The “billionaire” has become an essential character in American pop culture. Whether we admire them, envy them or villainize them, it is difficult to deny the vast power that their wealth grants them. However, there is little consensus on how billionaires should best exercise this power for the benefit of society. While philanthropy is gaining traction amongst billionaires, it doesn’t truly address the root causes of wealth inequality. To push beyond band-aid solutions, we must call on billionaires to turn away from disingenuous philanthropy and instead ground their work against inequality in a more profound understanding of their systemic privilege.
While monetary donations can have positive impacts — funding is an important part of effectively addressing issues from food insecurity to educational inequality — these impacts will remain limited if most billionaires continue to leverage this type of philanthropy for their own reputational benefit. The dollar amounts that billionaires choose to donate may look high relative to most people’s financial situations, but they represent a tiny fraction of what most billionaires are capable of giving. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many billionaires saw their net worth multiply several times over as the value of tech stocks soared. However, few sought to scale up their philanthropic endeavors in tandem with their personal wealth, even at a time when most of the country was suffering unprecedented financial insecurity. Despite these trends, we are led to view billionaires as decidedly generous. Just recently, Jeff Bezos generated significant buzz over his $100 million donation to wildfire recovery efforts in Maui. Yet, few articles mentioned that this sum is less than 0.1% of his net worth or that Bezos had already spent $78 million on an estate in Maui two years prior. Failing to establish the positionality of billionaires falsely inflates perceptions of their altruism, ultimately enabling and incentivizing them to use philanthropy as a publicity move.
This is especially dangerous when we consider that many philanthropic pledges and donations do not ever reach any purported recipients, instead providing billionaires themselves with financial gains while the tax system (and taxpayers themselves) loses billions of dollars that otherwise would contribute to public services. Even famously philanthropic billionaires like Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey put their money into donor-advised funds, which provide tax breaks without ever guaranteeing that money goes towards charitable work. The entire concept of a donor-advised fund, which is only increasing in popularity, further encourages donating as a performative act rather than to drive impact.
Even when philanthropic donations do reach their intended recipients, they often come with a savior narrative that reinforces power dynamics between the giver and the receiver. When donors are highly isolated from their recipients, the act of donating is superficial and hierarchical: The wealthy hold the resources and decide where and to whom they should be allocated. By nature, this approach fails to challenge the structural issues that lead to wealth inequality in the first place. Thus, philanthropy from billionaires is not only lacking the altruism that must ground any fight against wealth inequality, but it also fails to get at the underlying causes of this divide in the first place.
So if not philanthropy, then what do we want from billionaires? At a basic level, they must understand the massive level of privilege embedded in their wealth. Regardless of any individual’s IQ or business acumen, their money has been won within a society built upon the labor and exploitation of the less wealthy. An individualistic donation is one-way, drawing a bright line to separate the donor from the recipient. However, this creates a false boundary between billionaires and the less wealthy even though billionaires’ financial success is inextricably tied to the same system that has exploited others. Any meaningful form of giving back should acknowledge this, fostering a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility within communities of donors and recipients.
Mutual aid networks are one such avenue for giving back. As opposed to traditional philanthropy, mutual aid emphasizes collaboration. Rather than viewing themselves as benevolent saviors separate from those whom they are trying to help, billionaires should engage in genuine partnerships with communities affected by inequality. Listening to the needs and aspirations of these communities paves the path to a shared decision-making process. If we prioritize individuals coming together and leveraging their diverse set of resources to address collective needs, we could build systems that equitably support everyone.
And billionaires are an important part of making sure this new system is implemented. They can personally ensure that their own expansive pursuits of profit do not require the exploitation of workers or the depletion of natural resources. Commitments to fair wages, ethical labor practices and sustainable business models are a real way to substantially contribute to a reduction in the wealth gap. Beyond these business practices, billionaires could exercise their enormous political influence to advocate for policies that promote economic justice. This could involve pushing for progressive taxation or fairer labor laws. By using their platforms to amplify the voices of those advocating for systemic change, billionaires can shape a more just society.
I truly believe that capitalism can coexist with principles of social responsibility, but only if those who benefit most from the system are active in their efforts to address its intrinsic flaws. Billionaires must move beyond the limited scope of philanthropy and embrace a more holistic approach to addressing wealth inequality. This involves a deep understanding of privilege and a willingness to challenge the very systems that have allowed their wealth to flourish. Billionaires need to collaborate with the less wealthy as equal stakeholders in our society’s future if we are to bridge the deep and generational economic divides that plague us today.
Anika Bahl ’24 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.
This column is part of a series of opinion pieces about the impact of wealth and inequality on politics that receives financial support from the Stone Initiative on Inequality. The Herald maintains editorial independence over the published work.