RiRi Is Rich AF, but Capitalism Is in Decline
On this episode of democracy-ish, money talks. Well, Toure and Danielle talk about money.
This week, Forbes reported that Rihanna joined the rarified ranks of the world’s billionaires. Only 15 other Black people on the planet have amassed that kind of wealth.
While Danielle and Toure applaud Rihanna’s achievement, particularly because she’s self-made, they argue that the mere existence of billionaires is … problematic.
In a world in which so few have so much, can we ask the super-wealthy to help solve big problems? And what, if anything, do Black billionaires owe Black communities?
Rihanna made her name as a bestselling pop star, but her beauty and fashion businesses make up the lion’s share of her fortune. In addition to the lingerie brand Savage x Fenty (valued at $1 billion), Rihanna owns half of Fenty Beauty, the cosmetics brand she founded in 2017.
Valued conservatively at $2.8 billion, Fenty Beauty is a joint venture with French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH –– run by Bernard Arnault, the world’s second-richest person after Jeff Bezos. (Real-time Forbes numbers occasionally have Arnault on top.)
Fenty Beauty products are innovative (and popular) because they are offered in an inclusive range of skin tones.
“Salute to her,” says Toure. “But all of y’all out here celebrating this like it’s some communal victory.”
He thinks that “billionaires represent the failure of capitalism,” in the sense that billions of people are poor but a few thousand hold more than 60% of the world’s wealth.
Danielle thinks so many folks, especially Black people, applaud Rihanna because she’s truly self-made.
“Rihanna is an island girl who grew up with deep roots, who didn't come from much, but had an extraordinary talent,” she says. “Then she was able, through her learnings and failings and mentorship, to create this incredible brand on her own terms.”
Toure does note that Rihanna’s success “is differentiated from all white billionaires’ success, which always includes white privilege.”
“Which always includes daddy’s money,” Danielle adds.
So why is another billionaire a problem? What good, if any, can they do in the world? Do Black billionaires have an obligation to Black communities?
Swipe on your Gloss Bomb. Let’s get into it.
Episode Highlights –– On Black Billionaires
Billionaires = Capitalism in decline
Rihanna doesn’t have family money or white privilege to stand on, which definitely speaks to her talent as a businesswoman.
But Toure argues that any billionaire is inherently problematic: “You cannot have somebody acquiring that much money without other people being in economic and financial pain.”
In our current era, we’re witnessing the “greatest disparity in terms of wealth inequality in the history of the United States, perhaps in the history of the world,” he notes. “The top 1% in America have more wealth than the bottom 90%.”
That’s neither economically or politically sustainable, Toure adds.
“Here’s the game: Billionaires give money to politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they work together to create policies that allow billionaires to create more money, allow them to create monopolies, trademarks and copyrights –– all sorts of favorable business practices, which then leads them to make even more money. And they give even more money to politicians.”
And round and round it goes.
Lifestyles of the rich –– and richer
With all of that money pinging around between the super-rich and the political class, none seem to be accountable to anyone.
“The dangerous thing about billionaires on both sides of the aisle … they present both the dream and the nightmare that we in America cling to … the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’”
That OG TV show primed us for years of watching the Kardashians (and “Housewives,” and countless others) who make us think we know how the other half, er, one percent, lives.
But Danielle always wonders: How did they get there? If I were afforded the same opportunities, would I be able to do that?
The backstories of people like Rihanna and Kanye West “make us believe that at some point in time, we too can be this thing,” she adds. “What endears us to Black billionaires … is they started out fairly normal, whether it was poor –– or middle class, like Kanye West. They had this magic about them.”
That rags-to-Yeezys story seems like a fairy tale. The 21st century Cinderella story, says Danielle, would be that Cindy pitches “Shark Tank” and sells her products on QVC.
Why the billionaire club isn’t a meritocracy
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that building outrageous wealth is a strict meritocracy, says Toure, “where billionaires are just smarter, just worked harder, just did it better than people who only made triple-digit millions –– who did better than people who ONLY made double-digit millions.”
There are plenty of situations in which people become billionaires through not-necessarily-illegal but questionable methods, to say nothing of technically illegal but far-too-common things like insider trading.
Others are completely above-board but ultimately damaging to the working class: Amazon, for instance, is incentivized with attractive tax breaks to build fulfillment centers in particular communities. Every Walmart store represents at least $1 million in local or state government incentives, while many of its employees are working below minimum wage and need other jobs to survive.
“Amazon quite often hires planning to fire employees before they get to a certain level of benefits they’d have to pay,” Toure points out. “This is part of why Jeff Bezos is able to make so much money –– or the Walton family … They're paying the people who work for them [virtually] nothing.”
While billionaires like Bezos and the Waltons get richer by depressing the wages of the poorest among us, our politicians –– who are supposed to be fighting for us –– can’t pass legislation for a federally mandated $15 minimum wage.
“Because why? It would hurt companies,” Danielle argues. “That’s always the rhetoric. And honestly, it's not just Republicans we hear it from. We need to protect companies, because we’ve turned companies into people.”
What would happen if everyone actually earned a living wage?
“Maybe your CEO will have one less house, maybe your shareholder will take one less trip,” she says.
But it would be a life-changer for those who struggle to put food on the table.
Why Rihanna’s victory isn’t ‘communal’
Toure has noticed that negative comments about Rihanna’s billionaire status are met with: She doesn't owe us anything. It's her money. Why are you telling people what they should be doing with their money?
“That's a pervasive attitude,” he says. “And it’s part of why they don’t have to do anything. There’s somehow the notion that billionaires have seeded us with a communal victory. They won the game, they should be celebrated.”
And so the poorest people often agree that the wealthiest should do however they please. But it seems that they’re not understanding exactly how immense that wealth is. Billionaires have more money than they (and their progeny) could ever spend.
That kind of wealth couldn’t even be “pissed away by a fool grandson,” Toure adds.
Money: $leep on it
We can’t really talk about Jeff Bezos and Rihanna as if they’re in the same stratosphere. For context, Bezos’ net worth hovers just under $200 billion (built on the backs of countless underpaid, job-insecure workers). Rihanna’s is $1.7 billion, and Fenty Beauty reportedly pays an average hourly wage of $28.
We can assume, however, that Rihanna –– like another multi-billionaire, Warren Buffett –– pays taxes at a lower rate than her assistant. Buffett himself has famously made the point that this inequality is plain wrong.
But if your wealth comes from investments like property and stocks, it’s taxed differently than income (aka a salary or an hourly rate). The “working” and middle classes make money “from time,” says Toure.
“When I’m on the clock, I’m making money. When I am not on the clock, I am not making money.”
The upper classes make money from money: assets like homes, stocks and Bitcoin, that rise in value. Assets that compound in their sleep.
If you own stock in Apple or Tesla, it’s almost like Tim Cook and Elon Musk are working for you. But investing in the stock market does involve a certain amount of risk.
And the idea of building wealth is foreign to people who only know risk, “people who literally are just trying to get stable … If people’s basic needs are not met, you're telling them to walk into five-lane highway traffic and hope they don’t get run over,” Danielle says.
‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’
When Danielle worked for Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, the nascent consumer protection agency in New York City wanted to roll out a financial literacy program in public schools.
“When I was growing up, we learned how to fucking sew in home ec and bake a motherfucking pie,” she says. “But ain’t nobody teaching you how to save your money, invest in stocks, balance a checkbook, do tax deductions.”
But, Danielle explains, there was pushback on financial literacy education.
“Now I understand why,” she says. “Because when you are financially literate and no longer need to suckle on the teat of any of these capitalistic systems, when you’re able to build on your own, you don’t need them … If you were to give people tools to do better, they’re actually going to do better … and start holding you to account for the things you’re doing.”
Danielle has always believed wholeheartedly in the public education system.
“It's why I became a teacher,” she says. “It's why I wanted to do education policy, because if we can teach young people about global citizenship, about financial literacy, that’s how we create a better world.”
As she got older, she began to really understand Audre Lorde’s assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
We can’t rely on “the very class of people that are keeping us oppressed for their benefit to teach us how to get free.”
A ‘golden ticket’ in a broken system
We tend to create deities of billionaires, assuming they’re somehow more clever or motivated than we are.
And “we don't necessarily want to fix the system because we all think we're sitting on Willy Wonka's golden ticket, and at some point we're going to be able to cash it in,” says Danielle.
It’s paradoxical, but that’s why so many poor folks still vote for conservatives: They don't want to change a system they could potentially at some point in their life benefit from.
But how do Black billionaires affect Black communities? From LeBron James to Michael Jordan to Sean “Diddy” Combs, Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z) and Rihanna, what do they mean to us and what, if anything, do we get from them?
“Where is the direct benefit to us?” asks Toure. “I don't see it.”
He applauds LeBron James for his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, and Oprah for her