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The myth of self-made billionaires.

It is no secret that the public loves to hear stories regarding self-made billionaires. You can find stories like that everywhere, from the news, tv shows, movies, books, and even political panels, and some of these stories go way back in history, into the most troubled era of the 20th century. The narrative of these stories is that these self-made billionaires are people who, unlike the aristocrats and monarchs, did not simply inherit their wealth from their family’s privilege, but they created their “own” wealth starting from zero. This myth though can be misleading, hiding historical truths, as well as financial facts for these so-called self-made people. At the heart of every favourable depiction of a billionaire is the myth of a success story with just sheer hard work and grit.

Giving people the perception that anybody could one day become a billionaire. That all these billionaires were once just like you, that they too had a 9-5 job and hated it too. That they also had trouble paying their bills, but instead of complaining, like all the others, they just “worked harder” and eventually after all these work weeks they were able to lift themselves from their social class and from the 99% of the population, they moved to the 1%. After all, it is so simple, for this narrative. You can be a simple fast-food worker, and magically after a few years of entrepreneurship, you can be a self-made billionaire. This perception is so wrong and misleading that in order to explain it, we should start from the basics. For starters, only a diminutive percentage of people ever become billionaires, for example, in a country with the most billionaires, like the United States, only 0.0002% of the population reaches the dream of becoming a billionaire.

One of the most beloved stories are the ones of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Jeff Bezos, in his myth, is depicted as a young guy who built a strong work ethic, which eventually landed him a spot at The University of Princeton, then on Wall Street and finally pushed him to one day risk it all on the crazy idea of selling books on the internet and eventually become a billionaire. Starting amazon out of a garage with nothing but a dream, and finally, his company becomes the internet giant it is today. Elon Musk’s myth narrative tells a very similar story, of an industrious kid bullied for being too nerdy and into science fiction, who climbed out of adversity and overcame all the “common” American hurdles of student loan debt and people not believing in him with the sheer ingenuity of his entrepreneurship. Creating the overall image of self-made success. Without mentioning the initial three hundred thousand dollar investment that Jeff Bezos received from his affluent parents. Or about Elon Musk’s family having ownership of a lucrative emerald mine and his father being a property developer with lots of connections with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Both of them did not start from anything and they did not get there alone.

A lot of the billionaires are sitting at the top of our social hierarchy, with their family wealth playing an important role in their success. It should come as no surprise that the great majority of billionaires have similarly favourable advantages like racial or gender ones.  People who face the fewest societal hurdles, overwhelmingly dominate the Forbes rankings while women and people from racial minority groups only make up a fraction. But privilege doesn't explain every single billionaire's climb to the top. Even if we live aside the exploitation occurring in new billionaires, like Beyonce's Ivy Park sweatshops. Sweatshops where workers, often children, make literal pennies in unsafe conditions with exploitative work. Of course, stories like that, stay away from the spotlight, to propagandize the narrative of self-made billionaires, especially if those happen to be beloved and talented celebrities.

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Another example comes again from Elon Musk, who in so many ways has criticized the government, for intervening in private entrepreneurship. While some of his companies like Space X would have no hope of existing without the government's absurd 4.9 billion dollars in loans and tax breaks. In other words, government subsidies are granted from public money only for the profits to be privatized by people who hoard wealth. Large amounts of government funds produce the innovations needed for life-saving inventions, only to eventually be appropriated by these billionaires where profits stay squarely within the hands of a few executives who jack up prices and strand countless people without access to these inventions.

Today, after the recent news of Elon Musk firing 50 per cent of Twitter’s employees. In addition to the fresh news of Marc Zuckerberg’s firing 11,000 Meta employees. We can see that creating myths for people like billionaires can create a distorted narrative, far away from historical events and facts. As well as, we risk creating a depiction that might justify violations of working rights or unethical actions, such as data rights violations and massive dismissals of employees. Believing in the freedom of expression, I caution writers, readers, directors and viewers to not create or buy into any narratives, but always think with the necessary responsibility and caution, while searching for the truth, or while describing someone’s career.  

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