Are Billionaires the Problem?

Tara Isabella Burton, a columnist for the Religious News Service, wants to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to attack the free enterprise system that produced billionaires like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey. (Washington Post, May 17, 2020, B4) She would blame the conditions that created the most productive economic engine the world had ever seen with the lowest unemployment in half a century for requiring assistance of billionaires in fighting the virus.

The price of the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. Burton asserts is that one in six children grow up in poverty, schools are unequally funded, and poor adults have healthcare issues. Even without pointing out that conditions in countries that value the collective good over individual rights are much, much worse for the majority than in the U.S.––vide Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela––Burton must ignore the positives our system has provided its citizenry in order to focus on the negatives.

She doesn’t mention that life expectancy in the U.S. has increased steadily and was at 78.87 in 2018 up EIGHT years from 1970. She doesn’t mention that poverty is never an obstacle keeping academically talented young people out of college and on a path to the middle class. She doesn’t mention that senior citizens are healthier by far than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, or that medical care has enabled cancer patients to live many years longer than just a generation ago.

Instead Burton relies on the language of the old Left. Telling us that we “worship” individual billionaires, and that the “collective good” has been sacrificed on the myth of the bootstrapper, and that “our obsession with freedom leaves behind our most vulnerable.” She also joins the media chorus claiming social conditions and an inept federal government are responsible for making the pandemic “so dire.”

Au contraire, Ms. Burton. Measuring the country’s response to the pandemic is as useful an exercise as the models estimating how many would have died if we did nothing. There’s no standard against which we can compare how we’ve done except to say we weren’t ready, we made mistakes, and yet we rallied and we are winning the battle. A vaccine might not be available by the end of the year, yet in record time the American manufacturing community provided life-saving equipment while the scientific community paved the way to creating a vaccine faster than for any other crisis in human history.

I would venture that in no country on Planet Earth are billionaires less admired than in the U.S. where the owner of a diner, a dairy farm or a bookstore feels just as important to society as the founders of Twitter or PayPal. We accept the existence of billionaires because we know the price we would have to pay of preventing people from rising that far above their inherent individual value would be the loss of the opportunity to rise out of poverty, to be elected to high office, or follow one’s dream career be that ballet dancer, special ed teacher or sports star. It’s a price Americans are not willing to pay because we know society as a whole benefits when each of us is responsible in large part for our successes and our failures. That’s what makes us Americans.

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