THE BLOG
10/07/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Virtual Numbers and the Young Billionaires

One of the characteristics of money is that it is virtual and almost unfathomable. For the wealthiest and the poorest there is never enough. For the wise, money becomes a tool, an expression of intention. For the fool, it becomes the only goal, a never satisfying end in itself that takes over. Consider the unfathomable trillions we have spent on war in the last decade while contemplating the latest crop of billionaires noted by Forbes. Such large money numbers are imponderable at first. They need a context and comparables. Where did the money come from, where did it go and why? This is like understanding the whole ecosystem of a Northern evergreen forest compared to a Southern rainforest. But this cannot be done in depth without appreciating the millions of individual trees and plants themselves. Human beings are much more individualized than trees, which makes the generalizations of economists, historians and market pundits touting these big numbers all the more questionable. The way we relate to money is a big part of our individual story. Money is an expression of who we are.

There were a few thirty-something billionaires that seem especially intriguing to consider. I wonder how they relate to their numbers. Putting their wealth aside, how might they relate to the number of soldiers who had boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq that are also in their thirties and will never walk again? What about the trillion dollars it will take to cover the 900,000 claiming new veterans disabilities for the years ahead? Or the millions who marched for the climate? Caught in the speed of life, can people with so much wealth take the time to ponder such numbers? Do they have time to think about how much they could do to change the way the world works? Or do they just stay laser focused on "making" more money?

Clearly this varies greatly. The youngest woman billionaire ever, at 30, has been working for years on a new type of blood test that is less invasive. This in itself is a positive and beneficial goal. It will scale because of its relevance, and her stock is valuable because the company is meeting a real need. Her wealth is wrapped up in her cause. This focus on a "good goal" is less obvious for those billionaires connected to Facebook, Twitter, and, more recently, the online taxi service, Uber, the fastest growing texting service, Whatsapp, or the cool action video camera, GoPro. But for some of these billionaires there is evidence of a conscience and a desire to give back. My question is what will they do with the billions as they diversify away from their single stock? Will their investments reflect their values? Will they take the Divest/Invest pledge along with the Buffett pledge to give away half their wealth over time?

Whether they are contemplating such worthy things or not, many of their thirty-something peers are deep in debt, in a nation that has squandered trillions in war in the last decade. Oil was at $25/ barrel in 2005 and the nation had enjoyed a balanced budget and little debt due to the "peace dividend" of the Clinton years. It was our recent hope that we would be again entering another time of peace and prosperity, but instead now it seems we are positioning ourselves for more expensive militarization.

According to Linda Bilmes, the co-author with Joseph Stiglitz of The Three Trillion Dollar War, in the most recent quarterly newsletter of Economists for Peace and Security or EPS, the current militarization may only cost in the range of tens of billions of dollars per year versus the hundreds of billions that was required to have boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan each year. That is better; but consider what else might be done with so much money. I call this "less bad."

If these young billionaires, along with taxpayers, pension funds and other private investors would collaborate and invest in improvements for our world, in what might tentatively be called the "good," imagine what could be done! If the wealthy ones around the globe who recently marched in support of a healthy planet actually invested their resources in solutions to climate risk rather than owning stock portfolios that support the military/industrial status quo... now we're talking!

I have never loved crowds. I missed a chance to march with Martin Luther King, left Woodstock early despite the music, and stayed in my darkroom at Yale when 10,000 came to protest the legal system. I did not march for the climate. But whether or not you are a believer in mass protests, your individual decisions about money are driving the way this world works. What you buy or sell, borrow or lend, give or take, invest or divest is on your conscience...or not. The individual soldier with boots on the ground ultimately pays the price of war. And though the billionaires may have the most leverage, all individual investors have the power to value what matters to them.