King of the dorks. Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

March 4, 2024   5 mins

“A million dollars isn’t cool,” Sean Parker explains to a jejune Mark Zuckerberg in the 2010 film The Social Network. “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” This single line of dialogue portended a major shift in global culture. “Cool” first emerged in the black community as an aesthetic disposition of calm detachment and disobedience. By the 21st century, the term had broadened out to include the accumulation of capital in the three-comma range. Today, a billion dollars serves as the most powerful status symbol for claiming membership in the ultra-elite.

According to Forbes’s 2023 list, 2,640 people on earth are billionaires. This number has near doubled in the past decade. The top individuals are familiar faces — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk — but the vast majority of billionaires are unknowns. Tetra Pak-heir Finn Rausing ($8.6 billion) is a niche figure by any measure. But still these billionaires wield extraordinary influence over the world’s economy, politics, and technology: from the Koch brothers’ heavy lobbying against climate action to the elevation of Right-wing speech on X after Musk’s acquisition. Adrienne LaFrance recently argued in The Atlantic that tech company CEOs use their clout to push policies under an ideology she labels “authoritarian technocracy”.

A billion dollars surely buys influence and fame, but does it make all billionaires cool? In other words, can billionaires directly shape the culture by inspiring mass imitation of their particular lifestyle choices? The classic theories of 19th-century sociologists Gabriel Tarde and Georg Simmel posit that culture “trickles down” from the top of society to the classes below. Yet this is not our reality today. Judging by the aesthetics spread by luxury fashion brands, Hollywood films and advertising, the “creative classes” — with celebrities as their elite segment — still seem to wield the most power in shaping mainstream tastes.

Why aren’t billionaires cool, then? “Trickle-down” theories of society require a well-established aristocratic or upper class of people who inhabit a rarefied world, but this doesn’t describe the current billionaire class very well. Instead, the term “billionaire” is best understood as the highest marker of success inside separate worlds of business, technology and entertainment, and each billionaire tends to socialise with like-minded people in their own milieu. There are only occasional crossovers. The Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference may be called a “summer camp for billionaires” but mere millionaires also attend.

In the past, the upper class more or less meant Old Money, and these families conspired to block the social elevation of New Money. Today, the billionaire class is a mix of “self-made” individuals and those born into oligarchic families. This discrepancy in backgrounds leads to varied tastes and dispositions. Unlike Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, who grew up middle class, the heirs of super-rich parents only know a life of mansions, preparatory schools and private jets. Political views also diverge wildly: Peter Thiel on the libertarian Right, George Soros on the liberal Left.

These inconsistencies blur the public’s understanding of billionaires as a unified class that can guide tastes. This is compounded by the fact that so many billionaires are, in recent parlance, “swagless”. Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates will never live down the video of their lumbering on-stage dancing during the Windows 95 launch. A few billionaires, including Jay-Z and Oprah, built their business empires on the love and respect of mass audiences long before their rise to the Forbes list. But the process doesn’t work in reverse: uncool people who become billionaires remain mostly uncool.

“So many billionaires are, in recent parlance, swagless.”

Another important factor is that the billion-dollar range of wealth may be so extreme as to cripple previous ways the rich achieved social influence. In his 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class, economist Thorstein Veblen published the canonical model of how wealth influences cultural values. Since raw wealth alone can’t bring esteem, the rich must convert their assets into three types of inimitable display: conspicuous waste, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous consumption. These actions lead to certain preferences — for silver tableware or fancy cars — that set the standards for the rest of society.

But in our hypermodern world, Veblen’s techniques no longer work very well. Conspicuous leisure is taboo in a hyper-capitalist world where money never sleeps; the rich are often now busier than the poor. And market-inspired values have made us too rational to be impressed by conspicuous waste. Musk looks foolish for paying $44 billion to purchase Twitter and instituting a series of changes that caused a 71% drop in value.

Most notably, conspicuous consumption doesn’t help billionaires stand out with personal lifestyle choices such as accessories, vehicles, and vacations. There are no watches or handbags 1,000-times more expensive than what basic millionaires already pay. The priciest car today costs $30 million, not $300 million. As it stands, it’s almost impossible for billionaires to achieve Veblen-like distinction through buying consumer goods. Even with fortress-like mansions, giant yachts, great artworks, and private jets they can’t begin to display the full extent of their wealth. And so their visible choices aren’t more distinct than other influential millionaires.

And where we do glimpse into billionaire taste, much of it tends to be underwhelming. They often appear in gossip magazines looking just like us. Bezos arrives at fancy parties dressed like a mid-tier invite. Zuckerberg wears a uniform of generic grey T-shirts — and posts videos of his training in mixed martial arts. Musk spends his time trolling liberals on X.

But perhaps billionaires are wisely limiting their own public expenditure in order to divert attention from their vast fortunes. Populist economics have taken over both political parties in the US, and there is a growing call for a new economic paradigm to curb extreme income inequality. In her new book, Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth, philosopher Ingrid Robeyns argues that the mere existence of billionaires creates severe distortions in democratic society. One example is that the prodigious success of Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel convinced many Millennials that if they engaged in never-ending hustle, they too could achieve such riches. Even the most pro-capitalist youth, however, would likely draw a line between the right to enjoy one’s billions earned in entrepreneurial success and dollars inherited from a purple birth. The best way to keep money in the family is to disappear from public view.

“Perhaps billionaires are limiting their own public expenditure in order to divert attention from their vast fortunes.”

This all suggests that there is a long-term incentive for Right-wing billionaires to stay uncool. Their stiffness and geekiness obscures their broader social influence and helps build alliances with other groups who also feel excluded from urban professional class tastes. Precisely because they are not cultural elites, billionaires can win over lower-income groups, who, rationally, would benefit from the redistribution of their wealth. And they can cast themselves as saviours in the Right-wing war against urban and educated “elites”. Former President Donald Trump’s crassness — a preference for steaks well done, ornate apartment design, and Stormy Daniels — embodies what his less wealthy supporters understand as his inherent opposition to their enemies in the professional classes. Business Insider’s Savannah Bradley recently made a similar point about billionaire singer Taylor Swift: she dresses in outmoded ways to better connect with her outmoded audience.

As billionaires are small in number, they need to assemble broader coalitions of anti-liberals in order to stop populist movements from passing more progressive economic policies and regulations of their businesses. In this, their failure to be stylish is an immense help. Every time we mock billionaires’ dance moves and try-hard leather jackets, we may be further obfuscating their vast influence in American life.