This time of year, chances are high that if you can’t find me, I’m at the movies. While Hollywood’s offerings take us everywhere from Wakanda to a road trip with cannibals, it’s hard to miss the two motifs dominating the cinematic landscape this year: artists and the scourge of the rich (and, in at least one case, the scourge of the rich upon artists).
From Tár to Triangle of Sadness to The Menu, the current cinema is awash in metaphorical blood and bile from skewering the wealthy—specifically, the private-jet-flying, luxury-yacht-chartering, $1250-a-plate-dinner variety. The trend arguably began with Parasite, the 2019 South Korean class-war hit that became the first non-English-language film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Fast-forward to earlier this year, when Americans delighted in watching the aspirational family in The Watcher be tormented in their McMansion and Inventing Anna officially turned the scammer Anna Delvey into a heroine of our time as she conned the 1 percent time and again. A month into its release, the second season of HBO’s White Lotus is already proving as popular as the first.
The readership that my debut novel found this year was, at least in part, due to my satirizing the tastes and demands of the ultrarich. In the realm of nonfiction, think piece after think piece is being written, as we speak, about how the Facebook layoffs, the Amazon layoffs, the Twitter meltdown, and the FTX scam have laid bare the farce of our “genius” billionaire class.
And actually, it was one such essay—an excellent New York Times op-ed by the journalist Anand Giridharadas—that posited a very specific question that I’ve been plagued by all week. Writing about the recent “bad week for billionaires,” Giridharadas reminds us that the American billionaire class exists at our (that is, the nonbillionaire class’s) pleasure. That we have the power to elect, and apply pressure to, political candidates who can take up tax reforms that would potentially eliminate billionaires’ very existence—an outcome that many have argued would greatly benefit society. Short of total billionaire extinction, a progressive overhaul of the tax system—one with an eye to closing some of American moguls’ favorite loopholes—might, at the very least, help Americans reshape ourselves into a nation where the objective reality of the ruling class is at least one or two pegs closer to that of the rest of us.
Hardly anyone seems to care too much about doing that. Only about 52 percent of Americans support higher taxes on the rich, according to a Gallup poll from August. That’s almost the same support rate that Elon Musk got for his Twitter poll on whether to reinstate Donald Trump to the platform. And certainly, even if that slim majority was—as Gallup assessed it—“OK with” higher taxes on the wealthy, it’s hardly what I would consider a galvanized movement driving voters to polls. Joe Biden and Senator Ron Wyden’s “billionaires’ income tax,” which was proposed last year and would have taxed approximately 700 of America’s wealthiest individuals and raised an estimated $557 billion over 10 years, failed to pass (to, it should be noted, no great outrage).
Despite Americans being pinched by inflation, the proactive policy measure of taxing the rich was barely a campaign issue in the recent midterms. In the two states where the matter was put to voters directly, California and Massachusetts, results were mixed. Massachusetts passed its Fair Share Amendment by a narrow 51.9 percent margin (particularly narrow considering that the tax would only affect about 0.6 percent of state residents). In California, Proposition 30—which proposed a tax on the wealthy to fund electric-car rebates and fight wildfires—was rejected by 59 percent of the electorate.
I find myself mesmerized by the question of Why? Why do we take such joy in the schadenfreude of watching the ultrawealthy fail, suffer, or otherwise pay their comeuppance in entertainment, while seeming relatively apathetic about actually flexing our power to change things in real life? Why do we groan about Jeff Bezos skirting millions in taxes and roll our eyes at the erasure of government tax credits from Elon Musk’s self-mythologizing, but balk at actually doing anything about their ilk? Why were politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—people who’ve centered their agendas on taxing the ultrarich, a group that includes so few of us—deemed “radical” and “risky”? We’ve taken to the streets for Roe, for science, for racial justice. Yet somehow, the proportionally minuscule ruling class and its codified ability to pull the puppet strings of our society never elicits more than a political shoulder-shrug and a change of the channel to, say, Succession.
If the power to control billionaires’ existence is really in our hands, why are we so content with the status quo? What stops this from being a front-burner political issue? That’s what I’ve been wondering. And while I’m sure the complete answer is more complicated, my personal belief is that we just can’t quit our billionaires. Our rich. Our “self-made” men.
Neuroscience research shows that change is hard because the human brain is wired to fear loss. This most obviously makes sense when you consider our general aversion to highly personal changes: switching jobs, moving, ending a toxic friendship, starting a workout regimen, or, say, closing our Twitter accounts. Keeping these as is might be bad for us, but what, we might ask ourselves, do we have when they’re gone? The abyss is a frightening place. Although at first glance the wealth of people like Elon Musk or Sam Bankman-Fried is hardly a personal matter, the very conceit of eradicating billionaires is, for Americans in particular, an existential loss.
To be able to become a billionaire is, in some ways, a foundational promise of our nation. Most people would likely concede that the American dream (™) is a wildly fraudulent myth, one borne from an economic era far behind our current reality. And yet, I think that we all secretly harbor the fantasy that one day, maybe, it could be us—and we wouldn’t want to take down a goalpost before getting the chance to score a touchdown, now would we?
In a hyper-capitalist country like the United States, our billionaires are somewhat akin to the royals in the U.K.; their existence is, for many, a leftover nuisance from a bygone era, but a comforting one nevertheless. Our billionaires are figureheads who signify to us that, no matter how tight things might be this holiday season, you just never know if your circumstances will eventually change—and if not yours, then your children’s, or that of the generation after. In fact, if anything, people like Musk—whose Twitter takeover has, as Jelani Cobb recently wrote, helped to “sever … the American conflation of wealth with intellect”—have made the aspirational dream seem more attainable than ever. Just one great idea, one lucky break, one commitment to sleeping in the office for a season or two could be what transforms one of “us” into one of “them.”
Perhaps we are so ambivalent about “fixing” the issue with billionaires because if they cease to exist, what is there for the rest of us to dream about? What, without the fantasy of jets and estates in the Bahamas and zero income tax and running companies by edict, is at the end of the rainbow in a life of toil and mediocre health benefits and 10 business days of PTO, except the opportunity to die a working stiff?