires?
I guess I’m pro-billionaire, as long as we get one who pees in jugs and likes buying newspapers.
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