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Billionaire Economics

by Virgil Kurkjian1 min read28th Jul 202030 comments

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EconomicsPoliticsWorld Optimization
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I have progressive friends in my circles and so I see a lot of stuff like this:

As well as somewhat more eloquent takes like this one, and a number of similar things I haven't bothered digging up.

But I notice that I'm still confused. The entry-level mistake (which some progressives do make) is thinking that having a net worth of $48 billion means that you have $48 billion sitting in a bank account somewhere. It's clear that none of them have that kind of liquidity. I've even seen, very occasionally, back and forth takes on these issues. So not everyone is making this mistake.

Ok, I'm still confused. What is going on?

  • Possibly estimates like this are just way off on how much money it takes to solve problems. Is $20 billion really enough to end homelessness in the US? End for how long? The NYT suggests that we already spend about $12 billion (though perhaps not very well), and that's per year! $300 billion does seem awfully optimistic for halting climate change. Maybe no one's personal fortune is actually enough to do any of these things.
  • Still, with several billion dollars, you could probably do something. Let's assume that there is at least one major, important thing you could do with a one-time investment of $20 billion (seems reasonable). Billionaires are well-informed, they probably know about whatever that thing is. There are several who could apparently afford it. Surely one of them would "defect" and burn half of their fortune on it? This suggests that either 1) billionaires really are universally evil just as progressives think, 2) no opportunity like this exists and billionaires are not, in practical terms, all that rich, or 3) billionaires can't access all of their wealth for some reason.
  • (Or 4) billionaires do this already and I don't know about it? IDK)
  • One angle on that last point is like this: If Mark Zuckerberg wanted to liquidate all $54.7 billion of his wealth to give it away to some cause (give every American... wow only $182.33, can that be right?), how quickly / easily could he do that? Would he be able to do it without any trouble? What are the barriers in his way? Does he simply not have access to that kind of liquidity?

I know that's not especially clear but I hope that y'all can help me out. Any thoughts or discussion on these points would be welcome and appreciated. Thank you!

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3 Answers

When it comes to homelessness it's worth noting that while the US might have a particularly bad situation even in a country like Germany where the government is willing to pay the rent for people who have no job, you still have homelessness. 

Let's assume that there is at least one major, important thing you could do with a one-time investment of $20 billion (seems reasonable).

In most cases there are dimishing returns to the value of money. Spending 20 billion on one cause instead of spreading it over multiple causes is likely no effective way to spend the money. It goes counter to EA principles. 

From Forbes

In total, America's 50 most generous philanthropists gave out $14.1 billion in 2018, up from $12.6 billion in 2017 and $12.2 billion in 2016. 

That's not nothing and at the same time you might want it to be more. 

$300 billion does seem awfully optimistic for halting climate change. 

It might buy you a geoengineering solution but it not enough to build enough renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. 

It doesn't yet seem desireable to do large scale geoengineering.

The US unsheltered population is around 200k, the cheapest rent I can find in a city is ~$500 a month, so, assuming (incorrectly), you can actually provide shelter at that rate in the places people actually are, you get about 1.2 billion a year more than we currently spend, ignoring what that will do to the market, efficiencies of scale, tiny houses, and other options. This also only deals with the unsheltered (there are, probably, another 400k sheltered but homeless), and doesn't necessarily include utilities. If 30 year fixed plus maintenance is the presumed amortization that rent is going against, then ~36 billion may be able to uplift the current unsheltered population, provided people are willing to be relocated. This, unfortunately, misses that a lot of the homeless population is only temporarily homeless already, due to section 8, public housing, etc, so it isn't entirely clear that the 36 billion would actually be more than a hiccup.

The next problem is accessing the money. The billionaires come in a few different categories, based on whether their wealth is primarily from income (kleptocrats, oligarchs, oil barons, etc) or from static appreciated investments (tech company founders, etc). To some extent, we don't want the 2nd group to attempt to liquidate their wealth, as currently, said wealth is, to the extent it exists, doing useful work, and liquidating it would be sucking a LOT of resources out of the economy, which may make sense if done gradually, with a clear plan. If done quickly, it is likely to devalue itself, crash a bunch of other things, and likely be illegal.

There are other problems, that said, there are places where things could be greatly improved, and it would make sense for governmental bodies to execute some of these plans where it would be efficient and compassionate to do so. There are a lot of people that it would be cheaper to provide housing for, than the current cost in services they incur due to not having shelter.

In a way, economic output is a measure of the world's utility. So a billionaire trying to maximize their wealth through non zero-sum ventures is already trying to maximize the amount of good they do. I don't think billionaires explicitly have this in mind, but I do know that they became billionaires by obsessively pursuing the growth of their companies, and they believe they can continue to maximize their impact by continuing to do so. Donating all your money could maybe do a lot of good *once*, but then you don't have any more money left and have nearly abolished your power and ability of having further impact.