The Price of Wealth
By Sumaiya Ramsaroop
Volume 1 Issue 3
December 16, 2020
Original image provided by Getty Images
Visualizing $1 Billion
The human brain, though highly advanced, cannot fully grasp the magnitude of one billion dollars, let alone one trillion dollars. Through the lens of time, however, we can better visualize these large sums of wealth.
One million seconds equals about 11.5 days.
One billion seconds equals about 32 years.
One trillion seconds equals about 31,710 years.
Our ability to comprehend the expanse of one billion (or one trillion) dollars has never been more relevant than it is today.
Today’s Billionaire Climate
In the wake of COVID-19 and its ravaging effects on the country, markets have continued to grow, garnering an additional $406 billion for American billionaires between March 18 and April 29––a period when 30 million Americans filed for unemployment (McKeever). By the end of November, U.S. billionaires’ gains since the beginning of the pandemic have surpassed $1 trillion, all while debates over a second stimulus check have droned on in Congress (Collins). While 2020 marks one of the worst global economic crises, wealth trends between the top 1% and the bottom 50% have diverged against each other, with billionaires growing exponentially more wealthy, as middle and lower-class families choose between their safety and returning to the workforce, amidst a worsening pandemic. “How the Other Half Lives,” starkly contrasts with how the other 1% lives. As the wealth gap continues to widen, the U.S. houses more billionaires today than ever before. These trends beg the question––how are billionaires making their money?
Billionaires ultimately acquire their heaps of wealth by two means: inheritance and/or the exploitation of the working class. On a global scale, nearly 42% of billionaires have either inherited their wealth entirely, or to a degree (Imberg & Shaban 16). The other 58% of billionaires are labeled by WealthX’s 2020 Billionaire Census as “self-made;” however, in understanding the expansive nature of a billion dollars—or tens of billions of dollars—no amount of individual effort can possibly achieve that amount of wealth. A moral implication of billionaires, particularly those “self-made,” lies in how they obtain their wealth—through the direct exploitation of the domestic and foreign working class.
Exploiter & Exploited
Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest individual, exploits his employees by the threat of termination for taking breaks and/or going to the bathroom while working. The salary of an Amazon employee reflects a $15 minimum wage which results in a median annual worker pay of about $28,466; in contrast, Bezos makes more than $8,961,187 in just one hour alone (Hoffower). While the employees who maintain Bezos’s wealth qualify for food stamps and receive punishment for protesting the cutting of their $2 COVID-19 hazard pay, Bezos has only grown more wealthy, and by the billions.
Now spearheaded by billionaire Tim Cook, the case of Apple brings another facet of worker exploitation to the table, as the first company to achieve a market value of $1 trillion relies heavily on outsourcing for its wealth. China Labor Watch, a nonprofit group working to ensure the fair treatment of Chinese laborers, shed light upon the company's rollback of safety training, withholding of bonus payments, as well as the employment of more temporary workers than permitted by Chinese labor laws (Albergotti). The nonprofit labelled this exploitation as a political and economic move on the behalf of Apple and their manufacturer, Foxconn, to absorb the cost of tariffs by maximizing their worker’s output.
This isn’t the first time the Chinese industrial park, Foxconn City, has made the news. Beginning in 2010, a chain of suicides arose amongst laborers at the factory. Exploitative and torturesome working conditions in the Apple factory catalyzed the tens of suicides attempted by these laborers. Foxconn CEO, billionaire Terry Gou, responded to the deaths and continued attempts by installing “suicide nets” outside of the factory’s buildings and forcing workers to sign pledges stating they would not attempt suicide (Merchant). Gou’s immediate response lacked any reform to the exploitative nature of working conditions in his factory.
A System of Billionaires
“Self-made” billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs have undoubtedly revolutionized society with their ideas, but there comes a point when their wealth overwhelmingly depends on the productivity of their workers. And at this point, a billion dollars does not come from being self-made, it comes from being exploitative. This is merely the system––a system that leaves poor, undocumented immigrants, foreign workers, and minorities at a disproportionate likelihood of being exploited and overlooked by the government, and at the mercy of businesses whose harmful capitalistic efforts remain supported by national policy. So why don’t billion-dollar companies give back to those who made them a billion-dollars? Critics will say it’s not that simple.
I have no interest in blatantly arguing that every billionaire lives with the cruel intention to exploit; however, I do acknowledge and remain firm in the belief that the system in which billionaires arise and operate is inherently cruel and exploitative. No individual person will ever require a wealth so magnitudinous that the human brain cannot comprehend its expanse. But every individual person deserves basic human rights and a simple sense of security. How we get there? That is for you and me to decide. Here’s to constructing a new system founded upon compassion and armored with integrity––where giving back is that simple.
Albergotti, Reed. "Apple accused of worker violations in Chinese factories." The Washington Post, Sept. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/09/09/apple-accused-worker-violations-chinese-factories-by-labor-rights-group/.
Collins, Chuck. "US Billionaire Wealth Surges Past $1 Trillion Since Beginning of Pandemic." Inequality.org, 25 Nov. 2020, inequality.org/great-divide/u-s-billionaire-wealth-surges-past-1-trillion-since-beginning-of-pandemic/.
Hoffower, Hillary. "We did the math to calculate how much money Jeff Bezos makes in a year, month, week, day, hour, minute, and second." Business Insider, 9 Jan. 2019, www.businessinsider.com/what-amazon-ceo-jeff-bezos-makes-every-day-hour-minute-2018-10.
Imberg, Maya, and Maeen Shaban. Billionaire Census 2020. WealthX, June 2020. WealthX, www.wealthx.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Wealth-X_Billionaire-Census_2020.pdf.
McKeever, Vicky. "US billionaires boost collective wealth by $406 billion as markets rebound in the coronavirus pandemic, report finds." CNBC, 1 May 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/05/01/us-billionaires-boost-wealth-by-406-billion-as-markets-rebound.html#:~:text=The%20United%20States%20now%20has,American%20households%2C%20the%20report%20highlighted.
Merchant, Brian. "Life and Death in Apple's Forbidden City." The Guardian, 18 June 2017, www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/foxconn-life-death-forbidden-city-longhua-suicide-apple-iphone-brian-merchant-one-device-extract.