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What do they do with their billions?

Forbes Magazine’s annual listing of billionaires is a reminder to us mortals that society really has changed little from ancient times—it is still dominated by a tiny elite for whom earth is a paradise; while for the rest of humans, struggling to alleviate hunger daily is what life is about.

I used to be a big admirer of Henry Sy, No. 1 in Forbes’ list of Filipino dollar billionaires with a net worth of $9.1 billion—nearly P400 billion.  His malls are not just huge retail buildings, I wrote in a Far Eastern Economic Review article in 1994, when he had only four SM malls. SM malls were the equivalent of Japanese sogo-soshas (diversified conglomerates) like Mitsui and Mitsubishi, nurturing entrepreneurs (i.e., would there be French Baker or Toby’s Sports without SM?), with its department stores and supermarkets functioning as aggregators and distributors of the products of thousands of farmers and small businesses.

Forty-seven SM malls later, I’m no longer such an admirer.

Sy’s mall in Baguio started the decay of the City of Pines.  Tagaytay is next in Sy’s crosshairs. In a few months’ time, his property arm’s eight condominiums towering like alien spaceships would disfigure its landscape. While American malls are typically in suburbs away from the congested city, Sy builds his malls precisely at the urban centers, unconcerned over the horrendous traffic these create. These gargantuan cement-and-steel boxes have become the cathedrals of crass consumerism, without any havens of solitude and pocket gardens or even enough seats for tired shoppers that are standard in malls in the West.

I suspect that Sy’s malls as well as his department stores and supermarkets, after reaching a certain level of size, have exercised some degree of monopoly power such that consumers aren’t really benefiting from lower prices made possible by his economies of scale. Much smaller operations like South, Makati, and Cherry’s supermarkets, or even mom-and-pop groceries, often sell cheaper than Sy’s stores.

Ranked only 62nd in the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s 2010 list of top 500 taxpayers, beaten by Sharon Cuneta who has the 58th slot, Sy is typical of our economic elites who see the country merely as a market and not as a community, with their consciences assuaged by the capitalist dogma that individual greed, the drive to amass wealth, automatically leads to a nation’s prosperity.

Sy, though, is a Mother Theresa compared to the Philippines’ No. 2 Forbes billionaire: Lucio Tan. Forbes reports that Tan has a net worth of $4.2 billion, yet the BIR ranks him only the 117th biggest taxpayer, way below Claudine Barreto in the 99th slot. Tan’s fortune almost entirely came from his Fortune Tobacco’s dominance of the cheap-cigarette industry starting in the 1970s. Based on the estimated 90,000 deaths annually caused by smoking, it is no exaggeration to say that Tan made his fortune from the graves of 2 million Filipino smokers over the decades.

Has Tan ever contributed a single centavo to the Philippine Lung Center, the Philippine Heart Center, or the Philippine General Hospital, whose morgues have been filled day in and day out by victims of cigarette smoking?

The Philippine elite though isn’t unique as an irresponsible ruling class.  Latin American billionaires are hated in their countries of haciendas and urban slums. Russian tycoons are said to be indistinguishable from that country’s mafia.  Greece can’t pay its debts partly because its elites have been experts in tax evasion:  a wealthy Greek ship owner, for instance, showed me his income tax returns—in which he is merely the firm’s “marketing manager.” (Do Sy and Tan similarly report themselves to the BIR merely as their firms’ CEOs?)

Contrast ours to American billionaires, to name just a few: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, George Kaiser, George Soros, Intel founder Gordon Moore, and Walmart’s Waltons. They gave away a big chunk of their wealth to make their countries and even the world a better place to live in.

Investment wizard Buffett has given to foundations that would advance health and education a total of $40.8 billion, 78 percent of his wealth, or more than twice the combined net worth of all Filipino Forbes billionaires.  The 55-year-old Gates has given away to philanthropy $28 billion, half of his wealth, or three times the net worth of the 87-year-old Sy.  Gates says he’s just “giving back to society” what he took.  Suggest that to a magnate here, and he’ll roll on the floor in laughter.

It’s not our politicians really, but an uncaring elite, which is the curse of our country.  The strength of the US political system owes much to factions of the elite funding the two major parties, not for their business interests but for these to pursue their differing road maps for building their nation.  In our case, the elite just lets the politicians play their own game, and throws crumbs to the sure-winner in a poll contest, just so its select members would be left alone to make their billions.

What do they do with their billions? Two Chinese tycoons have several mansions in Forbes Park for their mistresses, so it would be easy to be with them, and still have dinner with wife No. 1.  Two taipans, a Chinese and a Filipino, in the past decade have taken as their ego trips the acquisition of political power, why not if that is what the President Aquino’s Cojuangco clan has been doing. But billions certainly can’t be used up for more properties, Ferraris, first-class airfares, and mistresses.

They use their billions to make more billions, which perhaps gives them the illusion of immortality.  It’s their addictive game we mortals will never understand.