The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes his backside.
So too with the super rich.
Oxfam tell us that a mother 10 people now possess more wealth than the bottom 40% of humanity – and that the richest 20 tycoons collectively own more than the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa.
You’d think that such obscene inequality would encourage the wealthy to adopt a certain modesty – even if only for self-preservation. Yet today’s extremely online billionaires love nothing more than raising their metaphorical posteriors for the admiration of the crowd.
take Elon Musk.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, Musk reportedly made nearly US$140bn.
In the United States at the time, the average annual wage was about US$75,000.
In other words, Musk earned a mind-boggling 1.86m times more than the average American: some $383m each and every day.
What morality could possibly justify such a disparity?
Did Musk work 1.86 million times harder than everyone else? Was he, perhaps, 1.86 million times smarter?
The last few weeks have, rather definitively, settled such questions.
Having acquired a social network apparently we have whimMusk set about running Twitter via Twitter, a process that provided a tweet-by-tweet glimpse of his very David Brent management energy.
He posted a video of himself carrying a sink into Twitter HQ. He fired thousands of employees – and then, as the site’s functionality wobbled, asked some of them to come back. He insisted the remaining staff print out code they’d written, and then told them to shred it. He tweeted – and then deleted – a link to a conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, even while touting Twitter as a news source.
Most spectacularly, he monetized blue-tick certification, a policy that (as absolutely everyone predicted) unleashed a torrent of verified parodies.
An account purporting to be the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly promised free insulin, sending the company’s real world stock plummeting. “Pepsi” tweeted, “Coke is better”. HAS blue-ticked “George W Bush” declared, “I miss killing Iraqis” – and his pal “Tony Blair” tweeted back, “Same tbh.”
Mario gave the finger from an “official” Nintendo account; verified Mr Bean invited users to take advantage of his cunnilingus skills.
On Thursday, Twitter staff resigned in droves, rejecting Musk’s demand for them to become “extremely hardcore”. Speculation mounted that the whole platform would collapse.
As the site descended into a Marx Brother’s farce, Groucho’s line from the movie Duck Soup came to mind: “Gentlemen, [he] may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Meanwhile, over at Meta (the corporation previously known as Facebook), Mark Zuckerberg put on a similar display of concentrated ineptitude.
Not so long ago, the Zuck earned an eye-watering $28,538 a minute. Business Insider calculated the Facebook founder could, at that stage, hand over $100 to every living person in the US, and still keep more than half of his fortune intact.
The vast gulf separating Zuckerberg from the rest of the species perhaps explains his obsession with the virtual reality world of the metaverse. When, at a recent presentation, he was enthusiastic about the legacy of Meta’s new avatarshis excitement suggested the blue fairy had finally promised that he’d one day become a real human boy.
Unsurprisingly, most normal people do not want to work in the metaverse (think a three-dimensional, never-ending Zoom meeting, conducted in a nausea-inducing headset) and so, the more Zuckerberg throws money at virtual reality, the more Meta’s stock plunges. Its market value has dropped a staggering $700bnwith the result that 11,000 people are losing their jobs.
It’s easy to mock the vanity projects of the tech elite. It’s also important.
A few years back, the Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi noted thatif you had earned $5,000 each and every day from 1493 onwards, you’d still have less money than Jeff Bezos – even after his divorce.
The monstrous scale of global inequality renders genuine democracy a farce. A few years ago it was reported that about 40% of Americans couldn’t raise $400 to cover an emergency. Does anyone really think their votes give them the same political power as Bezos, who, according to one calculationmakes US$3,715 every second?
To put it another way, Musk shelled out dollars with a billion or so to spare.
Something’s gone very wrong when basic infrastructure maintenance seems wildly utopian, while the hare-brained schemes of man-child oligarchs become increasingly routine.
In part, we can blame a media too often prone to slobber over the intersection of wealth and technology.
The disgraced crypto-tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried succeeded in sharing so many investors from their money partly because of the fawning coverage he so regularly received. As Vox put it, the press portrayed SBF “as an unassuming, nerdy scholar, frequently noting his down-to-earthness, his messy mop of hair, his penchant for wearing T-shirts and shorts, his Toyota Corolla.” Investors were enamored of the fact that he wasn’t a buttoned-up entrepreneur; he played computer games during pitch meetingsand like other modern-day founders, his eccentricities were taken as proof of his distinct genius.
In the famous Hans Christian Andersen fable, those who ignored the king’s nakedness revealed their craven servility. With its report of the man it dubbed the “crypto emperor”, the New York Times went one step further: its headline explicitly lauded SBF’s without pants wardrobe as central to his scruffy mystique.
In reality, as the analyst Mike Burgersburg pointed outlong before his company collapsed, Bankman-Fried’s flaws had always been obvious – at least, to those who cared to look.
“[H]e never came off as being that bright,” Burgersburg said, “Like, either he’s admitting that he’s committing fraud, or saying shit that just doesn’t make sense.”
When people show you who they are, Maya Angelou warned, believe them the first time.
To that end, the relative transparency of the internet constitutes a tremendous boon, providing oversharing plutocrats with all the digital rope necessary to publicly hang themselves.
For instance, Musk’s recent antics reveal just how much of a bullet we dodged when his promise to land a man on Mars by 2021 failed to eventuate: one shudders to imagine an interplanetary colony governed according to the methods currently reigning on Twitter.
The grotesque inequality that billionaires embody provides no basis to run a society in space. It’s even more toxic down here on Earth.