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Magpies and mankind share one devilish vice, they both love shiny objects. We human beings certainly have a peculiar propensity to fantasise about extreme wealth. This is so that we can prepare ourselves for the inevitable day when we miraculously transform into Donald Duck (another flappy cousin of the Magpie) and dive head first and clumsily into a pool of our own glistening and infinite wealth.
Our peculiar fetish for fortunes has resulted in the maintenance of league tables for the rich. From the Forbes 400 to The Sunday Times Rich List one thing is clear: billionaires are idolised. These league tables help governments monitor the amount of money in the pockets of its citizens and helps its citizens to measure who has got the biggest boat. Not that fortune is all plain sailing. The only time you’re likely to bear witness to an advert for a rehab clinic will probably be in Forbes Magazine. The luxurious, boozeless clinic will no doubt be located in Switzerland and have a sauna the size of Liechtenstein. Boohoo.
Some people view rich lists as glorifications of the excesses of unbridled capitalism which encourage the most reviled of all human characteristics: greed, envy and avarice. Avarice (for those who don’t know a Scrooge) is the insatiable desire to gain and hoard wealth. In the time of Corona, as pay packets shrink, job vacancies plummet and global unemployment spikes, the wealth gap will continue to widen. So, is it a good idea to gawp at other peoples’ extreme wealth in these flamboyant rich lists? Potentially.
For a start, most governments don’t track wealth on a global scale. So rich lists might be the best metrics we have for trying to understand the true value of the world’s most well-off. Once this is known publicly, it might deter billionaires from trying to stash their money in tax havens. Leaks like the Panama Papers reveal the lengths that some of the wealthiest in society will go to hide their money and avoid paying their way.
Included in the Rich List, there’s also a Tax List, to document those with the highest tax bills in the United Kingdom. Last year, JK Rowling paid £48.6 million income tax on her £100 million earnings. She was a single mother living on benefits when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. Those experiences guide her attitudes to income tax.
The rich are often (rightfully) chastised for not coughing up their fair share in tax, but by recording and highlighting those that do, an example can be set to the tax dodgers: Despite requesting a £500 million pound loan from the British Government to bail out Virgin Airways, Richard Branson has paid no income tax in the UK for 14 years. He is estimated to be worth well over £3.6 billion.
Millionaires can do some very impressive things with their wealth, sometimes more impressive than governments. For example, Elon Musk founded Tesla, which has normalised the everyday use of fully electric cars and he launched SpaceX to expand interplanetary exploration. As if that wasn’t enough, Musk also founded PayPal and ‘at least’ six other companies.
The very richest can take the largest risks, gambles that a government doesn’t want to make with its taxpayers’ money. The man who hoovered up the top spot of this year’s wealth review, Sir James Dyson (estimated worth £16.2 Billion) lost £500 million in his attempt to crack the electric car but still tops the list. That optimism and ambition will be needed for our worldwide economy to recover from this global slump.
Wonderfully, to supplement the Rich List this year, there was also a Giving List. Rihanna made a £15 million-pound donation to Coronavirus relief efforts. Dyson spent £20 million on creating ventilators that will be used to fight Covid-19. The British grime artist Stormzy, funds scholarships for black students to go to Cambridge. This is believed to have played a significant role in increasing the University’s black student admissions.
That’s the nice thing about being extremely wealthy, you’re really able to encourage positive action. In fact, in 2017 the UK’s 300 biggest givers donated more than £3.2bn to good causes. And at least 200 of the world’s 2,000 billionaires have signed the Giving Pledge, where they vow to give over half of their wealth away to philanthropic causes before they die.
But, only 3 pages out of 135 were dedicated to the Giving List in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List. This has to change. The Giving List is something we should covet. And celebrate even more vigorously than its contorted cousin. Truly forward-thinking and conscientious innovators who invest charitably deserve their place on the pedestal. Those oligarchs who pump money perpetually into oil, tobacco and slave labour do not. So watch this space. And by this space, I mean the Giving List.
By Caspar Barnes