Billionaires aren't okay — for their mental health, time to drastically raise their taxes

From threatening cage matches to backing RFK Jr., billionaires prove too much money detaches a person from reality

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 17, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of Twitter, Elon Musk attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on June 16, 2023 in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)
Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of Twitter, Elon Musk attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on June 16, 2023 in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

The psyche of mainstream America is slowly starting to grasp what grumpy leftists have long argued: Extreme wealth does a number on people's grasp on reality.

For decades, the dominant narrative about the rich, especially the billionaire class, was that they really are better than us: Smarter, more talented, and, in the case of tech billionaires, equipped with prognostication powers so profound they are indistinguishable from magic. Medieval people had the "divine right of kings." Modern people have the "must be brilliant to be that rich" fallacy. As I wrote late last year, it does seem lately, however, the idea that money equals merit has finally started to falter in the public imagination. The myth of the superior intelligence of rich people has taken a beating from the repeated public stupidity of people like Tesla CEO Elon Musk or illiterate reality TV host Donald Trump. Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who coasted as one of the "good ones," took a public faceplant by blowing up his marriage as idiotically as possible. 

Having established that money doesn't equal brains was just the first step, though. Now another question is starting to arise in the public discourse around those who have impossibly huge bank accounts: Does having too much money damage a person's mental health? 

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Our billionaires are not okay. The most obvious example, of course, is Musk, who is having a midlife crisis so unhinged that it would be upsetting if he weren't such a terrible person. He purchased Twitter for $44 billion last year, out of nothing more than a fit of pique over the company's efforts to keep the social media app from being too overrun by Nazis. As the company swirls down the toilet under his watch, his public behavior gets ever more erratic. The threat from Threads, a Meta-owned competitor that launched earlier this month, caused Musk, age 52, to react with a level of immaturity that would be cause for alarm in a junior high school kid. He challenged Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to a "cage match." And then again to a "literal dick measuring contest." He keeps throwing schoolboy insults at Zuckerberg.

Too much money is not good for you.

Zuckerberg, age 39, comes across better, but only by comparison to Musk. By normal people's standards, however, he's behaving strangely. He has supposedly accepted the cage match invitation and is posting taunting photos from his martial arts training. 

That's just the most prominent of a steady stream of "rich people are nuts" stories. The Titanic tourism sub, which charged $250,000 a seat only to implode as actual experts warned it would, fascinated the public for just this reason. Similarly, the internet fixated earlier this month on a story about Warner Bros CEO David Zaslav getting a story pulled from GQ for being critical of his management skills. He's worth over $200 million but is so snowflake-sensitive he can't brush such a story off. There is, of course, the drumbeat of stories about Trump behaving on social media as if he's in the midst of an extended nervous breakdown. 

And then there's the number of too-rich people rallying around Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist with a 'roid-suggestive physique who is "running" for the Democratic nomination at the behest of some of the nastiest fascists in the country. As soon as Democratic voters learn that Kennedy is an alt-right conspiracy theorist and not a liberal lion like his forebears, they stop supporting him. But even though he thinks cell phones are mind controlling us and wifi causes "leaky brain," Kennedy has been championed by the supposed best-and-brightest of Silicon Valley, such as Musk and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. 

Paul Krugman of the New York Times argues that their money and privilege are rotting their brains: 

It may seem odd to see men of vast wealth and influence buying into conspiracy theories about elites running the world. Aren't they the elites? But I suspect that famous, wealthy men may be especially frustrated by their inability to control events, or even stop people from ridiculing them on the internet. So rather than accepting that the world is a complicated place nobody can control, they're susceptible to the idea that there are secret cabals out to get them.

"It's impossible to overstate the degree to which many big tech CEOs and venture capitalists are being radicalized by living within their own cultural and social bubble," tech writer Anil Dash wrote in a recent newsletter. "Their level of paranoia and contrived self-victimization is off the charts, and is getting worse now that they increasingly only consume media that they have funded, created by their own acolytes."

As a friend texted me when I shared the Krugman piece, we shouldn't let women off the hook. Hollywood elites like Oprah Winfrey and Gwenyth Paltrow have also been massive purveyors of magical thinking, selling their gullible audiences woo-woo ideas like "The Secret" and even falsely telling people a "teaspoon" is enough sunscreen.

Too much money is not good for you. It means being surrounded by "yes" men and having your every bad idea validated. If that sort of thing goes on long enough, a person gets completely detached from reality. They can become unable to handle even the slightest cognitive dissonance, leading them to flip out dramatically at being criticized, even if, objectively speaking, there is no damage the criticism can do. 

The good news is that we already know how to save the hyper-wealthy from themselves: Tax them until their nest eggs make them merely rich. Sure, proposing this causes the rich, who are notoriously unable to handle even minor adversity, to flip out like you're trying to render them homeless. But in the long run, it's not just better for society if a handful of people are unable to hoard all the wealth. It's better for the rich, as well. Just as your muscle system needs to be worked in order to stay strong, the brain needs to be challenged in order to stay healthy and sharp. The bubble of privilege around the excessively wealthy softens their brains. Less money, and more engagement with the real world, is the cure for what ails them. 

Look, for instance, at what's happened to Ye, who used to go by his given name, Kanye West. Last year, the rapper and fashion designer was worth an estimated $2 billion. He was also, famously, losing his mind in a horrifically public way. He lost his marriage, lost his friends, and eventually, lost even basic common sense. Instead, he was hanging out with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, being exploited by greedy alt-right grifters, and raving on Infowars about how Hitler was just misunderstood. As a result, he lost his corporate partnerships, dropping his net worth by over $1.5 billion. He's still incredibly rich, but not in a "listed in Forbes" kind of way. He's also been a hell of a lot quieter in recent months, mostly sticking his head up briefly to apologize for his anti-semitic comments of the past. Whether or not the dramatic decline in wealth is a reason for such a turnaround is between Ye and his psychiatrist. But it definitely doesn't seem to have hurt. 

Just one example, of course, but an intriguing one. The good news is there is nothing but upside to trying the "tax the rich" strategy. Even if it falls short when it comes to improving the morale and mental health of the wealthiest Americans, it still means reducing other negative effects of wealth inequality, incentivizing reinvestment instead of money-hoarding and, of course, funding government programs that could help everyday Americans. The worst that could happen is people like Musk have less money to invest in harebrained schemes like "ChatGPT, but more racist." With so much to gain and nothing to lose, it's time to tax billionaires until they are billionaires no longer. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Elon Musk Mark Zuckerberg Rfk Jr. Wealth Tax