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The Billionaire Test

By the way, I think I forgot to link to my last Slate piece, which was about transfer gossip. I encourage you to read it if you’re gazing out at what is suddenly an autumn day and longing for the swelter of August and the scent of sunscreen and the certainty that Fernando Torres is on his way to Chelsea.

I have a new piece in Slate about the Hicks-Gillett-Glazers tycoon implosion and the fan protests at Liverpool and Manchester United. While I was working on the piece, it occurred to me that in this age of billionaire owners, in which every club, no matter how Portsmouth-y, can be plausibly linked to a gasp-wrenching imaginary stock portfolio, there are really two kinds of billionaires: billionaires and fake billionaires. Billionaires live in space, sleep in chocolate and eat a helicopter as a snack. Fake billionaires drive around looking important on the way to being yelled at by suburban bank managers. Somehow we’ve evolved a culture in which it’s possible to have some contacts, borrow a fortune, and get a profile in the US Airways in-flight magazine, even though at the same moment real billionaires are playing badminton on the moon with movie stars only millionaires have even heard of. It’s a confusing time to be a soccer fan.

The problem, of course, is that, while we’re all getting savvier by the second, the deals are often still so secretive and the facial expressions all so billionaireish that it can be hard to tell a fake billionaire from a real one. When the ousted crown prince of G______ comes sniffing around your club, should you start worrying about Wachovia or let yourself dream of a future of massively overpaying for Craig Bellamy? After some serious thought, and a sandwich, I’ve put together a simple two-minute test that will help you determine whether your club’s new billionaire is pregnant, or still praying every night and crying a little, secretly, in the kitchen, at his best friend’s baby shower.

Question #1: Can you envision your billionaire belonging to a country club? From the moment Tom Hicks and George Gillett first showed themselves in the stands at Anfield, with their weird, googly-craggly, “I’m trying so hard to look like a billionaire that my eyeballs are popping out of my head at different speeds” faces, it was clear that the only place on earth they could truly be comfortable was in the yacht room at the Sandy Pines Country Club, where they could go around shaking hands and loudly saying other men’s first names. No billionaire should ever belong to a country club, for the same reason that Oprah should never go on The View. Rich people clump together in country clubs for mutual protection and assurance. A real billionaire doesn’t need protection, because he can afford a private security force, and he doesn’t need assurance, because he is a billionaire.

Question #2: Does your billionaire sort of come off as a soap opera character? Having unlimited wealth allows one’s ego to expand without restraint, like gas in a hot air balloon the size of infinity. Conversely, soap operas foster the pinched intensification of conventional fantasies enforced by profound limitations on one’s ego. The lifestyle of a soap-opera billionaire will revolve around widely accepted status symbols, with minor eccentricites (an eyepatch! weird facial hair!) at the fringes. The eccentricities of the true billionaire are his status symbols. Tom Hicks has a yacht. Roman Abramovich has a yacht with its own submarine. Malcom Glazer used to have a $27-million mansion in Palm Beach. Lakshmi Mittal has a house decorated with marble from the same quarry as the Taj Mahal. You couldn’t set As the World Turns there, because the world only turns if he says it does. It’s not even his only house in London.

Question #3: If your billionaire broke the law, would there be repercussions? A true billionaire is essentially his own country. He transcends the apparatus of any single state and acts as an independent principle of order, like gravity or a weird idea on Lost. Wherever he goes, he’s three mean Beatles and the world around him is Ringo. If George Gillett woke up with a headache, a slippery flashlight, and a bloody corpse in a Donald Duck costume, he would feel the chill of a man who dreads the movements of justice. With pristine clarity, he would realize that somewhere in the world was a DA who yearned to take him down. If Alisher Usmanov woke up in similar circumstances, he would yawn, yell for his slippers, and note that the day was Tuesday. Why do you think Putin is always expressing fatherly disapproval of Abramovich and inviting him on orca-wrestling expeditions? Because even for Putin—especially for Putin—it’s easier to wrestle an orca than to go against a billionaire.

Question #4: Is your billionaire kind of a prissy killjoy who throws his weight around? Usmanov may live without fear of legal consequences, but he’s still not a real billionaire, because he’s constantly hopping up and down and pointing one finger and sending his lawyers after bloggers who dare to repeat that he was once imprisoned in Uzbekistan for cooking and eating every chicken in the country. Pale, impoverished bloggers with many children to feed are rhythmically dotting a conveyor belt aimed at prison because Usmanov does not want you to know that he once ate an entire nation’s chicken supply in one sitting. He may not be afraid of the police any more, but he’s afraid of something, even if it’s just public disapproval. The real billionaire isn’t thin-skinned. The real billionaire doesn’t have skin at all, having long since replaced it with a bulletproof carapace that’s indistinguishable from the real thing except in extremely bright sunlight.

Question #5: Is your billionaire worth more than $10 billion? I’m sorry, but billionaires who are only worth between one and nine billion dollars are pathetic. It’s odd. When a guy is worth $990 million, he’s unimaginably rich, but when he crosses over to $1.1 billion, you can bet that it’s all unpaid taxes and outstanding furniture debts. Somehow or other, it’s just impossible to sustain real billionairehood on less than ten stacks, meaning that the Glazers of this world are always taking out little piggish loans from Manchester United, while Paul Allen literally doesn’t know that the city of Seattle exists. Go by Forbes, go by Wikipedia, whatever, but check out your man’s bottom line. If it’s lodged in the mere ten figures, he is a man without dignity who can’t really afford your club. Condolences.

There. Now you can look at your own club’s billionaire and make an informed decision about your populist reign of terror. Please enjoy reading the conclusion of this “blog post.”

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The Billionaire Test

by Brian Phillips · September 20, 2010

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