In Excess

Let’s start with the concept of $1 billion. As my friend Matt likes to note, it’s 1,000 stacks of 1 million. One million doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to: within the city limits of Gunnison you could buy two five-bedroom houses and put two mid-grade pick-ups in the driveway. In Crested Butte you could buy two-thirds of a small house.

Or in more realistic terms, if I have $100 in my wallet, which is a big day for my wallet, I am .00000001 on my way to $1 billion.

If I had $1 billion and decided I could somehow manage to live on $1 million per year, I have enough for 1,000 years. I could probably buy a big house outside of Crested Butte, a big house somewhere else, a few watercraft (a yacht seems to be de rigueur), travel widely, put my non-existent children through advanced degrees, live rather large and still have money to spare.

Here’s the thing: by the time you get to $1 billion, the money generally keeps regenerating. Because you’re not spending all of it, you’re investing it, and frequently it just keeps growing.

I know personally of people who managed to plow through a few million in a matter of years, and this seems to happen to lottery winners on a regular basis, but remember how far away from billion a million really is. Spending your way through one billion is a real trick.

So one would think — at least, one with socialist leanings would think —

[I saw an attack ad against some Democrat somewhere the other day that actually said this: S/he wants to replace Medicare with socialized medicine. I’m not sure what this horrible socialism is that’s so terrible it’s going to take away our existing socialized medicine, but it must really be awful.]

— So one would think that, in general, people could manage to survive on $1 billion.

Apparently, though, my thinking is anathema to billionaires, some of whom are making the news these days. For tax evasion. Sharing their money with others is too big an ask, I guess, and even though they are going to have the devil’s own time of it trying to spend all their money, they need to save every last penny. Even when those pennies rightfully belong to the United States.

And they are pennies.

Other than taxes (and even then), no one can tell billionaires what to do with their money, and they are under no obligation to share with the rest of us, outside those pesky taxes. But the Washington Post put some of their covid-related donations in perspective awhile back.

While $1 million sounds like an impressive donation, if it’s measured against the median net worth of a U.S. household (which is $97,300), that works out to an equivalence of a restaurant hamburger. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan donated $58 million through their family charity, which sounds very impressive, but measured against their net worth it equals $84 out of pocket to that median U.S. citizen.

Jeff Bezos hasn’t done anything in particular to make the news these days, at least, no more than usual, but he came to my mind anyway. For a few hours the other day, the current occupant of the White House (who probably ought not to be mistaken for a billionaire, although he appears to be quite the tax cheat) refused disaster aid to the State of California for the millions of acres that have already burned, plus those still enflamed.

He said no, for no good reason, as evidenced by yet another whiplash change of mind a few hours later — it may have been pointed out, again, that responsibility for over half the forestland in California belongs to the feds, not the Californians — but in those hours of despair the media pointed out that California is already facing a budget deficit of $54 billion due to covid.

It struck me right then that Mr. Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of my print media of choice, the Washington Post, could cover the entire covid deficit for California and still retain three-quarters of his fortune.

Mr. Bezos of course isn’t going to do that, isn’t even going to contemplate such a thing, although as of early June he had reportedly pledged the equivalent of about $60 toward covid assistance ($125 million in actual dollars), but let’s just let that sink in: as one of our country’s largest states contemplates where it will scrounge up the billions needed to cover virus expenses, never mind trying to figure out where fire-fighting funds might come from, depending on which minute it is in the White House, one man could cover that entire debt and not even break stride on the way to the houses he could build for himself in every country of the world.

California’s money, of course, is instead going to come from taxpayers, be they state or federal, but so far that doesn’t include your president, particularly, or Robert Brockman.

Yeah, I’d never heard of him either, but as of now he can claim the distinction for the largest tax evasion prosecution in U.S. history, cheating the country out of $2,000,000,000.

For the moment at least, one of his houses is in Pitkin County, Colorado (not to be confused with the Town of Pitkin in Gunnison County — this is Aspen territory) and another in Texas, and he has been busy actively defrauding the country of his share of tax dollars since the late 1990s.

The richer you are the easier it is to come up with creative ways to avoid paying taxes, it seems, but this guy went the full mile: he even stored reams of paper, which he said can be dated by the manufacturer, in case he needed to forge documents from a certain time period. Although he tried to go digital with as much documentation as he could, trying to avoid a paper trail.

He was aided and abetted in his scheme by yet another billionaire, one who has now agreed to pay $140 million in back taxes and penalties. But his willingness to hide his assets and assist Mr. Brockman in hiding his rather cheapens Robert F. Smith’s previous announcement that he was paying off all the student loans for the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College.

Just think: had Misters Smith and Brockman paid their rightful taxes, perhaps paying for socialist things like free tuition for all students might be more realistic. Or at least the Tax Cheat in Chief would have more money in his treasury to withhold from states whose politics he doesn’t like. (Of course, he also only sent a measly hundred million to Iowa after that red state requested $1.5 billion in assistance following that no-longer rare derecho earlier this year.)

I don’t really know what sort of insecurity makes someone who has really big money worry so much about keeping all of it that he feels the need to devise elaborate means of cheating the government. Even if these folks actively tried to lose all their money, it would probably take them their lifetime.

That’s the way it worked for Chuck Feeney, anyway, featured in Forbes magazine in September. The 89-year-old former billionaire set out decades ago to give away all his money with the goal of going broke while he was still alive — a goal only realized this year. (I’m going to assume he’s not completely broke, that he gave himself some sort of personal cushion in which to live out his years, but the big bucks are gone.)

It turns out, a billion dollars is still a lot of money. But apparently not enough for most people who make it that far. Which I think is a sad commentary on humankind. Or not so kind, except for Mr. Feeney.

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