It’s time to call out the “Billionaire Money Hoarders” for their harmful and antisocial behaviour
Photo by Brad Zarnett
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It was still dark yesterday morning as I sipped my coffee and somehow found myself watching the show “Hoarders”. It made me think of an article that I read last week about a billionaire who was charged for doing essentially the same thing but with money; hiding (hoarding) 2 billion from the IRS. It got me thinking. Both junk hoarders and money hoarders don’t need what they’re hoarding. No one needs 50 broken vacuum cleaners and 700 old newspapers stacked in what used to be a second bedroom. And no billionaire needs extra money, for any reason, least of all to further their PR-chasing pet projects that are often referred to as “philanthropy.”
Now some might say that while the means by which billionaires accumulate their funds may be questionable, why not just focus on the good work that they’re doing. Instead of criticizing them, why not praise them? Hmm, I always find that argument interesting — are we really supposed to throw ethics and morals aside for the billionaire class? Why do some people feel the need to defend their greed? It’s an interesting psychological question that will have to wait. Today I’m simply comparing two types of hoarding behaviour and how our views may not be quite as objective as we think.
Divine Oracles Or Mental Defect
On one hand, we celebrate money-hoarding billionaires as great capitalists; brilliant leaders, and thinkers to be admired. We put them on a pedestal and parade them across our media outlets as if they’re divine oracles who can see into the future. We feel honoured to hear them speak and consciously or subconsciously we hope that we can glean some nuanced insight that might bring a small advantage to our lives.
Now consider the other type of hoarder. People fill their homes with junk because some trauma is haunting them and has made it difficult for them to let go. We often look down upon these struggling people and label them as having some kind of mental defect. And thanks to the incentive and reward system of capitalism, it usually doesn’t take long for some inventive entrepreneurs to find a way to exploit them and profit from their misfortune, all under the pretext of education and some free psychological counseling for people who often can’t afford it.
Harmful Or Harmless
Both groups have an unrelenting need to keep outrageous amounts of stuff (I use the term stuff here to include money), but one group’s image is protected by the media and politicians, while the other is exploited for our amusement. But are the two groups really so different? Aren’t they both dealing with the same affliction? Why don’t we also send psychologists in to help billionaire hoarders with their mental illness? I’m sure people would find it equally entertaining. We could take cameras into one of their many palatial homes or onto one of their private jets or luxury yachts to learn about what may have happened in their lives to make them feel so disconnected from people, that they feel little to no responsibility for the negative effects of their money hoarding on society. Yes, these groups may be similar in some ways but when you look at it from the cost to society — there’s no contest.
Junk hoarders are mostly harmful to themselves and their families, although they sure can be frustrating neighbours. They regularly pose an increased threat of fire due to all the combustible material that’s piled up to their ceilings, and there’s often a noxious smell that radiates beyond the walls of their home from whatever food or dead animals are decomposing, and let’s not forget the eventual eyesore as the overflow usually finds its way to the backyard and then inevitably the front yard. Clearly, the biggest threat that these folks pose to society is to those few unlucky people who find themselves living right next door. But all things considered, they’re mostly harmless.
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Billionaires on the other hand are the opposite of harmless; they are dysfunctional and psychologically disturbed society destroying predators. Just consider how much time and money has been spent by billionaires to influence politicians to lower their taxes and create “legal” tax avoidance policies like offshore accounts and tax-sheltered “donations” that play perfectly into their PR-enhancing “philanthropic” efforts. If you don’t look too closely it may seem harmless enough — some rich person is spending money on something that seems altruistic — but it’s not that simple. These hoarding and inequality expanding efforts have consequences.
Instead of well-funded government programs run by elected officials, social programs are starved of much-needed funds as billions of dollars are diverted into the pockets of billionaires. That money that should have been paid in taxes is then used to fill the voids that they themselves created through their hoarding behaviour. To a distant observer this may seem magnanimous but remember that these unelected hoarders are acting without accountability on behalf of a society that they are completely disconnected from — and often with an eye on a return on investment so that their wealth grows even further because of their “philanthropic work”. (There’s a reason why the net worth of the great humanitarian Bill Gates has grown so much over the years but that will be explored in my upcoming article)
Now some of you will say that they earned it or why should they give any money to wasteful governments when they know how to spend it better, but before you get too comfortable with that perspective, take a moment to consider just how you came to view it that way.
We live with a constant bombardment of billionaire-friendly messaging by corporate media that portrays them as wealth-creating philanthropic saints who are doing the work that the government — that they defunded and delegitimized — has failed to do. This meshes nicely with the flattering remarks of corrupt politicians who are only too happy to read from the same script in return for a steady stream of campaign funds. After decades of this kind of onslaught, it’s easy to see how we may have been duped into believing something that’s simply not true. But that’s just the first wave in this effort.
The real secret sauce of this rebranding campaign comes from how billionaire philanthropy is spun. The hoarding aspect of their lives gets completely lost in the message of all the good that they’re doing. They’re portrayed as problem solvers who are doing what they can, with their own money, to address some of our planet’s most challenging environmental and social problems. They are magically cleansed and insulated from a life of a business that may have caused some unavoidable harm. But perhaps the biggest gain (as described by Anand Giridharadas, “Winners Take All”) that comes from this deception is that by sharing a relatively small portion of their wealth, they soften the oversight of journalists and regulators which acts as a vaccination. It gives them immunity from a harsh assessment of the harm that their predatory, exploitive, and hoarding behaviour caused in the first place…things like, inequality, starvation wages, job loss, climate change, and poorly funded social programs…to name a few.
Call The Hoarders Out
We need to stop giving billionaire hoarders a free pass. We need to stop protecting them as if they’re some special high-value group that’s a benefit to society and call them out for what they are — society destroying predators who are using philanthropy with money that should have been paid in taxes to build a new PR story to cover their greedy past. By not challenging this we’re just giving legitimacy to our predatory culture. The same culture and economic system that is destroying our climate, creating massive inequality and that’s bringing suffering to every corner of the planet.
It’s not the hoarder next door that you need to be afraid of, it’s the billionaire hoarder who’s taking money and power out of the hands of our elected government and turning our world into a neoliberal mecca. A world where billionaire hoarders pretend to solve problems by using money that should have been paid in taxes, to gain a PR boost to make up for the harm that they caused to our society…and always with the intention to make even more money. So the next time you see the show hoarders — don’t forget to think about the hoarding that’s the real threat to society….and call it out.
Brad Zarnett is a Canadian sustainability strategist, writer, and speaker. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Brad writes about Corporate Sustainability and how our attempts to address it are a massive systemic failure and what to do about it. You can follow Brad on Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, email, or website and now on substack.