Texas Outlaw Writers: Those Wacky Billionaires Edition

Texas Outlaw Writers: Those Wacky Billionaires Edition
Rich Uncle Pennybags. Compound interest adds up.

We love billionaires! We like multi-millionaires, too... but there's nothing like a bunch of smart billionaires to light our way! They all got to be billionaires via their smarts, their tenacity, their work ethic, and their commitment to excellence... right? HA! I kid! Most were just smart enough to have wealthy parents! Silly!

OK. There are plenty of "self-made" gajillionaires. The most famous example is, of course, that golden-haired, tanned, Adonis-looking ex-president, Donald Trump. Trump used his wile, his guile, and his inimitable style to invest the over $400 million (in today's dollars) that he inherited from his father in the 90's and invest in various real estate deals and other schemes that are now worth less than what could have been earned through a simple S&P 500 indexed fund. (To be fair, he beat the market for years, but in the post-pandemic years, his real estate holdings are way down, and he lost a half billion in value on his "Truth Social" media company investment. The near future doesn't look good either, as he has some interest payments coming due and he is spending a lot of time and money on politics and legal defense.)

And yet, at least a third of the country believes he is a genius for making money and admire him for the wealth that he's "earned." The acerbic Fran Lebowitz once said:

“Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person. They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. Why are my ties not made of 400 acres of polyester?’ All that stuff he shows you in his house- the gold faucets- if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy.”

Lately, Trump and a few of his fellow financially "blessed" contemporaries have put to rest the idea that wealth equates with brilliance.

This last week, the Titan submersible vehicle was on a high-dollar tourist underwater expedition to view the Titanic shipwreck, 13,000 feet at the bottom of the North Atlantic. That's about 2.5 miles deep and at a pressure of around 375 atmospheres. That means every square inch of an object’s surface experiences the equivalent of 5,500 pounds of force. The Titan was designed and piloted by Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, a company that he founded to build submersibles for exploration, industrial use, and importantly, expensive adventure tourism. Stockton was a highly educated flight test engineer whose career took him from the skies down to deep ocean exploration. He had started SCUBA diving at 12.

He was wealthy and smart, and as a visionary, he attracted investment money and like-minded scientists and explorers. As he searched for small submersibles to buy and study, he found that there were very few available on the private market. Since it was new territory, there wasn't much in the way of government oversight or regulation to interfere while playing around in your own submarine. Rush was known to be brash and fearless, but his magnetic personality and confidence seemed to reassure colleagues and customers alike.

The Titan was truly innovative. He consulted with well-regarded scientists, Boeing and NASA engineers, and naval experts. Using cutting-edge technology, he built the Titan's hull cylinder out of carbon fiber, five inches thick. He bragged that "everyone said you couldn't build with this with carbon fiber." He boasted that he had "broken some rules" by using carbon fiber, but added,  "I think I've broken them with logic and good engineering behind me. Carbon fiber and titanium? There's a rule you don't do that. Well, I did." Like I said, brash.

There were a few folks, even within his company who argued that there were inherent problems in the design. These folks were ignored or let go.

And while much of the sub was cutting-edge tech, other parts were off-the-shelf or cobbled together. The believers loved the MacGuyver spirit, but to some it was indicative that there were MacGruber-style shortcuts, like the plastic PlayStation controller and LED lights that Rush bought from an RV shop. He told David Pogue of CBS News that “at some point, safety just is pure waste." He despised the thought of oversight, "the commercial sub industry is “obscenely safe” he told Smithsonian, “because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.”

Pogue actually went out to dive on the Titan. In his reporting, you can feel his excitement as he started out. By the time his trip was over, he was a bit more cautious.

Stockton Rush rejected regulation and like many adventurers, reveled in the idea of risk and overcoming obstacles (and proving the naysayers wrong.) But when it came to selling Titanic tours to his fellow explorers and wealthy adventure tourists, safety was the word. As Pogue pointed out, the various releases and liability waivers that customers were required to sign stressed that death was a possible outcome. But in most of the marketing collateral, safety was the number one selling point.    

Count how many times the words "safe" or "safety" are used.

Passenger Shahzada Dawood's net worth was estimated to be over a quarter of a billion dollars. He was the son of another Pakistani multi-millionaire, they were members of one of Pakistan's richest families. Dawood's son was also a passenger aboard the Titan. Billionaire Hamish Harding was also killed. Harding's company, Action Aviation, deals with British aircraft sales and acquisition. Harding was a pilot and adventurer, holding several Guiness World's records. One was for the fastest circumnavigation of Earth by airplane while crossing both poles. Paul-Henri Nargeolet was a retired French Naval commander and a deep sea diver. All of the passengers paid $250,000 for their seats on the submersible. It is said that their deaths were instant, that the almost unimaginable pressure at that depth crushed them instantly. Friends, family, crew members, and the public were absolutely shocked.

News coverage of the missing sub was heard around the world. It reminded me of little Jessica, the toddler that fell down a well in West Texas, or the young boys from Thailand trapped in a cave that was filling with water. Stories of innocent kids accidentally trapped and endangered by Mother Nature. The submersible was different, adults who were ostensibly comfortable with great risk and willing to put mortality on the line. (To be fair, Mr. Dawood's son was 19 and may not have appreciated the real risk that he was taking.)

During the news cycle, the search and finally the discovery of the Titan wreckage dominated all other coverage. It headlined every newscast and online publication. In contrast, a boat capsized in the Mediterranean on June 14, just 4 days before the Titan was declared missing. This boat was carrying up to 750 Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian refugees and migrants. Only 104 people have been rescued alive. The search and recovery for survivors and bodies for that wreck went on for days, but made very few headlines and was totally forgotten when the news shifted in full force to the Titan.

Here is what really shocked me: the fierce backlash that hit and hit hard. Before the submariners were known to be dead, social media lit up with jokes and memes about the failed expedition. Even after the deaths were confirmed, the dark humor and pointed jabs kept coming. Sure, there were a few people that were actually offended or sympathetic, some were indignant that trolls refused to respect the deceased or their memories, and some folks couldn't resist signaling their own virtue by lecturing others for being so dishonorable and having so little class.

In 2014, Nick Hanauer, a richie rich guy who was born into money and then bet his chips on a guy named Jeff Bezos, wrote an article for Politico entitled, The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats. Speaking to his fellow oligarchs, he said,

"If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when."

And so it hasn't happened yet. But the last president could see it, and knew how to leverage what he saw. He sensed that populist fever, and he had his hooks into them in pretty good. Hanauer again,

"You’re living in a dream world. What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible—for everybody. But especially for us."

So we chuckled at cartoons poking fun at the elite tourists that did not resurface after their ¼ $million Jules Verne Voyage. Maybe we're becoming a bit more cynical about the plight of the adventure-vacation class. Maybe it's dawning on more and more folks that what separates the billionaires from the rest of us isn't their brains, it's just their billions.

  • 19-year-old Elizabeth Holmes raised 700 million on the promise that her company "Theranos" was developing a medical device that could accurately and instantly run over 100 lab tests on a drop or two of blood. She would become a billionaire by the time she was 30. She would present herself in an affected, deep voice and an enigmatic personality. Her youth and striking good looks put her on every business magazine and made her a rock star in the business world. When insiders and a few journalists began to question the technology, they were threatened or sent packing. Whistleblowers finally revealed that she was using other companies' devices to run lab tests and still the company could not deliver the promised results. Holmes is now serving 11 years in prison.
  • Elon Musk... well, you know Elon. As the CEO of Tesla, he has overseen the development of one of the more popular electric cars. But he has never fulfilled various delivery promises, nor has he developed a completely "self-driving" car. Tesla has been sued several times for alleged software and hardware glitches in the car that has led to fatal accidents. Musk also bought Twitter in a fit of pique over perceived personal slights. After paying 44 billion for the company, it has lost 2/3 of its value. He has laid off over 80% of the staff, many are suing for wrongful termination. His SpaceX company which he is building in the hopes of colonizing Mars (as well as serve as a reduced cost satellite launch service) was nearly bankrupt after the first 2 or 3 rocket launches. As much as he likes to crap on government bureaucracies and inefficiencies and the power of the private sector, it was the federal government that awarded Musk contracts to use his vehicles to launch satellites that pulled him out of bankruptcy. They have received 15.3 billion in contracts since 2003. Musk had also planned to get cargo rockets to Mars by 2022 and crew to Mars by 2024. (You can see how that's working out.) He wants to escape as he predicts an apocalyptic event here on Earth.
  • Recently David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, oversaw Chris Licht, the new CEO of CNN as he put on a town hall for former President Trump. The show was a disaster as Trump and his hand-selected audience turned it into a romp, belittling and talking/cheering/booing over the sole anchor hosting the evening. CNN was on the ropes, and this we a supposed effort to bring fairness, moderation, and a right-wing viewpoint to CNN. It was a fiasco that led to a revolt from CNN staffers and a dive in their ratings. Zaslav let Licht take the fall and he was let go within a week. Zaslav had recently gutted the Discovery channel by removing what few science or nature shows were left and replacing them with even more cheap, inane reality shows. Rumors are that the beloved Turner Classic Movie Channel is next. To bring even more money into this example, billionaire investor John Malone - a legend in the cable TV business - is known to have an outsized, billionaire's influence on Zaslav's decision-making.
  • Leonard Leo, the leader of the Federalist Society, (the notorious group that promotes an ultra-conservative judiciary) has collected hundreds of millions for conservative judicial causes. The Federalist Society is the de facto clearing house for federal and Supreme Court judges. Leo also puts billionaires together with members of the judiciary. Remember Alito's recent fishing trip worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Leo hooked him up with hedge fund tycoon Paul Singer and businessman Robin Arkley II. Earlier, he had paired Clarence Thomas with his benefactor Harlan Crow. All of these players had business before the court.

These examples are just off the top of my head. Some bright minds (and bags of money,) yes. But worth the adoration and our complete deference? Almost all of those examples have been slightly to exceedingly crooked. Most have treated their workforce as inconsequential. Just those couple of the people listed there have an unbelievable amount of influence in the media or on the Supreme Court!

The amount of money that we're talking about is obscene. The majority of people see the difference between a million and a billion as the difference in the letters m and b. One million seconds is about 11 days. 1 billion seconds is about 31.5 years! Do you wanna spend a billion dollars?  At a rate of $1,000 a day, it would take you about 2,740 years before you ran out of money. That equates to $5,000 a day for more than 500 years or $100,000 every single day for 25 years.

And the wealth gap continues to grow.

HEY! YOU'RE A SOCIALIST COMMIE! Uh, no. But I wouldn't mind going back to some reasonable, progressive tax rates, along with some responsible corporate taxation. And fair wages for the working class. Maybe some laws that put some teeth in protecting unions and union members. These were things that built the post-war middle class.  Do conservatives want to return to the good old days? Maybe we could start by adopting some of these "traditional" economic ideas. Something has to give.

Because it seems that the sub is leaking a little bit.

And the pitchforks are coming.

Myra Jolivet just heard about the Musk-Zuckerberg "Cage Match," and poor thing, she didn't even know what a Cage Fight was. And now that she knows, she wishes she didn't. Are these two billionaire bros what passes for modern gladiators? Ewwwwwww!

Cage Fight Tech Titan Freak Show | Texas Outlaw Writers
If two tech titans abandon their dignity in order to get into a ring to fight; what do we call it besides pathetic? Would the Musk-Zuck Thrilla in Vanilla Be a Duel or More like Gladiators?

And speaking of billionaire wannabes, we haven't heard about the antics of Hunter Biden in what, five minutes? Partisans have pegged the Prodigal's net worth at over 200 million dollars, but no one can actually source that claim. With his book deal and some political "consultant" jobs, more realistic estimates put his net worth at a couple to a few million. Not chump change, to be sure, but he's not going to be building rocket ships to Mars anytime soon. Which is sad, Hunter wants that billionaire respect almost as badly as The Donald does.

While emulating the billionaire lifestyle, all those hookers and all that blow has gotten poor Hunter into a lot of trouble. ("Why can't you be more like your sainted brother? Why!?") With a past like his, the GOP attack machine never lets up. But is he really a criminal mastermind, (lessermind?) or just a doped up dope trying his best to "leverage" his last name? And who could we get to look into this?

Just when he was out, we pulled Roger Gray back in. He's hoping Hunter now goes off to the Island of broken toys and leaves us all alone.

Let This Be the Last of Hunter | Texas Outlaw Writers
Just take your deal and go away.

The recent tragedy of the Titan submersible has Outlaw Jim Moore pondering the fate of his mother’s family. She was from the island of Newfoundland, and grew up on the easternmost point of North America at a spot called Fort Amherst in St. John’s. The people of Newfoundland, Moore writes, seem to be constantly standing on some of history’s greatest stages, and there is as much tragedy as there is triumph. Both of those, Jim tells us, have touched his family, just like they have the rest of those islanders.

A Port in History’s Storm | Texas Outlaw Writers
The Titan submersible, carried past the narrows on a ship for a launch above the Titanic’s wreckage, now leaves its imprimatur of sadness on a people who have known too long and too well that the sea exacts a price for its glory and bounty, and preparation is the best hope for survival.