The Northwestern University Political Union hosted a debate Monday night to discuss billionaires and whether or not they should be considered failures – policy failures, that is. A majority of students abstained from the poll taken at the start of the event, which posed the question of the evening – Is the existence of billionaires a policy failure?
This debate directly followed an announcement made Sunday by Robert F. Smith, a billionaire known for investing in tech companies, to pay off the entire student loan debt of Morehouse College's graduating class. Weinberg sophomore Ellie Buckner, who argued in favor of the resolution, was not so optimistic about the philanthropic efforts of the wealthiest 540 Americans. “For every Bill Gates, there are a lot of Koch brothers,” Buckner said.
Buckner began the debate by casting doubt on the narrative that the ultra-wealthy are a byproduct of the American dream. “It’s easy to say that billionaires have ‘made it,’” she told the group. But in actuality, much of that wealth can be traced back to practices such as monopolization, predatory pricing, and low wages. And that wealth, once accrued, is often used to influence politics and lobby against effective regulation and oversight, she explained.
“The existence of billionaires is at worst neutral, and at best a net benefit,” countered Weinberg student Zalman Faltushanskiy, who argued against the resolution. Faltushanskiy brought to attention two separate categories of wealth production. The first is zero sum wealth production, in which a person can only better themselves by worsening the situations of others. “The U.S. has people engaged in positive sum wealth production,” he explained, a system in which wealth can be created in a process that results in better circumstances for everyone.
Take Amazon, for example. Founder Jeff Bezos, with a net worth of over $153 billion, may be the largest single beneficiary of Amazon’s success. However, in the process, Faltushanskiy said, the company has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, lowered prices for many goods and created a convenient online marketplace for millions of people worldwide. Far from being a failure, Faltushanskiy said that the existence of billionaires indicates an existing policy success.
When the debate was opened to everyone present, some students questioned why anyone would ever need more than a billion dollars.
“The marginal value of one dollar is nothing to them,” Weinberg sophomore Mason Fritz said. “That money should be redistributed to people who actually need it.”
One student discussed Walmart, which employs more food stamp recipients than virtually any other company as of 2014. This raised the question of whether or not it is fair for taxpayers to subsidize the low wages of a company that have generated billions of dollars in wealth for its founder.
“Systematic disparities are a problem, but addressing the issue won’t remove billionaires,” Weinberg senior Josh Varcie said. “We have to consider whether billionaires and social welfare programs are mutually exclusive.”
If it is indeed possible to have both, Varcie said he considered this debate to be a question of whether or not the U.S. should have a marginal tax rate high enough to prevent billionaires from existing at all.
It’s important to remember that we aren’t just a country of haves and have-nots. The old way of thinking about economic inequality is as a struggle between those who own the means of production and laborers. “This was formulated in 1850’s Germany. We’re not 1850’s Germany,” said Bienen sophomore Sachin Shukla.
Privilege and wealth come in degrees, and most of the benefits from tax loopholes and predatory capitalism go to the upper-middle class, Shukla said. This isn’t just a billionaire problem.
When the debate ended, another poll revealed that students arguing against the resolution (in other words, in favor of billionaires) won with a narrow plurality. A large number of those present chose to abstain from the final vote.
This debate was hosted by the Northwestern University Political Union. They will be hosting their final debate of the year next Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m., on the question of whether the United States should end all diplomatic relations with China. For more information, you can visit their Facebook Page.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify comments made by Shukla.