Billionaires used to be a rare breed once, a number so astronomical we couldn’t even fathom that an individual could ever amass such a fortune. Yet, there are 2755 billionaires in the world in 2021, about 660 more than a year ago – an increase during a pandemic. Shocking, right? And the topic of billionaires is what Darryl Cunningham, creator of the web-comic Super Sam and John-of-the-Night, and Psychiatric Tales, wants to dive into – Scrooge McDuck-like – with his newest graphic novel, Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful. Cunningham lifts the proverbial rock to see the inner workings of what helped these billionaires rise to the top.
There are 4 (technically 5) billionaires focuses on: Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers (Charles & David), and Jeff Bezos. Even if these names sound unfamiliar, you might be surprised to learn how much influence they wield right in front of your eyes without realizing it. Cunningham acknowledges that while there are female billionaires in the world, which would be an interesting book, the values of society tend to be those of white males – they are the ones who pull the levers of power and influence media, politics, and the economy.
Though Rupert Murdoch’s public image is someone who’s skeptical of the elite and unpretentious, it’s not surprising to learn he comes from an elite background himself. His father, Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch, established a national chain of media outlets by the mid-1930s. From here Rupert only grew it further using strategic manipulation and political friendships that led to ownership of media outlets in Australia, UK, and the US. He then leveraged that power to create more influence within the media to certain political leanings.
The Koch brothers’ power lies in oil and gas, but its beginnings came from the relationships their father, Fred Koch, had with Stalin in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In the years following, the two brothers, Charles and David, increased their interests in politics, criminal justice reform, fighting climate change, manipulating the education system to brainwash people, and aligning themselves with the Republican party to undercut the Democrats, not to mention their involvement with polluting the air and waters in many states.
Lastly, Jeff Bezos and Amazon. From a working class background, Bezos was always bright, and worked at multiple jobs before ending up at a hedge fund investment firm, where he was inspired to create Amazon. Besides focusing on low pricing, Bezos also zeroed in on customer service, creating the one-click buy that’s so alluring to customers. Once the Kindle was launched, Bezos created the digital marketplace he’d always wanted, but it wouldn’t come without a fight. If his competitors didn’t sell to him, he would undersell them. Meanwhile, his employees are pushed to their limits.
It’s safe to say that these four billionaires didn’t get to where they are by thinking about the general populace and the people they would impact; they were only focused on power and profit. Cunningham does a great job mapping out each man’s journey, and all the backhanded/backdoor dealings that happened. Sure, it’s terrible how they treat their employees but in the end, is this surprising or shocking? Not at all. These four men are renowned for their ruthlessness.
However, we do have to note that Cunningham has chosen specific examples to illustrate his point in this book. Yes, billionaires can be ruthless, especially the ones he doesn’t favor. This isn’t to say all billionaires are bad, or that only some of them are good – it’s really based on your perspective. There are billionaires who are massively respected by the collective until they show their flawed human side. Then, they sort of disappear from the ‘popular’ billionaire column and relegated elsewhere until they do something that society deems is worthy of praise.
Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful is a simple but slightly skewed picture of how Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and Bezos all became billionaires. The information Cunningham presents is compelling but, as I mentioned before, not surprising. At some point, that amount of power and influence corrupts people, as seen in the examples he lays out. So what can be done? Cunningham offers some solutions that would only work if everyone could agree to it. And that’s where the problem really lies – can we ever agree on anything as a collective? We’ll have to see.