Get that Billionaire!

Posted: Dec 09, 2002 12:00 AM
You know, we are trained not to be sorry for the rich, but I confess to yielding to that weakness where it's the very rich who are ridiculed. The term "billionaire" is -- check this out -- almost always used derisively, or condescendingly. I haven't counted how many billionaires there are, but you don't need the answer to that to know that they arouse a special kind of killer-envy. The Web gives you a (farcical) site for "Who Wants to Be a Billionaire" and the entry page gives five headings. "The Stats" is a philosophical introduction to the whole question: "Did you know that 90 percent of American wealth is controlled by ONE PERCENT of the population? Are these people smarter than you? Are they more creative? No? Then who allows these people to retain their wealth?" Elucidating on this, item four ("The Target"), reads, "Wealth is neither created nor destroyed -- it merely changes hands. Which billionaire will be our first target?" Why not the man who invented penicillin?

You don't have to sound like a Marxist to stick it up their behind, and this is nicely exemplified in the jocose mode in the current Slate magazine. The headline is, "The joy of watching billionaires lose the America's Cup."

The spirit of this account of the racing classic may be that of Madame Defarge, the lady who sat knitting with ecstatic pleasure at execution square in 1793 in Paris, watching the guillotine come down, but the language is jocose. Caution! Derision is deadlier than denunciation. If Lenin had had that skill, he could have made headway without having to kill so many people.

The story on the America's Cup begins by telling us that "At least three of the world's richest men are about to be publicly humiliated in the waters off Auckland. Such a delightful spectacle should not pass unnoticed." Every billionaire's death exalteth me.

"For the hoi polloi, the perennial appeal of this periodic regatta is that it attracts egomaniacs who spend freely and then lose badly." Yes, once in a blue moon you get a rich egomaniac who actually demonstrates his own skill. But "most seagoing plutocrats serve mainly as ballast when they're not writing checks."

The author goes on to describe the principal players this time around. The Seattle team, the OneWorld team, "is backed by not one but two billionaires, cell-phone impresario Craig McCaw and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen."

Now how shall we condescend to McCaw? Well, "he is an earnest fellow from Seattle with an environmentalist agenda -- the OneWorld Web site proclaims the team's ambition 'to win the oldest trophy in sports in the name of the health of the world's oceans.'" Anything wrong with that? Well, not obviously wrong, so the author has to rev up the ridicule. "McCaw is well-known for having helped save Keiko, the "Free Willy" killer whale, by bankrolling a program to return the captive orca to the wild."

We have here a stylistic problem, because to make fun of saving whales is the kind of thing one expects from insouciant dilettantes, acting out P.G. Wodehouse. You're not, theoretically, supposed to make fun of people who care about whales. Unless they are billionaires.

What happened to OneWorld is, we are told, that the recession brought down McCaw's fortune "from $7.7 billion to a paltry $2.3 billion. ... That put something of a crimp in McCaw's do-gooder budget, so he brought in Allen to keep OneWorld funded at a respectably obscene level."

Enter another billionaire, Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle. "Ellison for years has been trying to stick a harpoon in his rival Microsoft and surpass Bill Gates as the world's richest man." But he is "down to $15.2 billion" because of the recession.

Enter then a Swiss billionaire, and ... on and on it goes. Mark Lewis, the author, is rooting for the New Zealand team, current proprietors of the Cup. That way, "the four billionaire-backed syndicates would have nothing to show for their collective expenditures of at least $300 million. The rest of us would cackle with glee."

Cackle! Was that the word Dickens used to describe the sounds in revolutionary Paris? What's nice about all this is that the article was published in Slate, property of billionaire Bill Gates, and the author works for Forbes, property of billionaire Steve.