A lot of articles have been written recently about how the billionaires are getting richer during the pandemic while everyone else is going broke. Amazon owner Bezos (+$34.6 billion) and Facebook owner Zuckerberg (+$25.3 billion) together have gained $60 billion according to an Institute for Policy Studies report. Steve Balmer of Zoom (+$12.8B), Michael Bloomberg (+$12.3B), Mackensie Bezos (+$12.0B), and Elon Musk (+11.8B) also fall on the top 10 list of wealth increases in the last 2 months.
As the Papua New Guinea tribesman Yali asked anthropologist Jared Diamond so many years ago inspiring his brilliant book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel": "Why do you have so much cargo, and we have so little?" We might ask the same question, as these billionaires are on a financial plane that puts us at the level of indigenous tribes-people in comparison. It also warrants the same level of investigation that Diamond put into understanding the contrast in cultures.
The right-wing view is that they are all self-made people, who through their initiative, drive, and entrepreneurship created a new product that everyone wanted and therefore earned their riches. The left-wing view is that they are leeches who profit off the labor of others, with the egregious example of Bezos who apparently has atrocious labor policies, like poverty wages, and reportedly fired a worker for reporting on coronavirus and refuses sick leave for employees during the pandemic. They are both half-right and half-wrong. Think about this: How much would Amazon, Facebook, Zoom, or PayPal* be worth without the internet? Isn't it obvious? The answer is ZERO. That alone is an amazing fact to ponder. Without the internet their fortune would be zero. I don't know enough about Bloomberg's business model to judge its internet dependence, and I won't speculate on what innovation Ms. Bezos contributed to make her the 3rd richest person in the world. She seems like a good person, founding an anti-bullying campaign and all. But the point remains, their fortunes would be ZERO without the internet.
(*If you didn't know, Musk got his grubstake of $180 million from selling his share of PayPal. )
I am always amazed by the intensity of ideologues' beliefs on both sides, defying reality like flat-earthers, yet relentlessly holding onto their positions in the phenomenon called confirmation bias: accept anything that agrees with their pre-conceived belief, and reject everything else, regardless of how factual it is. Studies have even shown that presenting facts to a believer causes them to hold onto their beliefs even stronger! Humans are strange.
I was once at a seminar presented by a conservative government representative, and he was explaining to us dunces how business creates all the innovation and wealth, and government stifles it all through regulation; standard right-wing fare. Being somewhat malicious, I felt compelled to raise my hand and ask if he had ever heard of the internet, the greatest innovation in the last 50 years? And did he know it was created by the US government, DARPA to be specific? This was in Australia, so maybe he didn't know. Marionettes don't always know what their puppetmasters are up to.
I failed to mention the supplemental invention of the world wide web by (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, during his spare time working at (government funded) high-energy physics lab CERN in Geneva (What did you do in your spare time?). Berners-Lee proceeded to make the web open-access so everyone in the world could use it for free, resulting in the internet commons we all enjoy. This was a decidedly non-businesslike decision on his part, much like Jonas Salk's invention of the polio vaccine, which he also gave away free. Will the coronavirus vaccine be free? LOL. Amazon, Facebook, Zoom, PayPal, etc. all depend on the internet and the world wide web to exist.
So the next question to ask is this: What proportion of their wealth is due to the internet and what to their initiative, which undoubtedly exists? Economists call the unearned part economic rent, and why don't the original investors in the internet, US taxpayers, get any of it? Imagine if you owned a private company that had invented the internet, and everyone was using it for free. Wouldn't you be in court the next day for patent, trademark, and trade secret violations? Compare this to the $65 million Zuckerberg paid to the Winklevoss brothers and Narendra for supposedly stealing their idea for Facebook.
We're not going to settle the debate here about the value of the internet to these companies. Let the economists figure it out. But it's worth more than zero isn't it? While the internet is worth trillions. Where is the return on our investment? No wonder Keynes said to "euthanize the rentiers".
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