Can a Billionaire be Ethical?

by Arshia Verma & Katelyn Zhao, Opinions Writers
graphic by Kaila Marie

“What would you do with a billion dollars?” Maybe you would buy a fancy car or a giant house. Maybe you would donate your fortune to charities. Whatever you would do, a billion dollars is an unfathomable amount of money. To a select few, however, this is reality. According to the Wealth-X Billionaire Census in 2019, there are 2,825 billionaires in the world, 788 of whom are from the U.S.. 

At a first glance, many of these billionaires seem to have gotten their money from their brilliant ideas and hard work. Many even appear to be generous and empathetic since they donate significantly to charity. Upon closer inspection, however, billionaires often gain such extraordinary wealth through unethical means.

Although billionaires may look charitable when donating millions of dollars, their actions are surface-level and done for the wrong reasons. In a classic paradox, billionaires are known to donate to charities dedicated to fighting income inequality. These same people offer terribly low wages to their workers in their own businesses. It’s all for show.

Furthermore, even when billionaires donate, it’s for their own benefit. Generally, they donate to donor-advised funds (DAFs). David Gelles from the New York Times in 2018 explained when people put money in a DAF, they get a tax write-off for that amount. To make it even worse, they can keep the money in the DAF for as long as they want before giving it to charity, allowing them to pay lower taxes without actually donating their money. Giving money to charities also improves their image, making them appear considerate and kind in the public eye.

Additionally, while billionaires’ companies may look pristine from the outside, what goes on behind closed doors tells a different and more horrifying story. Take, for example, the multinational company, Amazon. Amazon treats its warehouse employees like inanimate objects. Employees are only allowed a total of 18 minutes to be off-task per 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, including time spent to meet basic needs such as going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water. 

Creating such a hostile work environment is using power to systematically manipulate workers to do the most work, regardless of their experiences. While Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $165 billion, workers who are being treated as robots earn a meager and unsustainable salary. Such worker exploitation is what those in power thrive on. Without exploiting workers, billionaires would not exist. 

In 2018, American billionaires paid less in taxes than the working class. According to Business Insider, billionaires paid an average of 23% of their income in federal, state and local taxes, while the average American paid 28%. Billionaires still do not pay their fair share of taxes. Take, for example, President Donald Trump. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years beginning in 2000 because he claimed that he was losing more than he made. According to the New York Times, in 2018, for example, Mr. Trump announced he had made at least $434.9 million and $47.4 million in losses. Paying less in taxes when in a situation of economic privilege is inherently unethical. 

Jeff Bezos is not coming to save you. Neither is Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Warren Buffet. Jay Z and Kanye West won’t either.  Billionaires’ illegitimate charity work, worker exploitation and tax avoidance  prove that there is no such thing as an ethical billionaire. Being ethical in a status that inherently holds power achieved by manipulating others is too good to be true. So, next time you hatch a plan to become a billionaire, think again.