When I was a kid, I went into a shop with my mother and accidentally broke a fine ceramic bowl by not watching where I was going.
“You break it, you own it,” she told me sternly. She paid the shopkeeper for the bowl and then deducted the cost from my small weekly allowance in installments that seemed to stretch forever.
At least I learned something about taking responsibility (and looking where I was going).
“You break it, you own it” was the rule then.
Now, the rule seems just the opposite – at least if you’re rich enough: “You own it, you can break it.”
You own it, you can break it — no matter how big or valuable it may be. No matter how many others might be harmed. No matter how much distrust leaches into society as a result.
Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, paid a fortune for Twitter and is now busily destroying it – firing half its employees, causing chaos on the platform, making advertisers flee, and threatening bankruptcy.
Last Thursday, after the resignations of its top officers responsible for combating hate speech and misinformation, the Federal Trade Commission said it was watching Twitter with "deep concern." But as a practical matter, what is the FTC going to do? It doesn’t have the tools it needs to monitor Twitter and Musk.
Or consider Sam Bankman-Fried, who was said to be worth $25 billion at age 30. He founded and ran the cryptocurrency exchange FTX -- until last Friday when FTX announced it was filing for bankruptcy and that Bankman-Fried had resigned.
Seems FTX was a Ponzi scheme that got out of hand. The exchange owes customers as much as $8 billion. Talk about breakage.
Bankman-Fried is now under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it's too late for the Justice Department and the SEC to do anything but close the barn door. Crypto continues to be almost totally unregulated.
And then there’s Peter Thiel, also among the richest of the rich, who plunked down an astounding $30 million for the senate campaigns of Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio.
Both candidates made election denial central to their campaigns, with Masters warning conspiratorially about election security as recently as Nov. 8 in response to long lines at voting booths in Arizona’s Maricopa County. “Hard to know if we’re seeing incompetence or something worse,” he tweeted.
Vance won; Masters lost. Regardless, Thiel’s money has contributed to shattering our democracy. Partly courtesy of the Supreme Court’s grotesque reading of the First Amendment, we have no laws that limit how much people like Thiel can spend on elections.
These billionaires are presumed to be free from responsibility for their breakages because they bought what they’ve had a hand in destroying. So under the rules of modern capitalism, they have a right to do whatever they want with their money. Right?
Wrong. This is far too narrow a view of ownership and responsibility – especially when so many others are injured.
Millions of people have relied on Twitter, FTX, and our political system. They aren’t mere collateral damage. They’re bearing a big part of the cost.
Bankruptcy is no answer. Twitter may go bankrupt and FTX is already in bankruptcy (and many believe our entire democracy is heading toward bankruptcy). But bankruptcy is designed to salvage whatever can be saved for creditors. It doesn’t reclaim public trust.
Public trust is built up over years — trust that a communications platform like Twitter warrants the attention many have given it, trust that a financial market like FTX will be there for its investors, trust that a political system will respond to the will of the people.
Just because Musk, Bankman-Fried, and Thiel paid big money for these things doesn’t give them the moral right to destroy this trust — undermining a key communications infrastructure, financial markets, or political systems.
Ownership doesn’t give them a moral claim on the trust they’ve exploited and squandered.
Just because they’re rich doesn’t give them a right to own and break whatever they want. “You own it, you can break it” is an insane norm for a complex society.
If the super-wealthy are going to control more of the planet’s riches than at any time in nearly a century, we need stronger laws and rules protecting the rest of us from their careless predations.
This article was originally published on Robert Reich’s Blog.