[original post:Billionaires, Surplus, and Replaceability]

1: Lars Doucet (writes Progress and Poverty) writes:

Scott, the argument you’re making rhymes a lot with the argument put forward by Anne Margrethe Brigham and Jonathon W. Moses in their article “Den Nye Oljen” (Norwegian for “The New Oil”)

I translated it a few months ago and Slime Mold Time Mold graciously hosted it on their blog, where I posted the english version and a short preface: https://slimemoldtimemold.com/2022/05/17/norway-the-once-and-future-georgist-kingdom/

Their observation is that when access to something is gated either by nature or by political regulation, you get what’s called a “resource rent” – a superabundance of profit that isn’t a return for effort or investment, but purely from economic leverage – a reward simply for “getting there first.” Norway’s solution to this in two of their most successful industries (hydropower and oil prospecting) was to apply heavy taxation to the monopolies, and treating the people at large as the natural legal owner of the monopolized resource.

(To address Bryan Caplan’s argument about disincentives to explore and invest, you can just subsidize those directly – a perpetual monopoly should not be the carrot we use to encourage development, and Norway’s success over the past few decades bears this out IMHO).

The Oil & Hydropower systems aren’t perfect, and there’s plenty of debates (especially lately) about what we should do with the publicly-owned profits from the monopoly taxation, but it’s clear that without them Norway would be in a much worse place.

The thing the authors warn about in the article is that all the hopes for new resources on the horizon to be the “new oil” (Salmon aquaculture, Wind & Solar Power, Bio-prospecting) are likely to be dashed, because Norway has lost touch with its traditional solutions, and so new monopolies are likely to arise uncontested, allowing private (and often foreign) countries to siphon money out of the country.

Yes! I knew I was missing something when I wrote this post, and I think this is it. This is a good match for the Georgist idea that landlords should keep the portion of their profit that comes from hard work (eg construction, maintenance, attracting customers, etc) but not from land rent. In the same way, I’m arguing that billionaires should keep the portion of their profit that comes from hard work and innovation, but not necessarily the part that comes from rent on a certain slot they happen to be occupying (ie the Natural Monopoly On Retail slot).

I think this makes perfect sense for natural resources like oil. The challenge comes when you try to think of “the concept of being a giant retailer” as something like a natural resource located in Platonic space. You would have to estimate some kind of primordial rent on the concept of retail monopoly. But part of Bezos’ accomplishment was causing this particular slot to exist. Also, how would you calculate that??

Lars :

Maybe taking Amazon off the table clarifies things a bit. How about digital distribution of Video Games? This seems like a thing that wasn’t invented by anyone in particular, and Steam wasn’t “first”, they were just the first to establish a tight market niche.

I got so tired of people pitching their Steam competitor startups to me I wrote a blog post about all the reasons they were going to utterly fail:


I said, the only way you can ever do this is if you have TRUCKLOADS of money and just dump it into user and developer acquisition.

…which is exactly what Epic Games did a few years later. They’ve carved out a niche, but they’ve yet to give Steam a real run for their money. But realistically, only EGS could do it, because the network effects are that tough to overcome. Every other would-be Steam competitor I’ve seen (and I’ve seen so many I’ve lost count) has failed before they even started. (GOG was already established by this time FWIW, and they’ve remained tiny).

But if Steam hadn’t made Steam, would someone else have? And would it have been as good?

My answer is “probably” (but not a 100% certain yes).

I think a lot of these debates hinge on the particular example you pick, which can distract us from the underlying ideas.

See also this conversation between Lars and Motteposting on how to apply this to exploration, research, and talent.

2: PhilGetz writes:

“How much should they keep?”

You’re approaching the question from entirely the wrong angle. This isn’t a moral problem; it’s an engineering problem: What kind of rewards need to be offered to founders and investors in order for them to bother innovating and founding new companies? The answer has been worked out many times before–every time a company is started. It isn’t fundamentally different, nor more or less just, than the way that the wages of janitors vs. engineers vs. blog authors is worked out. It’s just more complicated.

Perhaps legislation could intervene to increase social benefits… but trying to “fix” an economic situation by forcing a “just” distribution of wealth tends to degrade or break the system.

The simple and effective answer is to increase estate taxes. Anybody who tries to get a social-justice movement to focus on any mechanism of wealth distribution other than estate taxes, is probably funded by somebody trying to distract people from imposing higher estate taxes. I’m pretty sure that most of the money for the Social Justice movement today comes from large foundations like the Ford, Hewlett, Packard, Rockefeller, and Kellogg Foundations, which are usually run by people connected to the family in question, with its enormous inherited estate.

Two responses to this good point. First, an editorial response: lots of people talk about billionaires. Often the discussion ends up with a claim that they deserve their money because it’s coming out of the surplus that they provided for the world. I think it’s worth responding to this place where discussions often end up, whether or not the original discussion that got us there was valid or not. If you never hear anyone claim this, or this topic isn’t interesting to you, then this post won’t be very valuable. If you think about these issues a lot and your opinion hinges on that claim, hopefully it will be.

But I also want to make an economic response: I’m not sure “what rewards need to be offered to incentivize people?” is the right question. Suppose Jeff Bezos just really loved founding businesses, and couldn’t imagine working for anyone else, and he would found and run Amazon for $10/day, just enough to live in a tent in one of his warehouses and eat cold beans. Does that mean society would optimally pay him that amount? Maybe this isn’t true because in some kind of hypothetical perfect society, all money would be distributed evenly, so nobody should get less than GDP/population, but sometimes we need to give people more, and we’re just trying to figure out how much more, when?

I think trying to talk about what would happen in a perfect society and how “we” distribute resources isn’t productive. I know people are accusing me of doing this by writing this post at all, but I hope I’m making a deeper point. I think something like capitalist economics offers an elegant way around these questions. But when I hear “something like capitalist economics”, I don’t just think “laissez-faire”, I think of things like taxing externalities, fair distribution of the commons (eg broadband spectrum), and nonzero antitrust regulation. Even once we’ve identified “liberalism” as the target, we still need to do really difficult and finicky implementation work.

As mentioned above, Georgism is my favorite example of this. We give trillions of dollars to random sheiks because oil happened to be discovered under their ancestral lands. The size of this mistake is unbounded; if oil happened to be 10x more necessary than today, and you couldn’t get it from shale or sands or whatever, maybe Saudi Arabia would capture the majority of value in the world (though of course realistically it would get invaded long before then). I don’t want to invade Saudi Arabia to solve this problem, but if you do happen to have a government thinking about these kinds of questions beforehand, I do think they would come to some solution other than “whoever’s land the oil is discovered on gets to keep a big chunk of the surplus forever”. I do think if we had to do everything over again, we would come up with a better solution for landownership than modern landlordism. This isn’t because capitalism is bad, it’s because these are difficult edge cases where assumptions like “people produce goods” don’t hold, and some of the things we have to buy and sell are abstract or unquantifiable.

I’m claiming that a sort of Platonic perfect liberalism that taxed externalities and implemented a Georgist LVT and all those things would also have some institution in place to make sure that Amazon could make profits off of its own good decisions and hard work, but not collect rent off the concept of being a retail giant. I don’t know what that institution would be, in much the same way I probably couldn’t personally have invented Georgism and LVTs, but I think it would exist. In the absence of that institution, I have a vague feeling that probably Amazon makes too much money, and that taking away some of their money is a kind of ugly hack but not totally absurd.

I agree that estate taxes are the right solution, although I would go further: the main problem with the current estate tax is the stepped-up basis loophole, and anybody who isn’t talking about that in particular falls under suspicion of not being serious.

3: Matt Pencer writes:

The majority of Bezos’s wealth is essentially from gambling on Amazon stock. Anyone with $140 million in 1997 could have bet it all on Amazon and have $200B today. I think Bezos should be rewarded for being so bold. Others would have retired and diversified with a few million, or have been content with a job at DE Shaw.

A couple of people brought up this very interesting point.

Amazon was founded in in 1994 and went public in 1997. Just after the IPO, a share sold for about 10 cents; it’s now about $100, so about 1000x increase.

The average Amazon warehouse worker makes about $30,000/year. If Bezos had paid his warehouse workers in Amazon stock instead of dollars, then a 1997 warehouse worker who somehow managed not to sell the stock would have about $30 million.

We can go back further: Jeff Bezos’ parents invested $300,000 in Amazon in 1995; sources say that’s now worth $30 billion. A warehouse worker who got paid in stock that year (this is hypothetical: there were no warehouses or public shares) would now have $3 billion.

So Matt is right - the difference between Bezos’ net worth and a warehouse worker’s net worth isn’t exactly because Bezos chose to compensate himself outrageously. It’s because he compensated himself a normal amount, and then the shares exploded. A while ago, Bernie Sanders proposed a bill to punish companies whose CEO earned more than 50x the average worker. Under this theory, converting everyone’s payment to a common currency (Amazon stock vs. money), it’s not clear the law would punish Bezos!

I’m not sure what to make of this but it’s pretty interesting. If a truck driver with some extra cash had decided to spend it on Amazon shares in 1995, he would be a multi-billionaire now. Would we call that unfair, or begrudge him the money? And surely for Bezos to profit off Amazon is fairer than for random uninvolved people to do so, right?

4: Madqualist writes:

There are countless competing online storefronts of all sizes, so it seems very hard to call Amazon’s storefront a monopoly. To be fair, there are anticompetitive features in their ability to leverage their control over the distribution channel between the buyer and the seller, but that’s far from being a monopoly.

I’m not accusing Amazon of doing anything wrong or anticompetitive (I’m also not not accusing them of this; it’s just unrelated to my argument); I specifically used the phrase “natural monopoly”.

Suppose that Amazon continues to dominate its market about the same amount even after Bezos is gone. Is this because of Bezos’ legacy of good policy? If so, why don’t other companies adopt those good policies? Is it because Bezos’ replacement is also the greatest businessman ever? Seems like kind of a coincidence.

I predict that Amazon will continue to dominate its market long after Bezos is gone (not necessarily forever) and this will be mostly because of lock-in / inertia. I also think that some percent of their success even while Bezos was in charge was from lock-in / inertia from his previous good decisions. In practice we can’t separate this out, but in principle we should be able to look at Amazon’s profits and understand that they’re a combination of good leadership plus lock-in / inertia effects.

5: Kaleberg writes:

It’s what they used to call a natural monopoly. Having one central provider flows from the structure of the business. Amazon has built an amazing fulfillment empire, but it also runs a marketplace where competes with its sellers. It’s like the NYSE operating mutual funds or packaging ETFs. Like the railroads, Amazon controls an outsized chunk of the online marketplace and uses its position as one might expect.

The railroads were controlled the structure of commerce in the US. Their tariffs enforced an industrial north and agricultural south. Railroads were as despised as cable companies or ISPs. Regulation helped a bit, but only a bit. Then the government built the interstate highway system and industry was dramatically restructured.

The last big antitrust case involved Microsoft. When IBM got sick of antitrust fights, they decided to outsource the operating system for their PCs. This was like throwing a monopoly bouquet at a wedding and Bill Gates was the bridesmaid who jumped highest and snatched the prize. His plan was to leverage this operating system monopoly into an internet monopoly, and the scheme was working before the Clinton administration sued. The reason I am writing this on Substack and not some Microsoft comment board is because of an antitrust lawsuit.

I would love to hear more about how railroad tariffs (what does this phrase mean?) enforced an industrial north and agricultural south, and how this changed with the Interstate system. Kaleberg also discusses ways Amazon is/isn’t a monopoly more here and here.

6: Linch writes:

I thought a bit about credit allocation (mostly from an effective altruism point of view).

I think you’re missing the next important step which is that people who would counterfactually do Bezos’ work presumably also have good next-best options. So Bezos1 taking the Amazon niche means Bezos2 is free to do their next great project. So Bezos1 + Bezos2 combined created utility equal to Bezos’ apparent utility minus Bezos2’s counterfactual utility (if Bezos2 were to create Amazon instead) plus Bezos2’s apparent utility minus Bezos3’s counterfactual contribution plus Bezos3’s….

In the EA space I have a moderately strong intuition that a lot of this adds up to normality so people should mostly just do what their naive highest impact is. I’m less sure how it applies to the (substantially more competitive and less coordinated) moneymaking world.

7: Name99 writes:

In my experience the average person is convinced that building and running something like AMZ is utterly trivial, and that they could get easily do it if they just worked hard for a week or so.

There’s a fundamental disconnect between people like me (and some others here) who see the kinds of people CAPABLE of creating billion-dollar enterprises as fundamentally rare and unusual, and most people who seem to imagine that anyone can do it (which is much of the tone of Scott’s second half argument).

The strongest force in the universe is leftists’ tendency to spot that some part of business can potentially benefit from something other than pure grit and talent and say “Aha! So all the rightists who say it’s 100% pure merit ability are wrong and therefore it’s 100% pure privilege and luck, zero way ability can ever possibly matter”

But the second strongest force in the universe is rightists’ willingness to spot that some part of business can potentially benefit from something beyond pure random dumb luck and say “Aha! So all the leftists who say it’s 100% luck are wrong and it must be 100% merit!”

Come on! It’s obviously a combination of talent and luck! We can debate the relative proportions of each, but it has to be this! And the most successful people must have had both lots of talent and lots of luck, otherwise they wouldn’t have outdone tens of millions of their peers to become the most successful people.

My guess is that Bezos was something like a one-in-a-million business talent - which still means there are eight thousand other people as talented as him in the world who got less lucky. I could be totally wrong about this, but I think this is a more honest way to think about things than “it’s all luck” or “it’s all talent”.

(sports are a useful sanity check here; some teams are clearly better than others - but also, two good teams that play each other ten times might get five wins each)

I’m not sure this has any moral implications, it just enrages me to hear the “it’s all luck” vs. “it’s all talent” debate again and again.

(obviously all of this also depends on where you draw the boundary between “luck” and “talent”. If Bezos was born with the exact right skills to manage an online retailer, and Joe Schmoe was built with the exact right skills to manage a goat farm, is it “luck” that online retailers are more profitable than goat farms, especially if you’re starting in 1995? I will leave this question to the metaphysicians.)

Sometimes I worry that ability to say “a little of column A, a little of column B” is one of those cognitive skills that some people forget to develop. There was a whole comment subthread where someone claimed tech companies had never made any innovations, just extracted monopoly rents. Then people replied saying that no, they never did that, it was innovation all the way. Just admit that things can be partly something and partly something else!

8: Alex Roesch writes:

I’m not sure this has any bearing on the actual moral facts of economic fairness, but within the context of the neoliberal game, I think you can square the circle of billionaires with a more granular understanding of how wealth of billionaire proportions is built.

An important caveat - at almost no point are the billionaires popularly thought of anywhere near as wealthy in cash as they are on paper. Their wealth is best understood as function of their control over highly valuable companies. While they can liquidate some of their positions, doing so in truly large amounts would depress the price of their ownership and their ultimate take from the sale would be much less than the paper wealth. TLDR, Bezos Billions is best thought of as x% of Amazon’s total value + some other stuff he’s liquidated.

The underlying business value is not an annuity. Which is to say the process is not invent amazon > collect $200mm for 35 years - there is a whole life of a company that comes after a successful founding. America is filled with entrepreneurs who found a company, grow it to $20mm in revenue and sell out to private equity and semi retire by 50. The difference between that and bezos is two decades of winning competitive tournaments for online spending every day for years. It’s also about reaching scale faster. An Amazon idea may be saturated by 2000 but if it takes until 2040 to fully implement with the second best entrepreneur, that is also lost value.

Can this be construed for as apologetics for capitalism? Yeah. But it’s also a real look at the ridiculous amount of human compute thrown at optimizing the world’s markets. Love em or hate em, they’re a remarkable invention.

I hear this “billionaires only have paper wealth” thing a lot, but I feel like it needs to be fleshed out more.

How much actual spending power does Jeff Bezos have access to?

If he sold his stock, he would have to pay capital gains tax, but I think that would only lop off 20% or so.

Some people say that if he sold all his stock at once, it would go down a lot. But why? Because people thought he was selling because he knew there was an impending catastrophe? What if he said “In one year, I will sell all my stock, just because I want access to the money,” and then did that?

Would he exhaust available buyers for Amazon stock? I am sort of confused by this possibility. Suppose he exhausted so many buyers that the price fell by 50%. I would notice that there was a 50% discount on Amazon stock, expect that sometime in the future this situation would correct (or the stock would start paying dividends proportional to its normal value) and snap it up. But that suggests there is an army of ordinary people like me who would buy Bezos’ stock at not-that-big-a-discount compared to its normal rate, which means it wouldn’t get discounted. So in what sense can Bezos not sell his stock for close to face value?

Has anyone ever modeled how much a Bezos-tier billionaire could sell his stock for? Has any billionaire ever tried something like this, so people could see the results?

9: Ish writes:

It isn’t just about the innovation or the hard work - it’s also about risk. If a business tanks, employees at that business can generally find another similar job. If you start/own a business and it tanks, you lose a lot more.

I think this is false.

Sometimes it’s spectacularly false. For example, Adam Neumann failed at a startup and kept $1 billion. I don’t think (smaller versions of) this is too terribly rare.

Other times it’s more boringly false. For example, if you get VCs to fund your startup, they pay most of the costs, you either pay yourself a small salary as CEO or don’t, and if your startup fails, they lose their investment, you keep your salary, and you probably go and found another startup or get a good management position somewhere else. Matt Levine has a saying about how losing a billion dollars looks good on your resume, because it means someone trusted you with a billion dollars and you probably learned an important lesson.

Sometimes it’s not entirely false, if someone invests all of their own life savings in a startup. Even so, I don’t want to exaggerate this. If Amazon failed completely after a few years, I would much rather be in Jeff Bezos’ shoes after the failure than some warehouse worker’s. I imagine a Jeff Bezos who loses his life savings goes back to his comfortable job as a hedge fund executive and does fine, whereas the employee would be facing eviction, debt collectors, etc.

I don’t want to trivialize the emotional and sometimes material hardships that startup founders go through when their businesses fail. It just seems callous to say “this is so terrible that they deserve $200 billion for flirting with this possibility, which is so much worse than what their employees could imagine” when they will be successful hedge fundies regardless, and their employees might be on the streets.

10: Ratufa writes:

Putting that aside, the compensation for entrepreneurship tends to be an incentive to take risk more than anything else. Bezos was an executive at DE Shaw when he quit to found Amazon. He would be worth, at least a $100 million if he had staid. Very outsize returns are probably necessary to incentivize very talented people (like Bezos) to found companies.

Okay, fine, this version does stand up to scrutiny. I looked up DE Shaw, they’re a hedge fund that did really well, and based on some other executives’ net worths I can absolutely imagine counterfactual Bezos having $100 million now.

I’m still not sure about this line of thought. How is this situation? Do we think Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t have founded Facebook, or Bill Gates Microsoft, if he could only get $1 billion? Can people really tell the difference between $10 billion and $100 billion? Has Jeff Bezos even spent $10 billion?

11: In the middle of a long discussion, John Schilling writes:

I’m quite familiar with the list of private spaceflight companies. It’s a long list of companies that have all failed to demonstrate a semi-reusable orbital launch system, even though some of them were trying long before Elon Musk got into that business.

And the reason they all failed, is that none of them were run by billionaires (well, except for Andy Beal but he was trying something different and he wimped out anyway). Building a reusable of semi-reusable orbital launch system requires hundreds of millions of dollars, spent over a decade or more during which you will have many spectacular failures, and during which almost every respected expert in the aerospace will tell all your potential investors or patrons that what you are doing is stupid and can’t work and wouldn’t have a viable market even if it did work.

Now that SpaceX has actually done it, the respected experts are changing their tune, and the investors are following suit.

But Northrop Grumman was never going to “fill that natural niche”, because Northrop Grumman is run by a committee which will follow expert opinion and pre-SpaceX expert opinion was that the niche didn’t exist. Blue Origin has been around for twenty-two years and still hasn’t managed even an expendable orbital launch system. And the rest, could never have afforded it.

Building the first reusable orbital launch system, in the world created by the godawful “space race” of the 1960s, requires a person capable of writing checks for hundreds of millions of dollars without asking permission. Because the people you would have to ask for permission, will have been told by the experts that this was a stupid idea that you should never be allowed to waste the taxpayers/investors/whoever’s money on.

I was there. This is how it was. The options were Elon Musk, or some other billionaire, or maybe a tight group of hundred-millionaire venture capitalists with a common vision. Or being stuck on Earth watching a handful of designated Space Hero Astronauts flying propaganda missions at exorbitant public expense. […]

Elon had to invest a hundred million or so dollars developing a minimum viable product that would put him in a position to invest billions of dollars while laughing off the experts telling him to just stick to launching satellites and stop wasting money on those stupid droneship-landing experiments that kept failing.

If he’d been capped at or taxed into oblivion at say half a billion, lest we ever have any unsightly billionaires in our economy, SpaceX would just be another small launch provider.

That’s the part Scott and so many others miss. It isn’t “lone genius has a clever idea, hires a bunch of people to Make It So under his management, and collects his billions”. It’s an iterative process, with each step increasing revenues, increasing costs, and increasing benefits. The no-billionaires version means SpaceX exists, but it never built anything bigger than the Falcon 5. Tesla exists, and produces a few thousand Roadsters a year. Amazon exists, and sells books. Apple exists, and sells Macintosh desktop computers.

11: Forzanine writes:

Yea, Amazon and Bezos aren’t rich so much because they were first, but because they have remained dominant in that field over a long period of time.

I think this is actually a significant problem w/ Scott’s last argument - the founders of Friendster and Myspace aren’t infamously super-rich, because unlike Zuck, they were not able to keep their thing going strong, in the face of competition, over a long period of time. Getting in first is a huge advantage - but then competition comes in and challenges you. If you don’t rise to that challenge, you may walk away with some I-did-it-first money, but the competition will wind up getting the big pot. If you consistently whoop the competition, it’s either because you’re providing better value, or because you’re shrewder at business (this latter part is something the left can perhaps legit complain about, but it’s a hard thing to correct accurately). To the extent you’re providing better value than all the other competitors who come along over the years, you should reap proportionate rewards. So it is w/ amazon - no one else has 2 day shipping afaik. This accords w/ a general statement about profit margins and competition - low competition should naturally lead to high profit margins, because you’re apparently doing something so hard or risky that hardly anyone else can manage to pull it off (this argument falls apart completely when you have low competition because you’re exploiting regulation, e.g. IP laws, or when you have a true monopoly).

I think this speaks well of Bezos’ business skills but doesn’t contradict my argument. It’s possible that someone starting Amazon two years after Bezos with better business skills could have beaten him and seized the niche “retail giant” and collected rents on it forever. But this person (or Bezos himself) would still only be providing a certain amount of surplus to the world.

For example, at the limit, if Amazon is strictly 0.001% better than its competitor (eg they’re exactly identical otherwise, but Amazon’s goods each cost one cent less), then it might end up with 100% of the market share even though it only added one cent in value. I realize this example is unrealistic but hopefully it shows what I mean by “value added” vs. “value needed to attain/maintain a natural monopoly”.

Also, I wonder how long the Friendster/MySpace example should stay valid for. If Facebook reigns unchallenged for the next millennium, will people still say Yes, but once in elden days upon Earth-That-Was there was a site called MySpace which was on top for about two years and then Facebook beat it, so it’s not a natural monopoly! We could still get a replacement at any time!” I’m not claiming I am sure Facebook is a natural monopoly. But surely we should be updating our chance of this a little for each year that goes by without it being replaced. How much?

12: Metaphysiocrat writes:

I think the political critique of billionaires (and other capitalists) really has to be understood as a critique of power inequality rather than consumption inequality. The intuition “inequality isn’t that important, it’s absolute poverty that’s a problem” is pretty good as far as consumption goes but doesn’t capture most of what wealth can do - from control within workplaces to political influence to control through investment on path-dependent questions about how/whether we’ll pursue space colonization, AI, and responses to climate change. More concentration of wealth means more direction by either whatever happens to be profitable or whatever particular billionaires happen to like.

I sort of disagree - I don’t disagree that a lot of people think this way, I just think they’re wrong.

I think the political power of billionaires is vastly overestimated. I’ve talked before about how there’s very little money in politics because spending money on politics doesn’t work. Since then I think the case has gotten even stronger. Michael Bloomberg sunk in the 2020 primary despite having $50 billion dollars. And effective altruism tried to use $10 million of Sam Bankman-Fried’s money to get a biosecurity expert elected to Congress in Oregon. They were pretty smart about it: chose a district with no incumbent, found a really amazing candidate with an incredible personal backstory, pulled out all the stops. They spent the third most of any race in the country - about as much as it was possible to spend, I don’t know what else you could even spend the money on - and they lost by a landslide in the primary.

I think you can do better as a long-term shadowy manipulator like Peter Thiel or George Soros. But I’m not sure either of them has succeeded very much; the amount of good their money has done for their cause might be less valuable than the backlash against them is harmful. And I think a lot of their value added is less money per se than reputation and strategizing.

And I’m not sure either of them is as powerful as Jon Stewart, Tucker Carlson, Thomas Piketty, Martin Luther King, Greta Thunberg, George Clooney, Ezra Klein, or any of hundreds of other people. Heck, I’m not sure they’re as powerful as the average state-level teachers’ union official. I think if you weren’t already predisposed to hate billionaires because of socialism, you would freak out about the level of power held by all those people before you started freaking out about Bill Gates or someone.

I do think billionaires have the ability to have a lot of impact by pulling the ropes sideways, ie by doing things that are by definition outside the normal political system. Things like Patrick Collison promoting open science, Elon Musk trying to revolutionize spacecraft, or Bill Gates trying to cure tropical diseases. Maybe some people are angry about that , but if so that’s a real ethical difference between us - I think it’s generally good for people have the power to make a difference, the ability to exercise agency, etc, and that lopping that off at some level is anti-human. This isn’t true if you’re lopping off some people’s power to preserve other people’s, but I think what I mean by saying “outside the normal political system” is that this is specifically about cases where that isn’t true.

13: Pepe ponders:

Do we have a way to test the “if x inventor wouldn’t have existed, some other inventor would have done the same thing a little bit later” argument for validity?

And Retsam responds:

You could maybe come up with some probabilistic argument based on the frequency of Multiple Discovery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_discovery).

Ironically, I wrote a draft of a post on this, but Matt Clancy published the idea first. I don’t know what I expected.