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  1. Wealth
October 25, 2016

Spear’s issue 53 leader: Should billionaires boast about their wealth?

By Spear's

While the likes of Mike Ashley and Philip Green make appearances in helicopters and yachts in the midst of crises, Spear’s observes that others like Bill Gates and Peter Neumark consider their wealth a social boon.

Commuting by helicopter has never looked less cool. The summer was not an august one for the tiny minority we call billionaires. Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, a self-proclaimed PR disaster, defended his use of private jets and helicopters, saying they provide efficiency and time — both things on which a board member, and thereby the business, put a premium. In the same interview Ashley mentioned another efficiency-saving his firm makes: paying a salary effectively below the minimum wage. The wellbeing and prosperity of his staff were not classed as adding to the efficiency of his operation. Ashley now does pay his staff the minimum wage, but not more. He explains his reasoning as being that he is beholden to the government and its unwillingness to make the minimum wage a living wage.

This is passing the buck by circus cannon. The government does not decide how much Ashley pays his staff, nor is it his duty to endorse a policy with which he feigns disagreement. Pretending to be incapable of paying his staff a decent wage unless legally obliged to do so is not the behaviour of a responsible business leader and erodes the idea that his staff should have faith in him to make decisions that will align their interests with the firm. Add to this the fact that when visiting his own warehouse he took out a wad of £50 notes and joked he had ‘been to the casino’, and he begins to look obtuse.

Sadly, he is not alone. After the collapse of BHS, at the cost of 11,000 jobs, and a parliamentary select committee hearing, Philip Green sparked ire by appearing on his yacht in the Mediterranean after he pledged to solve the pension crisis that his mismanagement and sale of the firm, with debts of £571 million, had prompted. He may yet salvage his reputation and do the right thing, but he is another billionaire promoting self-increase.

There is a po-faced, caught-red-handed common denominator here. Both pass over the issue as if it is nothing to do with them, as if paradigms of law and decency are other people’s business. They make for a worrying disconnect. They see the society that has upheld and sanctioned the system that has rewarded them so handsomely as somehow different from the society that examines that licence.

Although their behaviour is regrettable, this magazine does not excoriate billionaires per se. In many ways they represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved in commerce. That achievement is best rendered by the ability to generate and protect wealth and to promote its sound use, to be at once patron and entrepreneur. We would argue that the individual, more so than any institution or instrument of the state, will know how best to put their wealth to good use, and how best to prolong its social traction, because it is they who have earned it.

An individual such as Bill Gates has not only made a huge amount of wealth but also revolutionised the way we all communicate and work. His success, and the benefit it has given society, demonstrates how entrepreneurs can be the engines of progress. Gates is also applying his wealth to a great cause, to eradicate malaria. Similarly, Peter Neumark’s giving away ownership of his Classic Motor Cars company to his staff ensures preservation, not only of the firm, but of the skills, industry, and livelihoods he has invested in throughout his career. Both these acts transcend mere patronage and demonstrate the educational power (and beneficial legacy of) entrepreneurism beyond the economic change it engenders.

That both Gates and Neumark have chosen to use their wealth selflessly tends to endorse the modern liberal ideal of individual empowerment and accumulation of wealth as a worthy social boon. Such movement of wealth into social currency is something to aspire to — if the wealthy are indeed children of the enlightenment and not just children. We shall watch the continuing activities of Messrs Green and Ashley with interest.

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