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The Quality of Wealth That Matters

One of the problems that I have with the current liberal messaging is the constant focus on billionaire wealth in terms of total value. Things like, “During the pandemic, billionaires increased their wealth by $1 trillion,” or noting that Elon Musk is now worth something like $6 billion more than a week ago.

The problem is that this does not focus on actual, spendable wealth—instead, this is mostly stock value we’re talking about. And that wealth is not liquid. Saying that Elon Musk is now worth $230 billion does not mean he can spend that much on mansions and private jets—or that he does. All it means is that he controls stock of that value.

And the thing about stocks is that one market crash will wipe out most of that wealth. Tesla stock lost about 35% of its stock value back in March of 2020. It recovered, but it goes to show how the wealth is based upon confidence instead of actual value. And the higher a stock goes, the harder it may crash.

These billions and trillions are only meaningful if the owners are willing to give up their control of the companies.

What is much more meaningful is how much wealth they can personally access, either through money paid to them in salaries or otherwise, resources made available (like Bezos and his “Blue Origin” joyrides), dividend payouts, and actual asset sales. 

Of course, I know that the valuation of the stocks has more of an impact on readers, and may stand in for actual wealth which may be hidden, and I’m OK with it in principle… but it does grate on me to hear this all expressed as if Musk has all that money in his bank account.

These shock-value impressions also ignore the worth of the work being done. Bezos is a monster, in so many ways—but why people are attacking Musk, aside from the total worth of his stock holdings, is beyond me. Musk’s businesses, unlike Bezos’, are actually doing a lot of good. Musk is working on infrastructure, green energy, and future potential—and he’s doing a damn good job at it.

He doesn’t get a grand salary, he mostly borrows off of his stock value; he’s not stashing billions in the Caymans, he’s selling much of his wealth to fund his projects. I’m sure he lives in luxury, but the $230 billion is not going into his back pocket. He’s building stuff with it.

When it was announced that he was the richest man on Earth, Musk tweeted, “How strange … Well, back to work.” The fact that he is now no longer the richest shows how ephemeral that wealth can be. And Musk seems aware of it.

Compare that to Bezos, who seems to be reveling in his wealth while treating his employees like worthless crap.

I’m all for taxing the shit out of Bezos, but we do have to figure out what our message is. If we’re talking tax on personal liquid assets, great. If we’re closing loopholes and other tricks to avoid paying taxes, fantastic. If we want to tax profits overall, terrific.

But unless we’re talking about taxing non-liquid holdings on a daily basis, the whole “Musk just made $6 billion in a week” is, let’s admit it, mostly just for show.


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1 Comment

  1. Troy

    yes, you have to analyze the real wealth creation vs. capture.

    Bezos is rich because he created a lean global retail machine with tons of low-paid workers working in near slave conditions designed to maximize their productivity.

    Real race to the bottom there.

    Elon’s just making electric cars, all of which are rather expensive still so totally a luxury purchase vs. other BEV alternatives (I drive a Leaf).

    Elon’s billions haven’t harmed others (yet), while Bezos’ billions were earned from tens of thousands of burned-out Amazon employees.

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