Billionaires are getting a bad rap these days. We would love to see the middle class (good luck defining what that is) expand, and the poor shrink in numbers. Even millionaires are more or less okay, since what with real estate wealth and all it is not out of line for all kinds of people to imagine joining their ranks. But billionaires? The guys who make so much money that they contribute to income distribution problems and make people so unhappy that they do things like organize ‘Occupy’ rallies and consider voting for Donald Trump (himself a billionaire but never mind)? Billionaires are just too much – right?
As it turns out, maybe some billionaires are better than others. As detailed in this article from The Economist, a new book from by Peterson Institute Senior Fellow Caroline Freund, ‘Rich People, Poor Countries: The Rise of Emerging Market Tycoons and their Mega Firms’, makes the case that there are two kinds of billionaires: those in the industrialized world (‘rich world billionaires) and those in emerging economies such as China. Ms. Freund, argues that the latter are useful billionaires, given that they tend to be self made people whose wealth comes through creating companies and providing jobs. Rich country billionaires, in contrast, are more likely to be overpaid executives, second-generation rich people or those who make their money in finance or property. In any of these cases, she argues, the benefits of their riches are less likely to flow through the economy and benefit anyone else.
The emerging market billionaires apparently have a lot in common with the millionaires of the U.S. during the ‘Gilded Age’ a hundred or so years ago. During the late 1800s, America was rapidly industrializing and the tycoons of the day were people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who were building huge industrial conglomerates. At that point of industrialization, goes the argument, it makes sense that a new class of incredibly wealthy people emerge, and it benefits the wider economy perhaps for decades to come. People like Jack Ma of Alibaba are arguably the Rockefellers of today.
It’s an interesting argument, and for good or bad, one that makes the problem of global income inequality seem a little less menacing. And it seems to make sense: countries like India and China, which are producing scores of new billionaires, are also seeing their middle classes rapidly expand. In contrast, although the number of billionaires in North America and Europe are also on the rise, there is precious little evidence to suggest that that the middle class is increasing in either number or wealth. A recent analysis by the Pew Institute suggests that ‘middle income’ Americans these days account for about 50 percent of the population, down from 61 percent in 1971.
Of course, none of this makes the problem of income distribution in North America, with all of its possibly spin-offs, less of a threat. Is the answer to ban billionaires? Probably not, but perhaps we need to figure out why they are not old-style productive billionaires, who while inspiring envy could also be helping to grow the economy more than they seem to be doing.