Billionaires and Individualism

The Getty Villa and its collections of antiquities are stunning.

But that’s just the problem.

I’ve worked there a few times now. Initially I was awestruck by the building. Its architecture designed to resemble a Roman villa. Its sprawling layout with various wings, luxurious courtyard, and reflection pool that seems to extend all the way into the Pacific when you catch it at just the right moment during sunset.

But it was built with blood money, more or less.

It’s the legacy of the oil baron, J. Paul Getty. Administered by the J. Paul Getty Trust, it’s assumed to be the richest endowment of its kind at an estimated $6.9 billion.

It’s also estimated to be one of the most visited museums in America, along with the other programs administered by the trust. I don’t doubt this assertion. The place seems to put on more than its share of events that are open to public, in addition to plenty of private events for guest ranging from prospective patrons to venture capital firms.

I guess where I hesitate is when considering how the average Los Angelean, or the average Californian for that matter, feels about the Getty Trust and its establishments. Do you think they take solace in its existence when considering the housing crisis in the city? Or maybe it provides a respite from the horribly inadequate public transit system. Certainly, they take comfort in its existence when they think about the climate crisis that has turned the wildfire season into a 12-month event.

The same climate crisis that Getty played a direct role in creating as an oil tycoon.

Now imagine that Getty’s wealth was taxed at a level that’s even just nominally more progressive than those now in place. Imagine if, instead of creating an ungodly amount of wealth for one man by significantly making everyone’s lives worse, we created a still handsome amount of wealth for one man, while also creating an amount of wealth for society that could then significantly help everyone by better funding things like education, public housing, and combatting climate change.

Instead we got an art collection in a Roman villa replica administered by a board of trustees that holds no responsibility to the public.

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But, Tanner, J. Paul was a good capitalist and a shrewd businessman. He deserves the desserts of his work.

Does he, though?

Really consider how a wealth as massive as Getty’s gets built. (By all means insert your favorite billionaire for this bit.) It involves massive subsidies to help keep the price of gas down, so as to not paralyze the American economy with volatile price shocks. It involves a concerted effort by the US government to help suburbanize America, building a vast and sprawling system of highways and freeways in lieu of improving and maintaining public transit systems, thereby creating a massive appetite for automobiles and gasoline. Even more fundamentally, consider the most basic benefits of operating in a free and open society like the United States. A predictable, fair justice system to maintain the rule of law. A political system that welcomes your money to help further extract subsidies and preferential legislation.

All of which is propped up by the taxpayers and citizens of that society.

Is it really so crazy to demand a greater share of the wealth for that society to use as it pleases?

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I think a lot about the deification of the billionaire class.

Why, as a society, do we accept Mark Zuckerberg as an authority on anything other than building a really massive social media company? Why does Jeff Bezos get to speak with authority on the future of the species and the planet after building a massive online commerce platform on the backs of the US infrastructure and postal systems. And why do we continually need to label them as self-made even though they’ve been born into the First Family of social media influencers?

I think it’s individualism. I think it’s the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethos. Because, if we accept that they have reached those altitudes by sheer force of will and ingenuity then certainly we could do the same one day. And, by that logic, those who’ve yet to reach those summits, or even just elevate themselves out of the depths of society, are simply victims of their own lack of will.

Except that the most accurate predictor of life outcomes in America is the zip in which one is born.

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I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that I think the existence of billionaires is a moral stain on our society.

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