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Billionaire Economics

by Virgil Kurkjian1 min read28th Jul 202030 comments

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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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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.

4Timothy Underwood4moThe tech founder liquidating his holdings to solve homelessness may or may not be a good idea, but it is not a bad idea because it would suck resources dedicated to tech out of the economy. He'd sell his shares to other people, who now own the tech stream of income, and then take their money and use it to solve homelessness. The only possible economic downside is a bit of inflation as the implied velocity of money goes up slightly since most capital owners spend a very small portion of their wealth each year, while he presumably would be spending it faster. But a 20 billion or even 50 billion one time spend in terms of that is not even a rounding error to the total economy.
3ChristianKl4moIf you provide free housing, then not only the people who are currently homeless would want to move into that housing but also some people who currently rent their flats.

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.

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For reference, Bill and Melinda Gates have not been able to eradicate polio, despite pouring billions into defeating it (though perhaps not 10s of billions yet, into that specific cause).

So worth considering --  how do worldwide climate change and US homelessness compare to that?

You can't do anything meaningful on the country-wide scale for $20bln. The US social security budget is over a trillion dollars, the highest budget expense, and it is not nearly enough. Your "progressive" (read ideologically left) friends are posting it for the feel-good ingroup applause lights without ever checking the sources. Not very much different from "covid is a Chinese/Liberal conspiracy".

I don't have sufficient knowledge to debate specific numbers, so I will just point out the simple things.

First, where are the governments in this picture? Governments operate with billions and trillions, so by the same logic governments also don't care about the problems mentioned. And by the way, governments already take money from us under the pretense that they are going to use it to solve exactly this kind of problems... so, if those trillions collected each year haven't solved the problem of health care or homelessness yet, what exactly makes you believe that the extra 20 billions would?

Second, the picture describes what could be done, but fails to mention what has already been done and how much did it cost. Maybe things are actually way more expensive than the picture suggests. (Like, the picture represents a planning fallacy, and in reality more money was already spent and the problem is not fully solved yet.) Maybe the solved problems keep re-appearing. (Like, if you gave a new home to every homeless person, a year later, most of them would be homeless again, for various reasons.) Maybe simple solutions have bad side effects. (Donate money to lots of people... and watch the rents go up.)

I am not pretending that this is a full refutation of the argument. As I said, I don't really have sufficient knowledge to do that. I am just saying the evidence is filtered so much, that any conclusions made from it are unreliable.

Bill gates probably thinks that malaria in Africa is a better opportunity to do good than American homelessness. Elon musk chose electric cars and to give some money to openAI. I think the pattern here is that some billionaires do use a significant fraction of their fortune to do good, and they are fairly effective at doing so. But you can still find lots of important causes that aren't being funded by them, because there aren't that many billionaires.

billionaires really are universally evil just as progressives think

Can you please add a quantifier when you make assertions about plurals. You can make any group sound dumb/evil by not doing it. E.g I can make atheists sound evil by saying the truthful statement: “Atheists break the law”. But that's only because I didn't add a quantifier like “all”, “most”, “at least one”, “a disproportionate number”, etc.

I think that statement reads pretty clearly as both a hypothetical and as a joke; I don't consider "universally evil" to be an especially likely explanation.

I was not referring to the 'billionaires being universally evil', but to the 'what progressives think' part.

Isn't "universally" already the quantifier you seek?

I was talking about the "as progressives think"

We should also consider whether we really want billionaires to make unilateral, wide-ranging public health/policy decisions without any real governmental oversight. We have a government for a reason, so that we can actually elect people to make these decisions, and have some accountabilities for the outcomes. I get that this sounds almost ridiculous at the moment, given how dysfunctional particularly the American government has become, but I'd still rather have some control than no control at all.

Rather than have billionaires take over governmental responsibilities, a better approach would probably be to tax them at a higher rate.

It's not clear why we should expect government to do a better job; this is explored in some depth here.

We don't have governments because we believe that central planning is the best way to solve all problems. Especially in the US that's very far from the reason why a government was created. 

Don't be silly - billions (or a hundred billion) aren't enough for unilateral, wide-ranging policy of any large country. There's a reason these misleading comparisons _NEVER_ include government (or even institutional endowments). According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_position_of_the_United_States#:~:text=The%20financial%20position%20of%20the,GDP)%20as%20of%20Q1%202014., the US Federal government has a net worth of at least 123 trillion, hundreds of times the net worth of Gates and Bezos combined.

That's not the net worth of the US Federal government, that's the net worth of the entire USA - including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, all 300 million citizens of the USA, and all of their businesses. 75% of that net worth, according to the Wikipedia article, is American households and non-profits. The federal government "only" has about $5 trillion in assets and $16 trillion in debts (these numbers are from 2014 and are thus out of date - that debt is now up to $26 trillion, while I don't believe the assets have increased significantly). The state governments actually have more assets and less debt, holding almost $14 trillion in assets and about $5 trillion in debts.

While the federal government's assets are still much larger than theirs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos together have $300 billion in net worth, 6% of the federal government's assets, and that's taking into account their debts. In addition, that's including federal assets that are very difficult to liquidate (they can't exactly start selling aircraft carrier) while Jeff Bezos could sell his Amazon stock and still wind up with a huge amount of cash, even if it isn't all of his current net assets. Given that the federal government has a wide range of projects, including the US military, and billionaires could focus on a single issue like homelessness or climate change, they could potentially do a great deal in accomplishing their goals.

You're correct, I misread the page. I wasn't able to easily find any reasonable comparison of "net worth" of the US or state governments - measures tend to mix up "hard" assets like current land value and gold/currency reserves with "soft" liabilities like pension or legislative promised payments. Nothing I found looked at the discounted present value of future taxation - billionaires are mostly heavily invested in a few companies, and their wealth is a fractional ownership of a "value" that is a large multiple of those companies' annual earnings. Government accounting just isn't done the same way.

This is really helpful, though I always find these breakdowns to be a little disappointing. Do you know of any sources that break down government funding by program in a more detailed way?

There are LOTS of published breakdowns - it shouldn't be hard to find one at a granularity that works for you. Note that the very first thing you need to get clear on is the bait-and-switch between net worth and income/spending. Always ask "do you mean stocks or flows"? Government funding is mostly about flows - annual expenditure. The dumb meme from this post is about net worth - total assets.

Great, thank you!

One of the problems with providing free housing to people is that they are then free to destroy or abandon it. Consider that most homeless people have mental illnesses, often serious ones, and substance abuse problems. Sometimes the problem is just mismatch between housing prices and income—often it’s not. And even infinite funding will not always fix these problems.

Housing first schemes seem to pay for themselves, though [1, 2].

My point is that those schemes don’t work for everyone—which is not to say they’re a bad idea, but they’re not going to end homelessness.

The author of the meme isn't a utilitarian, but I am. "A simple, cost-neutral way to reduce homelessness by 90%" is an obvious policy win, even if it's not literally "ending homelessness". How to help the 10% who are completely unhousable (due to their sanity or morality or behavior, etc) is a hard problem, but for goodness' sake, we can at least fix the easier problem!

(I've never understood this line of reasoning. But again, a lot of people here take that argument seriously, which probably means I'm making some mistake here. I had never been able to get what it could be, so if someone can explain where is the issue with my reasoning, I'll be glad.)

tl;dr We should taboo "money redistribution" and instead only talk about "consumption redistribution" and "power redistribution", which are two almost-separate things. I argue that in light of none of them, it's a good idea to take billionares' wealth.

Ok, so, what matters is consumption. A billionare does not buy a million cars, or sausages for BBQ, and generally there's not much difference in consumption between Warren Buffett and "just" very rich Beyoncé. [citation needed]. Redistribution of wealth, even if it was very liquid, does not cause additional economic output to appear. It might happen in a short term, when everyone is getting this $10,000 and spending it, boosting the economy, but it's the same effect as increasing money supply by a central bank. In the long term, any effect that can be caused by such intervention (of wealth transfer) can also be caused by Fed policy. The only way we could really make a change would be to set an extremely high tax on consumption. And most of the consumption that we would redistribute is done by the middle class.

If the billionares money does not go to consuption, where does it go? It's invested. So maybe the reason to redistribute is not to generate output, but to limit the power of the rich. But the free market is specifically set up in this way to transfer the power to manage money from the incompetent to competent - and that would be exactly reversing this trend! If Joe The Plumber gets a voting share in some company, he will most probably make worse decisions than Warren Buffett. Personal freedom is of course dependent on economic freedom, but it's a far-reaching link - if Joe controlled a voting share in the company he personally works, he could make a decision to switch from plumbing to gardening, or laying and watching TV, which would free him from the power Warren Buffett currently has over him, forcing him to do plumbing instead, but this is not because Warren is - it is because it's an optimal market decision, and he, coincidentally, is just an executor of this will (again, because the market granted him this power through Darwinian process of wealth redistribution to people most competent in generating/holding into it).