'Who wants to be a trillionaire': The game show is nearing its climax

The top few wealthiest individuals on this planet seem to be in the hot seats of a game show, ‘Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?’ which is nearing its climax. In 1916, John D Rockefeller became the first billionaire in history. 83 years later, Bill Gates became the first centibillionaire — worth $100 billion. A billionaire is no longer rare. Forbes identified 2,640 billionaires in 2023, and the world is getting ready for its first trill.

Isn’t a trillion dollars, or one thousand billion dollars – a lakh crore dollars – a mind-boggling sum of money that exceeds the GDP of many countries – and is that of oil-rich Saudi Arabia? It may be used to purchase all shares of McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, and still have billions left over to buy Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich – the world’s top six football teams, all NFL and IPL teams, and much more.

In 2017, American billionaire Mark Cuban predicted that the first trills will be entrepreneurs working with AI. It makes more sense in this ChatGPT era. According to a new Oxfam’s Inequality Inc. report, the world might witness its first trill within a decade.

Predicting when trills will emerge is a fancy game by itself. According to Oxfam’s report, since 2020, the five wealthiest people – Tesla CEO Elon Musk, LVMH owner Bernard Arnault, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and investor Warren Buffett – have more than doubled their wealth. Musk has made the most significant contribution, increasing his wealth by 162% annually on average since 2019.

Indeed, EVs have driven into the mainstream. If their fortune keeps growing at the same rate, it’s predicted that Musk will become Trill No. 1 by 2032, with Arnault, Bezos, Ellison, and Buffet to follow over the subsequent years.

Just before the pandemic, Bezos was widely perceived as the frontrunner in a 13-figure club by 2026, according to a 2020 Comparisun study. But things changed. In 2021, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted that Musk may become the first trill in history through SpaceX.Subsequently, according to a 2022 Tipalti Approve study, Musk was the first of 21 people who could attain this milestone in their lifetime, possibly in 2024. It was expected that Gautam Adani and Chinese internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming would follow. The list included Bezos, Arnault, Gates, Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Mukesh Ambani, Larry Page, and Steve Ballmer.It’s now evident that Musk will not make the trill grade by 2024. Progress graphs might have grown less steep in the post-pandemic setup. However, if the wealth of these contemporary Midases keeps increasing at the same rate as Oxfam’s analysis shows, will the underlying assumption hold? Will the world’s trillionaire trailblazers live up to forecasts? Only time will trill.

The term ‘trillionaire,’ however, may seem ugly for leftie-overs like Bernie Sanders, who came up with a radical idea in his 2023 book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, that the US government should confiscate 100% of any money earned by Americans over $999 million. He essentially proposed that billionaires shouldn’t exist.

Coinciding with Davos 2024, 260 ultrarich people signed a letter urging world leaders to tax their ‘extreme wealth’. Gates also favours higher taxation on the ultrawealthy. Despite such braking mechanisms and machinations, trills will arrive tomorrow. It’s also highly probable that the first trill in history will be a male American who already ranks among the world’s wealthiest.

There may be a point, however, where one’s wealth impedes the rate of return. However, the top few wealthiest in this game show are graciously aided by three major lifelines: AI, pandemic and wars, and a K-shaped economic recovery that widens the divide between rich people getting richer and, well, the other lot. Watch this space.

The writer is professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata


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