Blistering Billionaires

Billionaire magnate Michael Bloomberg’s decision to run for the US Presidency put the societal value of the super-rich back in the debate this week. Bloomberg is worth an estimated $55 billion and is standing as a Democrat where his fortune is considered less proof of his ability than evidence capitalism is broken.


Since the financial crisis, left-wing commentators have reserved a special circle in hell for billionaires, who have become lightning rods in the debate about wealth inequality. Bloomberg’s rival Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, has pledged a wealth tax on billionaires of 6% a year, and Bernie Sanders says they “should not exist”.


In the UK election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn has similarly denounced the UK’s 150 billionaires as the product of a “rigged system” and a failure of government policy.


As The Economist pointed out recently, there is little evidence to suggest billionaires only emanate from sectors where market forces or government regulation have failed. What’s more, the top 0.1% of all US taxpayers, pay 19.5% of all taxes, and in the UK the top 10% of taxpayers pay a whopping 60% of the total tax take, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.


So how should the world’s plutocrats respond to these gathering storm clouds? Since 2006, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have been urging wealthy Americans to simply give the money away, a pledge many have taken up, with Bloomberg himself donating $767 million to public health, the environment, education and the arts this year (OMWF passim).


Others have taken a different route, with Sir Jim Ratcliffe looking to leave a more tangible legacy from his INEOS fortune in ecological projects or new manufacturing businesses. Similarly, Sir Richard Branson is diverting substantial sums into renewable energy initiatives.


The question for billionaires is whether even giving the money is enough to secure a socially sustainable legacy. As the boomers die-off in the coming decades, a societal battle looms in western countries over inherited wealth and the enervating effect of rent-seeking dynasties. With uncomfortable historical echoes in the 18th and 19th centuries, billionaires will be at the sharp end of a clamour for redistributive taxes. Given Bloomberg’s ambition to be President, he has a huge opportunity, if not obligation, to now reset the terms of the inequality debate.


Twenty-two-year-old Virgin gets final whistle. The West Coast main line’s new operator, First Group, unveiled its train livery this week, as incumbent Virgin Trains’ twenty-two years of operations reached the end of the line. Virgin, which seized on rail privatisation in 1997 to promote the then novel concept of customer-centric rail travel, remained true to its brand with a self-deprecating, if bizarre, farewell film (#finalwhistle), featuring Sir Richard Branson, Chris Kamara and Mr Blobby. New operator Avanti similarly launched a promotional video of its own, which in stark contrast pompously harked back to railways as infrastructure rather than romantic escape.


Whatever your view of Virgin’s service, and those stuck for 7 hours on one of its trains this week will not be short of them, the business blazed a trail in challenging the convention that train travel was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. That it chose to make a video celebrating its 22 years of service speaks to a certain pride in the job, when no doubt many other companies would have closed the doors and quietly walked away. As the company prepared to sign-off, it’s Twitter account generously plugged the Avanti Twitter handle. “It’s okay, you can follow them” it read. “We just want you to be happy.”

Nigel Fairbrass

Nigel Fairbrass