Billionaires Bring Us Endless Good, and Also Farhad Manjoo

Billionaires Bring Us Endless Good, and Also Farhad Manjoo
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Despite the average state salary in Cuba working out to $24/month, its people increasingly have opportunities to earn much greater sums. With property rights more and more recognized in concert with growing foreign tourism (including all-important American tourism), the people are able to rent out their houses and apartments to the well-heeled.

So while the people take home roughly $300/year in salary, This Is Cuba author David Ariosto notes that Cubans with house/apartment space to rent out earn an average of $2,700/year from the tourist trade. Imagine that for a moment! People long used to desperate poverty are now earning many multiples of their annual salary hosting people eager to see what was, and what will be. Notable here is that over half of the hosts (58%) are women, thus “empowering a new and emerging crop of female entrepreneurs,” according to Ariosto.

So what enabled this life-enhancing monetization of previously dormant wealth for desperately poor Cubans? Look no further than San Francisco, CA-based Airbnb. Cuba is proving a brilliant market for Airbnb’s business model. And while Forbes estimates the net worth of Airbnb’s three founders at $3.7 billion each, Cuba’s thousandaires are hardly angry. Thanks to the Airbnb portal connecting Cuba’s property owners to the rest of the world, its people are earning at levels they never imagined.

In consideration of what the billionaire founders of Airbnb have meant for Cuba’s people, shouldn’t we be cheering? Shouldn’t we be falling all over ourselves to hand the billionaires countless humanitarian awards for helping the formerly helpless? One would think so, unless of course one were New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. As he obnoxiously sees it, the technology industry “belches up a murder of new billionaires annually,” so he’s more and of the view that government must step in since, “At some level of extreme wealth, money inevitably corrupts.” Wow!

So great wealth is apparently a corrupting influence, if Manjoo is to be believed. Naturally he offers up no evidence supporting such a dubious claim. With Manjoo, feeling trumps reality. Always. Back in 2017, the endlessly emotional columnist confidently predicted (the column was laughably titled “Without Neutrality, Say So Long to the Internet”) that property rights in the internet space would result in its disappearance.  

When it comes to billionaires, what exactly is Manjoo thinking? Better yet, who are the monetarily corrupted? Is there a level one must cross to become corrupt? Are the founders of Airbnb not awful simply because their individual wealth positions of $3.7 billion each merely place them in the middle of the billionaire pack?

What about Google, for instance? The wealth of the two co-founders works out to around $51 billion each, but have Sergey Brin and Larry Page been rendered crooked by their wealth? It’s hard to see how. On the other hand it’s easy to see what their achievements have meant for people beyond the basic truth that few of us (including, likely, Manjoo) could long maintain our sanity without Google’s search engine. For instance, Google Maps has made navigating a city all alone something that the blind can increasingly do. Google is also a major player in a driverless car revolution that has the potential to transform the lives of billions. Imagine a world in which people get around exceedingly cheaply, and in concert with plummeting rates of death thanks to fewer car accidents?

Speaking of transportation, Forbes estimates Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s wealth to be in the $5.9 billion range, which could have some wondering if relative to Brian Chesky (one of the Airbnb founders), he’s crossed the line of corruption that Manjoo confidently believes exists. Ok, but if so, it seems tens of millions the world over would lustily cheer the rise of many more Kalanicks in consideration of what his innovation has meant for convenient transportation, safe transportation, and overall piece of mind in the knowledge that there’s always a ride when we need one.

Considering death, Patrick Soon-Shiong is worth $7 billion. Interesting there is that the primary source of his wealth is a cancer drug he invented by the name of Abraxane. As most readers know well, a pancreatic cancer diagnosis has long been the equivalent of a death sentence. Soon-Shiong’s drug has given hope to those who historically had none.

Notable about Soon-Shiong is that he’s one of a growing number of billionaires who has made it his mission to rejuvenate a struggling print media space. Indeed, last year Soon-Shiong purchased the ailing Los Angeles Times with an eye on fixing what limped. And as previously mentioned, Soon Shiong is hardly the first billionaire to do just that. Carlos Slim saved the gold standard of newspapers with his investment in the New York Times, which employs Manjoo, despite a net worth of $63 billion. The Washington Post? The world’s richest man in Jeff Bezos purchased the then struggling newspaper in 2013, only to revitalize it.

Outside of print, Manjoo might have consulted his Times colleague Thomas Erdbrink. Erdbrink is the Teheran bureau chief for the Times, and in a recent column he happily noted how Instagram (owned by Facebook – founder Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth: $61B) “has been a major driver of change in a country where everything was hidden.” Translated, Instagram has enabled gradual liberalization in a part of the world that’s rather repressed, much as Facebook has served as a communication device for repressed people seeking escape from repression that Manjoo is luckily free from in the United States.

So if earned wealth doesn’t corrupt the makers of same, what does? Is it inherited money? Is Laurene Powell Jobs the problem since she’s got a net worth of $18.5 billion after the death of Steve Jobs? The previous question rates asking mainly because Manjoo can’t seriously have thought Jobs somehow made us worse off. Goodness, for under $1,000 he put supercomputers in our pockets that would have cost many millions if someone had attempted to create same when the 21st century began. Powell Jobs has notably revived The Atlantic in the media space, among others.  

Manjoo whines that “we’ve been in a devastating national love affair with billionaires” for the last twenty years, but leaves out why: they make our lives infinitely better, including Manjoo’s. Which speaks to the downside of the billionaire class. While we couldn’t live without their accomplishments, we also have to suffer the droolings of Manjoo. He would never admit it, but he’s an unfortunate creation of the billionaires he despises. Tradeoffs can be brutal.

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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