Stacks of one hundred dollar bills pass through a circulator machine in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I have found that when somebody or something is remorselessly mocked in my Twitter feed, there is usually something to be said in their defense. Which brings me to the controversy over presidential candidate Howard Schultz and the word “billionaire.”

Before I turn to Schultz and his supposed gaffe, here are some perspectives of my own.

My parents taught me never to ask a person how much he or she earns. I was told that it was rude, and I still believe that. It follows that we also should not ask people about their net wealth. And, out of politeness, perhaps it is also inappropriate to openly discuss the range of their net wealth.

About half of all Americans have a net wealth of zero, but I would not feel comfortable calling any specific person a “zero net wealther.” It is not just the inelegance of the term; it’s that I would feel I was objectifying the person. In more general contexts I feel comfortable referring to the number of people with no net wealth, or describing per capita incomes. For an individual, I would try to communicate that information in a slightly more indirect manner.

I would hesitate, for example, before referring to someone publicly as “in the $150,000 range of net wealth,” even if most people knew that to be true. If I were a real-estate broker, I might talk about a customer this way, but it would be in a private context with another broker. Even then, calling someone “my $350,000 customer” or some such isn’t something that would endear me to Miss Manners.

You might feel it is different when a person’s net wealth is very high, such as when the word billionaire is deployed. But that distinction does not sit easy with me. If we use the word billionaire for this reason, then aren’t we also sending a negative message about the non-billionaires? At any rate, the people mocking Schultz the most do not seem to be trying to give the word billionaire positive connotations.

You might also think the word billionaire is different because today’s billionaires exercise so much political power. But while it is perfectly fine to observe that billionaires have too much political power, it does not necessarily follow that it is OK to casually describe individuals by their net wealth. Linguistic objectification is often a preliminary step toward making others seem less human or less deserving of respect. Even if you think billionaires should pay more in taxes, or should otherwise have restricted privileges, that is a dangerous way to get there.

To be sure, the news media are in a somewhat different position. In a story about Richard Branson buying a private island in the Caribbean, it is natural to describe him as “the billionaire entrepreneur,” to set the context for readers. And Branson, as a public figure to some extent, cannot expect complete privacy in this regard.

Still, even in an age of social media, I see a legitimate distinction between how the press reports information to the public and how individuals speak on their own behalf — and that again militates in favor of some indirectness, some unwillingness to speak too brazenly about the wealth of other individuals.

Unfortunately, there are not many useful alternatives to the word billionaire. I did an internet search, and the ostensible synonyms include “richling,” “moneybags,” “tycoon” and “plutocrat,” hardly improvements — and there are worse terms yet. Schultz used the phrase “people of means,” which is broader, perhaps appropriately (if you think billionaires are a problem, perhaps you also worry about those worth $900 million). But it sounds so stilted and artificial that it just might end up drawing more attention to … billionaires.

Now to turn to what Schultz actually said. How it has been described on the internet — “Howard Schultz says billionaires should be referred to as ‘people of means’ or ‘people of wealth,’” says one tweet, while a headline reads, “Howard Schultz Prefers You Use Another Term Besides ‘Billionaire’” — is not a good description of what happened.

In an interview, Schultz was asked whether billionaires have too much power. He responded by noting that the moniker “billionaire” has become a “catchphrase” and proceeded to reframe the question: “I would rephrase that and I would say that people of means have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair.” So he didn’t necessarily disagree with the premise of the question. Nor did he say that other people shouldn’t use the term “billionaires.”

For the record, he also noted that such people have “unbelievable influence,” and that speaks to the problem of inequality. And he included corporations (not just people) and the political ideologies of the two major parties as part of the problem.

Is that such a terrible answer? Not only on the merits, but also in explaining why Schultz might want to move away from the term “billionaire” as the sole locus of blame? Then again, maybe that’s just what you would expect a billionaire to say.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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