Who are the elite of America? If you watch Fox, or spend time in rightwing media bubbles, you’ll probably think of celebrities, musicians, actors and athletes – all those fashionable bicoastal entertainers who look down on hard-working middle class Americans.
A recent ProPublica report based on IRS tax files from 2013 to 2018 shows this vision of America’s upper-crust is thoroughly misleading.
The richest are not actors or singers.
They’re tech moguls, hedge funders and heirs.
The right-wing wants you to think the US is controlled by nefarious culture workers. In fact, the 400 people who comprise the upper echelon of US wealth are virtually all white male capitalists.
Celebrities are rich, but not that rich.
The resentment directed at them is a convenient way to target groups that the right-wing doesn’t believe is entitled to wealth. Meanwhile, the people who are truly the most powerful are celebrated for their business acumen in sitting back and collecting investment income.
The average American earns about $40,000 a year. The top 5 percent earns at least $198,000. The top 1 percent earns around $485,000.
Many celebrities make much more than this. Kim Kardashian is believed to make between $50 million and $80 million a year. LeBron James’ salary is $41 million a year, but with endorsement deals and other income, ProPublica found that he made $96 million a year.
For normal people, that’s an unimaginable amount of money. But it didn’t put James in the top 400 earners, according to ProPublica.
The 400th (anonymous) person on the list made $110 million. The highest earner, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, made $2.85 billion. (In fact, Gates avoided $125 million in taxes — more than Lebron James’ entire income — because of lower taxation rates on dividend income.)
Gates and tech billionaires, who comprise 10 of the 15 top earners, generally make their money from dividends and stock sales. Similarly, hedge fund managers — a fifth of the top 400 — make their income from stock trades and other financial manipulations.
The list includes 11 heirs of the Walton (Walmart) fortune and four heirs of Amway’s Richard DeVos. They also make their money from dividends and investment income, according to ProPublica. In other words, the highest incomes come from the accumulation of capital.
These people aren’t workers.
But they acquire excess value from workers.
In contrast, celebrities earn money by providing goods and services. Business Insider reports that Taylor Swift makes most of her income from touring. Her “Reputation” show in 2018 brought in $345 million, shattering the previous tour record set by the Rolling Stones.
Similarly, athletes make their money from working on the court or the field. James earns some $40 million of his $96 million yearly haul from his salary. Tennis players make money through methods like appearance fees, prize money, endorsement deals and club tennis deals. Their income comes primarily from playing, from lending their name, from showing up — from work, not shifting money around.
Celebrities also differ in that they’re less male and less white.
The top 15 earners on the Forbes list are all white and, except for Laurene Powell Jobs, businesswoman and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, they are all men.
The top 10 earning athletes of 2021 were also men, but more than half were Black or people of color. The three highest-paid movie roles of 2021 went to Black men (Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith and Denzel Washington). The fourth went to Angelina Jolie. Jennifer Lawrence and Emily Blunt were also in the top 10. The highest-paid musicians of 2020 included Swift, Celine Dion, Billie Eilish, Drake and Lil Baby.
The very richest are overwhelmingly white male business owners, heirs and capitalists who make money through the stock market. The (less rich) richest are often not white, often not men and make their money by working — not infrequently at actual physical labor.
Yet though celebrities are workers who frequently come from less privileged backgrounds, they are framed as entitled or as undeserving of their wealth. Blur frontman Damon Albarn this year falsely claimed Taylor Swift didn’t write her own songs, for example — a fairly common way to suggest pop stars don’t deserve their success.
Conservative commentators were quick to insist athletes protesting police violence by taking a knee were “ungrateful”. When singer Stevie Wonder expressed support for the protest, former Congressman Joe Walsh called him, “another ungrateful Black multimillionaire.”
The public often criticizes celebrities for their spending habits, or for luxury purchases, as singer and rapper Cardi B pointed out.
Fans feel justified telling celebrities to donate to charities or spend money in more generous ways. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is widely lauded for his giving. But despite his 2010 pledge to donate half his wealth to charity before he dies, Gates’ total net worth now has grown from $53 million when he made the pledge to $115 billion today.
Billionaires are notoriously stingy. Often their “donations” are to private foundations set up as tax shelters and under the donors' control.
Forbes found that billionaires are giving away less and less. Of the top 400 billionaires, 156, including Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, gave less than 1 percent of their wealth to charity in 2021.
Gates, Musk, Bezos and people like them are seen as brilliant, generous and worthy precisely because they are white men who don’t have to work. For the rightwing (and not just for the right), certain people are supposed to be at the top and as long as they are, all is well.
When Black people, women and others move upwards, though, that’s a problem. Celebrities are viewed as undeserving elitists not because they’re rich, but because they’re the wrong rich. They have usurped power and privilege rightly belonging to (white, male) capitalists.
Obviously, Swift, James, Cardi B and their celebrity brethren are incredibly well off. They don’t necessarily need or deserve pity.
But when prejudice and presuppositions prevent us from identifying who has the most money and the most power — that’s a problem for everyone.