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Opinion

Where are the superheroes among the super-rich?

How much money does a super-wealthy person really need to hoard? And why aren’t billionaires following the lead of the few who do use their wealth for good?

Yvon Chouinard is not messing around. Until last week, he was a billionaire. Then he gave it all away. Chouinard is the founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company. He has often been described as a reluctant billionaire. There are worse things to be reluctant about.

Chouinard, a devoted environmentalist, put his money where his mouth is. He signed over his company to a trust that will direct money not reinvested in the company – roughly £87 million per year – to work that is being described as having environmental purpose. Exactly what this is remains to be mapped out, but it will “fight the environmental crisis, protect nature and biodiversity, and support thriving communities”. 

Chouinard’s family are no longer controlling the company. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” he wrote. His move raises many interesting questions. How do you measure which step, of a few that are similar, has more environmental purpose than another? Will this money be enough to make a marked difference? And why don’t other super-wealthy people give more of it away?  

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How much does one person need? Really. To be comfortable in your super-wealth, how much money will keep you? £10m? £100m? Perhaps a tidy two billion will keep the wolf from the door. There are only so many Franz Kline’s you can find wall space for, only so many superyachts you need. If there is a finite amount, shouldn’t you then find ways to get it into the hands of people who need it? 

Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott is doing her best to empty her account. She’s already given away £3.4 billion. Which is staggering until you realise that she was worth around £34bn before she started. Still, that’s a dent. And she’s not stopping. What if others did the same? Elon Musk is worth around £245bn. If he, somehow, liquidated his assets, that would plug the gap the entire EU is trying to raise to meet energy bill rises. And still leave him around £120bn to build hypersonic tunnels or rockets or whatever other obscenely expensive toy he wanted to kick around.  

The other question is should the super-wealthy carry the can? Should they be the backstop when governments go missing? Last week former PM Gordon Brown laid out in simple, terrifying terms the “winter tsunami of hardship” that lies ahead for so many. The food bank, he said, not social security, was the national safety net for those on the verge and it was charity, not Universal Credit, that was the last line of defence. That has little to do with government. Though governance has brought us to this place. 

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If you were super-wealthy, would you hesitate? Should you hesitate? Around £700m (though it’s hard to exactly nail that figure down) was enough to, temporarily, end rough sleeping. Imagine being the person who could end rough sleeping, freeing up all the rest of the money that is swirling around at present to instead help prevent the cycle of poverty leading to homelessness at source.  

If the Truss government is set on tinkering around the edges, fearful of upsetting a few richer people, those right at the top could be a bit more Chouinard and say, here you go, the poorest in society should not be those who are giving so much to support food banks and charities.  

Systemic change is needed. Government genuinely working for the many, not representing the few is essential. But in the meantime, a number of big, ballsy, bold billionaire handovers would do no harm. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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