Author: Arturo Pagán, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program
Recently, there has been quite a lot of attention on Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion. The world’s richest man bought one of the most influential social networking services around. Besides the issues surrounding the implications of the world’s richest man also now having access and influence over one of largest communication networks, we question if there is anything he cannot buy or do. After all, Elon Musk who is about to turn 51 years old, is the CEO and Chief Engineer of SpaceX, CEO and Program Architect of Tesla, Founder of the Boring Company, Co-Founder of Neuralink and Open AI. He has also been behind PayPal and Starlink, the network of satellites providing boarder-free internet service across the world. He has an estimate worth of $265 billion.(“Elon Musk,” 2022)
Like Elon, there are others who fall into this category of the super wealthy, like Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon.com and Whole Foods who is worth $150 billion; Bill Gates, Co-founder of Microsoft worth $127 billion(A Look at the 10 Richest People in the World (Updated May 2022), n.d.); Bernard Arnault of the LVMH group, which is associate with the luxury brand market including Louis Vuitton, Hennessey, Marc Jacobs, Sephora, Christian Dior, Hermès – worth $132 billion; and Richard Branson ($5 billion), the Virgin magnate who has launched everything from records, to airline travel, space travel, health care, and others and many more.
While it is difficult for the average person to comprehend what having this much money means, and one can’t help but question why it is that these people have enough money combined to solve many of the world’s problems while so many other people in the world suffer hunger, homelessness, health problems, and the mental anguish that comes from surviving day to day. Is such unequal distribution of wealth fair and does scientific and technological progress depend on this unequal distribution of wealth?
One could argue that it is not that an unequal distribution of wealth is required for scientific and technological advancement. Most of these wealthy men did not start off wealthy – they just perhaps had the brilliance to invent a new technology or product that was a “black swan” event – a product that millions of people started buying or needing, thereby helping them to amass wealth. This in turn then allowed them to search for the next hot ticket item, innovation, or gap where they could leave their mark. Perhaps once you reach a certain threshold, there is an element of competitiveness and selfishness involved – you want to establish your brand and ensure that brand is associated with the best and innovative products that everyone should desire. Not everyone will come up with an invention, or life changing technology, and those that do will benefit financially from it thereby leading to an unequal distribution of wealth. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is a result of one getting from the market forces what they put in.
A person who builds a company or brand on innovative products contributes to the wealth of a society in many other ways. There is a whole supply chain behind the luxury goods market and advancing technology market that requires the provision of goods and services which employ many people often in various parts of the world. Other people are being provided an opportunity to make a living and contribute their ideas and thinking to making products that are desired by everyone. This may also unfortunately include elements of labor abuse, sweatshops, and environmental collateral – but this is shifting as consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable and ethically produced goods.
Amassing a certain level of wealth allows a certain level of risk taking which leads to more innovation. Having disposable capital allows these wealthy people the space to explore, and to dream about doing things beyond the imagination of other people. Branson, Bezos and Musk have all entered a sort of “private-sector” space race. Whereas before space travel and exploration was mostly done by national governments and international organizations set up for this and countries competed to be the first in space, first on the moon, etc., these men have paved the way for commercial space travel possible. While in the US and other countries, less government funding is being invested in space exploration and travel, these private companies are leading the next generation of space exploration. Bezos has perfected with Amazon the whole supply chain mechanism of getting products to people in a day! Amazon connects small business and manufacturers all over the world with a global customer base expanding the reach of that local garment producer in China or Bangladesh to directly interact with consumers abroad.
Travel has been and will continue to be transformed by these same players. Branson launched Virgin Air, a low-cost quality airline company which I took on my first trip from the UK to India! Musk has increased the popularity of the electric car with the launch of Tesla and has dreams of making high-speed travel between cities easier by boring tunnels to create hyperloops. These wealthy men again have been able to do this because they were not limited by money – they had the comfort of imagining what was possible and taking it forward.
If wealth had been redistributed, these individuals may not have been able to push the boundaries and dream about improving transport, space travel, internet access, etc. Such big black swan opportunities may be few and far between. In the past, people did dream and so much progress happened due to passion and the desire to improve something – the difference is that now in the current world, inventions require funds, technology, materials, influencing power – so these big inventions come with expensive price tags.
This inequality is not happening equally everywhere. In developing countries, inequality is decreasing and deep poverty is increasing in some ways thanks to mobile technology which is contributing to financial inclusion. (Is Technology Contributing to Increased Inequality? | TechCrunch, n.d.) However, in middle – high income countries, the gap between the rich and poor is getting wider fueled by advances in the technology sector. While technology has led to the creation of new jobs and opportunities, it has caused a growth in large monopolies which control much of the wealth. Some countries like Finland have attempted to capitalize tech wealth to create a universal basic income for all its citizens, but while that approach may be successful in a homogenous country like Finland, it would be hard to do this in a diverse country like the United States.
Going back to the argument that the money some of these ultra-wealthy men have can indeed some many of the world’s problems, some of them have committed to contributing most of their wealth to charity organizations – such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Open Society Foundation funded by George Soros. So yes, quite a substantial amount of money is indeed going to help organizations working on solving the world’s problems.
Distributed income schemes would benefit society overall as most people would have a base income, ensuring that all people have easier access to food, shelter, education, and healthcare. Countries like Finland and the other Nordic countries which have more balanced wealth distribution are known to be very stable, have strong social systems in place, are relatively safe, affordable and their nationals always score high on the happiness factor. Having basic needs provided allows people to focus on being productive by allowing them the opportunity to pursue passions rather than working in jobs as a necessity not a desire.
However, the reality is that most of the recent innovations in science and technology do not come from these countries – they come from countries with very unequal distribution of wealth for the reasons mentioned earlier. So while there may strong arguments for more equitable distribution of wealth, the current inequitable distribution has led to incredible innovations in technology, travel, space exploration, health advancements and have greatly impacted our lives – and these advancements will eventually benefit the poorer pockets of society either by services provided by wealthy-funded charities, or by increased accessibility to services or lower prices for technology, travel, etc.
In conclusion, while the idea of unequal distribution of wealth may tug at our heartstrings, the fact is that this unequal distribution has led to advancements in science and technology that are priceless. Therefore, for now, it is an evil we have to deal with!
A Look at the 10 Richest People in the World (Updated May 2022). (n.d.). Investopedia. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/012715/5-richest-people-world.asp
Elon Musk. (2022). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Elon_Musk&oldid=1086916985
Is technology contributing to increased inequality? | TechCrunch. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/29/is-technology-contributing-to-increased-inequality/