A Billionaires’ World

Two years ago, the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman published a statistic that you don’t normally see. It was the share of wealth owned by the richest 0.00001 percent of Americans.

That tiny slice represented only 18 households, Saez and Zucman estimated. Each one had an average net worth of about $66 billion in 2020. Together, the share of national wealth owned by the group had risen by a factor of nearly 10 since 1982.

This wealth conveys vast power on a small group of people. They can attempt to shape politics, as the Koch family has done. They can create a global charity, as Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have done. They can buy a national media organization, as Jeff Bezos has done.

Or they can buy a social media network when its policies annoy them, as Elon Musk is in the process of doing.

Twitter announced yesterday that its board had accepted a $44 billion bid for the company from Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX and currently the world’s richest man. He is using $21 billion of his own cash in the deal.

Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has suggested that he will be less aggressive than Twitter’s current management about blocking some content — including misinformation, in all likelihood. He plans to take the company private, which will give him tighter control than he would have over a public company.

The deal is the latest example of how extreme inequality is shaping American society. A small number of very wealthy people end up making decisions that affect millions of others. That has always been true, of course. But it is truer when inequality is so high. In the U.S. economy, wealth inequality has exceeded even the peaks of the 1920s, as another chart from Saez and Zucman’s research shows:

The Musk deal also recalls the Gilded Age, as my colleague Shira Ovide wrote: “The closest comparison to this might be the 19th-century newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their papers to pursue their personal agendas, sensationalize world events and harass their enemies.”

After news broke yesterday about the Musk-Twitter agreement, I asked Andrew Ross Sorkin for his reaction to it. Andrew, as many readers know, has been covering finance and business leaders for the past two decades at The Times. He created and runs our DealBook newsletter.

Andrew’s response got me thinking about these larger questions of inequality, and I’m turning over the rest of today’s lead item to him. Below his thoughts about the Twitter deal, we include more Times coverage, as well as analysis from elsewhere.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will reignite big questions about the influence of the billionaire class and the power of technology over our national discourse.

This month, Musk was complaining that Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder, had too much power, arguing that the way Meta was structured, “Mark Zuckerberg the 14th” would someday be running it.

Now Musk will own Twitter outright as a private company. He will report to himself. So if he decides to allow Donald Trump back on the platform — which seems like the elephant in the room — it will be Musk’s choice and his choice alone. (Trump has claimed he will not return, because he wants to support his own social media platform.)

Washington is atwitter trying to understand Musk’s ideology. He is a self-styled libertarian without an ideology. But is not having an ideology an ideology unto itself?

Musk has said he wants more “free speech” and less moderation on Twitter. What will that mean in practice? More bullying? More lewd commentary and images? More misinformation?

Perhaps a window into Musk’s approach is a tweet he sent on Friday making fun of Bill Gates with a crude reference to anatomy, as a way to get even with Gates, who had admitted to betting against shares of Tesla.

Which raised this question: When conspiracy theorists falsely posted that Gates was paying to develop Covid vaccines to implant chips in people, Twitter down-ranked the content and added fact-check notices. If Musk were running Twitter then, would he have left those posts up to needle his nemesis?

The deal will give Musk enormous influence over politicians, celebrities and the media, with the ability to platform and de-platform them at will.

But some will have sway over him, too, in ways that could distort what the public sees on Twitter. For example, Twitter has no presence in China. Musk does: A huge chunk of Tesla’s growth is dependent on that country. What happens when Chinese officials tell him to remove content from Twitter that they find objectionable?

Back here in the U.S., Musk’s SpaceX business relies, in large part, on contracts with the Defense Department. His Tesla business is in discussions with the U.S. government about a national charging station infrastructure. His Boring Company, which digs tunnels, relies on governments for contracts. If a politician that controls the purse strings for any of Musk’s companies were to publish misinformation, would Musk remove it?

There are no answers to these questions just yet. But we will find out soon. Likely on Twitter.

Christine Emba, The Washington Post: “What we have here is a perfect example of ‘peak billionaire’ — the ability of one fantastically rich person to, without accountability, make decisions with potentially life-changing ramifications for many, many people — based on nothing more than their mood and their ridiculously deep pockets.”

Jessica J. González, CNN: “He has used the platform to discredit and disparage those who disagree with him, and he has lashed out at journalists who have written or produced things he didn’t like. Further, he has used the platform to sow doubt about Covid-19 vaccines.” (Musk doubted the need for a second dose last year.)

Anand Giridharadas, The Times: “We’re going to have to learn to see through the fraudulent stories that elevate figures like Mr. Musk into heroes. We’re going to have to legislate real guardrails — perhaps like those created by the European Union’s Digital Services Act — on social media platforms that are too big to entrust democracy to.”

The crowds are a bit thinner, and there are fewer mega-yachts, but the Venice Biennale remains “art’s most combustible mixture of creative minds, spectacular wealth and a global culture stumbling its way toward the future,” Jason Farago writes in a review.

The Biennale consists of a main exhibition of contemporary art, along with more than 90 pavilions where countries organize their own shows. This year’s main show revolves around surrealism, cyborgism, and animal and plant life, and the majority of participants are women. It’s “a coherent and challenging show, whose optimistic vision of emancipation through imagination feels very rare nowadays,” Jason writes.

A few highlights from the national presentations: Stan Douglas of Canada used photography and video art to delve into the intersecting uprisings of 2011 (the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the London riots). And Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Roma artist, created a 12-part tapestry stitched with imagery of Romani migration and everyday life.

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were burping and upbringing. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Wordle. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Chap (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred 36 years ago today. The Soviet Union announced it two days later.

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