Don’t call Howard Schultz a billionaire. He’s just a ‘person of means’ | Arwa Mahdawi | Opinion

Howard Schultz is worth around $3.4bn. While one might think that would make the former Starbucks CEO and would-be presidential candidate a “billionaire”, he would prefer you didn’t use that term. You see, while billionaire may seem like a simple descriptor, it is actually a disgusting slur.

Schultz enlightened us as to the problematic nature of the b-word at a book event in New York last Monday. When asked by New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin whether he thought billionaires had become too powerful in American life, the coffee magnate complained that “the moniker billionaire now has become the catchphrase”. Rather than using a word like billionaire to describe a person with billions of dollars, Schultz suggested it may be better to use expressions like “people of means” or “people of wealth”.

Poor Schultz. He was just trying to help us all out; generously digging into his rich vocabulary and spreading the semantic wealth. However, after footage of the interview went viral this week, the businessman has been mercilessly mocked. People of mean spirit have been suggesting their own alternatives to billionaire such as “robber barons”, “cash vampires”, and various other phrases that are probably too rude to repeat.

While Schultz’s clumsy attempt to rebrand the term billionaire is amusing, it’s also instructive. You see, what he unsuccessfully tried to do in that interview is what the super-rich have successfully been doing for a very long time: justifying their unjustifiable fortunes by deploying strategic euphemisms. Spinning inequality with disingenuous synonyms. You could call it “wealth-washing”.

Take, for example, the term philanthropist, which means “a rich person who doesn’t want to pay tax or fair wages but does want to get applauded for giving a bit of money to a charity of their choice now and again”. The uber-rich have done a great job of rebranding tax avoidance as philanthropy over the years – a charade the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman recently went viral for pointing out. Speaking on a panel at Davos, Bregman argued that industry had to “stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes”. Bregman said he was flabbergasted no one at Davos was talking about tax avoidance. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.”

Another key talking point used in wealth-washing is the promise of trickle-down economics. An idea which keeps getting parroted despite the inconvenient truth that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. Indeed, a recent report by Oxfam found that the richest 26 people in the world own as much as the poorest 50%. Still, even with the facts clearly against them, the rich and powerful still promote the idea that we all benefit when a few individuals and corporations get obscenely wealthy. After Bregman’s comments on tax avoidance at Davos, for example, Ken Goldman, the former Yahoo chief financial officer, pushed back by talking about record employment. But as Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director, noted, “employment” can be a rhetorical trick. “You’re counting the wrong things,” she said. “You’re not counting dignity of people. You’re counting exploited people.”

Another fig-leaf the super-rich frequently hide behind in order to justify inequality is the idea that they are “self-made”. This implies that they have earned their fortune, that they deserve it. It implies that any one of us could be a billionaire if we just worked hard enough. It removes responsibility from the system and focuses it on the individual. Indeed, Schultz used the self-made argument in an MSNBC interview last month. “I’ve also been criticized for being a billionaire,” Schultz said. But “I’m self-made. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York. I thought that was the American dream. You’re going to criticize me for being successful?”

Let’s give Schultz his due – unlike Trump, who likes to pretend he is self-made, he didn’t inherit millions from his father. But while he certainly worked hard, nobody is self-made. As Schultz notes, he grew up in federally subsidized housing in New York; taxes helped pay for his housing. That is what taxes are for; to provide a safety net that gives everyone a chance to succeed, no matter where they start out. To provide the bootstraps by which people can pull themselves up. And yet, despite benefiting from welfare policies, billionaires like Schultz are outraged about the idea that people who earn more than $10m should pay a 70% marginal tax rate. I would call that mean and greedy, but I’m sure Schultz would prefer that I called it “a rational response from people of means”.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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