We all feel the burn of the hot air from billionaires

Whether it is Denis O’Brien or Jeff Bezos, we must parse billionaires’ statements to assess their credibility

  Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is displayed on screens speaking  during the Cop26 conference: the billionaire stepped off his private jet to give a speech  in Glasgow on the need to cut carbon emissions. Photograph: Erin Schaff/ Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is displayed on screens speaking during the Cop26 conference: the billionaire stepped off his private jet to give a speech in Glasgow on the need to cut carbon emissions. Photograph: Erin Schaff/ Pool/AFP/Getty Images

 

The planet almost overheated on Tuesday and it had little to do with climate change. It was the furious reaction to Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder with a personal fortune of $195 billion (€169 billion), after he stepped off his private jet to give a speech at Cop26 in Glasgow on the need to cut carbon emissions.

He didn’t just wind up hardcore environmentalists. In a divided age, Bezos achieved the impressive feat of uniting, well, pretty much everybody in a carnival of opprobrium at what was either a brazen display of his tungsten neck, or a bewildering lack of self-awareness.

Bezos, clearly, is not a stupid man. Surely he must have known how hypocritical it would look for him to fly in to speak at a climate change conference on a €60 million Gulfstream jet, which doesn’t get too many miles to the gallon of kerosene. If he knew, he simply didn’t care. And why would he? Billionaires can easily shut out the noise from everybody else because, in effect, they live in a different world. This may even be literally true for Bezos in a few years’ time.

Yet we, the grotty masses, will always retain our endless fascination for billionaires – for their stories, their successes and (especially) for their failures. People will continue to inhale every snippet of information available about billionaires’ personal lives, their battles and, of course, their bling.

Weirdly smart

Whether it is Bezos or Tesla founder Elon Musk, there is also a tendency to hang on their every word, no matter what topic is under discussion. Bezos, despite his Glasgow speech, obviously is no climate warrior. Meanwhile, Musk was embroiled in a debate this week about world hunger.

The South African businessman may be weirdly smart, but how much more does he know about staving off starvation than the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, David Beasley, with whom he jousted?

There is an expectation that, because they were astoundingly successful and visionary at one thing (e-commerce for Bezos or industrialism for Musk), billionaires must be worth listening to about everything. Sometimes their insights are highly questionable, such as the time in 2018 when Musk thought he knew best about how to rescue a group of Thai boys trapped in an underground cave.

At other times, especially if it is on a matter related to their core expertise, we should listen more closely. It is up to the rest of us to learn to discern between the two.

Like our cars and our portion sizes, everything is that little bit smaller in Ireland compared to the United States, and that includes our billionaires. The best known of our homegrown bunch is Denis O’Brien, the founder of Digicel, who owns the same type of jet as Bezos.

However, O’Brien’s fortune, estimated by Forbes at $4.4 billion (€3.8 billion), is barely walking-around money to the likes of the Amazon founder or Musk, whose worth is estimated at $315 billion (€273 billion). Still, we tend to listen to him, all the same.

Last month he gave a lecture at Cambridge University that focused on history, the economic scars of colonialism and Ireland’s role in the developing world. These are topics upon which he can reasonably contribute, given his experience running businesses in impoverished nations such as Haiti, and on Caribbean islands that also have historical links to Ireland.

Then he moved on to one of his favourite topics – bashing Facebook. These days, bashing Facebook is one of everybody’s favourite things to do.

O’Brien has long resented the fact that internet companies have capitalised on the investment telcos such as Digicel have deployed in broadband fibre and mobile networks, without paying towards the cost of the pipes and wires.

Six years ago, before it was fashionable as it is now to bash Mark Zuckerberg, O’Brien famously described the Facebook founder’s business model as that of someone who comes to your party and “drinks your champagne, and kisses your girls”, but never pays their way.

‘Anarchy’

He returned to the theme in his Cambridge speech, accusing Facebook of having an “amoral” business model and of not helping to roll out broadband in developing nations. “All over the world, democracy is under threat from Facebook,” said O’Brien, who also accused it of facilitating “anarchy”.

But then came the kicker. O’Brien, who moved to Portugal to legally avoid €57 million in tax on the gains he made on the €285 million he got from selling Esat, criticised Facebook for its tax avoidance arrangements.

The man who is now tax resident in a flat opposite Franny’s fruit and vegetable shop down a back street in Sliema, Malta, also criticised Ireland for facilitating Facebook’s tax avoidance.

O’Brien may well have had a point in criticising Facebook’s tax arrangements, just as Bezos did when he made his environmental rallying call on Tuesday. But given how much he has benefitted from tax avoidance himself, had he any standing to go after Facebook for doing similar, albeit at corporate level?

The full 5,000-word text of O’Brien’s speech is well worth a look. Readers of it, however, can use their own judgment about the parts where the billionaire is credible, and the sections where his standing to opine may be more limited.

But sometimes, of course, our reactions to billionaires are not calibrated on the credibility or otherwise of what they are saying. That would be to give ourselves too much credit. Sometimes we just give out about them because they are so much richer than we are. It is the truth and most of us know it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we are simply jealous of their wealth and their capacity to spend and acquire. With billionaires, in particular, I believe some of the resentment is borne out of the fact that, through their monetary wealth, they gain access and therefore wield such influence in the corridors of power, where policies are devised that affect our daily lives.

I couldn’t care less how big Bezos’s new yacht is. But it does irk me that he can influence world leaders as they devise rules that may directly impact upon the lives of me and my family, and then vamoose out of town on a carbon-belching jet, making a mockery of his empty appeal at the lectern.

That is the real inequality of having a crust of billionaires on society – they have a far greater say than the rest of us, even when they are talking out of their hats.

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