Opinion | Morally good billionaires do not exist

By Nathaniel Langley, Senior Columnist

The good billionaire is a myth. The image of charitable, affluent “gods among men lending a helping hand” is fake.

It’s not a rare feat to recognize billionaires aren’t likable either. According to a poll from the Economist and YouGov, Jeff Bezos, former Amazon CEO, held a meager 28% approval rating. Similarly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg received a dismal 26% approval.

However, the public perception of these figures holds little weight: They reign over private companies — unchecked and unanswerable to the American people.

Yet, as witnessed with the Patagonia CEO, Yvon Chouinard, “giving away” his company, the media treats these figures as mythological heroes — the very image billionaires crave to perpetuate. This treatment only escalates the corrupt economic conditions the working class faces.

In an article by New York Times reporter David Gelles, Chouinard is humanized as an “eccentric rock climber” and “reluctant billionaire” — far from the stereotypical, “man in suit” CEO.

Gelles describes Chouinard’s recent move stating, “Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization.” Moreover, the nonprofit organization is claimed to dedicate “$100 million a year” to combat climate change and “protect undeveloped land.”

Although Chouinard’s charity can be considered worthwhile philanthropy, the organization’s designed for him to avoid financial responsibility.

Scott Hoyer, a journalist for Quartz, recently interviewed New York University law professor Daniel Hemel for his analysis of Chouinard’s “transfer” of ownership. In the interview, Hemel asserts the establishment of the nonprofit organization is no unique act: “They’re taking advantage of a feature of the tax law that lots and lots and lots of philanthropists take advantage of.”

Additionally, Hemel states this advantage allows these billionaires to avoid taxes — to avoid paying their fair share.

The decision to shift his wealth to a nonprofit is no noble love letter to the environment. Neither is it a brave choice that deserves what The New York Times titles the Chouinard’s as “the most charitable family in the country.” The nonprofit transfer is one of the countless selfish measures by billionaires to increase their excessive wealth.

Lauren Aratani, a reporter for The Guardian, found Bill Gates, who earns $2.85 billion a year between 2013 and 2018, paid an average federal income tax rate of 18.4%. For the average single worker in the U.S. earning $45,000 a year, the rate was 21%. Through various loopholes in tax codes, billionaires hide behind the guise of philanthropy to earn a lower tax rate than the average American worker.

Nonetheless, analyzing Gates, we again see a billionaire cover themselves with media friendly philanthropy.

The Gates Foundation, led by Bill and Melinda Gates, professes it’s donated $65.6 billion since its 2000 inception. At the same time, Gates avoided billions in taxes by utilizing nonprofit loopholes. Still, platforms like CNN regularly allow Gates to appear unquestioned about his tax dodges and continue his march to sainthood.

With the Gates Foundation as his charitable shield, the former CEO morphs from COVID-19 to climate change expert — all the while his educational background is an incomplete degree in computer science 47 years ago. 

Furthermore, the Gates foundation acts as a cover for the former CEO’s misbehaviors. Tyler Sonnemaker, for Business Insider, details numerous instances of questionable conduct by the billionaire.

Reports such as a years-long affair — while married — with a Microsoft employee, a dinner invite for a foundation employee where Gates stated “If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened” and meetings with notable sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein decorate Gates’ past.

While no reports indicate Chouinard shares as dreadful of a past as Gates, claiming “philanthropy” in the name of cheating taxes is cruel. Cheating to increase your wealth while the working class pays proportionally more is cowardice.

Nevertheless, the god-complex-plagued billionaires believe they’re entitled to a different game. A game where their rules dictate their wealth; a game where they wield charity and greed in the same vein.

There’s no need to taint billionaires’ images: They already paint their greedy portraits themselves. What is no longer tolerable, however, is the positive reception their “philanthropy” receives.

Chouinard and Gates’ strategies to cloak their greed behind charity are not distinct nor isolated. Given no government response, the cycle will continue. Yet, to recognize their charity as nothing more than tax-loophole and vanity projects is the first step to unraveling their fragile facades.

 

Nathaniel is a senior in LAS.

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