Yusaku Maezawa founded the fashion retail website Zozotown in 2004.
It has since grown to be the largest of its type in Japan, and in November Maezawa sold a controlling stake of Zozo Inc to SoftBank for $900 million. Now he's decided to give a small piece of that money away to 1,000, randomly selected strangers. All they had to do for a chance to win was to retweet the announcement.
Maezawa is an interesting figure with a history as a musician and plans to fly around the moon with SpaceX in the first-of-its-kind commercial flight. But while he remains here on Earth, he's been devoting himself to "social experiments" on the connection between money and happiness. His announcement of a smaller scale experiment last January broke records with nearly five million retweets. His plan was to give 100 people each a million yen (around $9,000). Now he's giving the same amount to 1,000 people who will then answer a series of surveys in an effort to see how that money affects their happiness.
Maezawa wants to encourage Japanese society to look into the concept of a Universal Basic Income—similar to presidential candidate Andrew Yang's proposed $12,000 a year—and he's hoping that his experiment will lead to more serious consideration. It's an admirable goal, and the $9 million he's giving away isn't exactly chump change…unless you're a billionaire like Yusaku Maezawa. In 2017 he broke another record by spending more than 12 times that amount on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Good taste aside, he clearly doesn't worry much about throwing his financial weight around.
It can be hard for people who work for a living to really wrap our heads around the immense wealth that the most powerful members of our society wield, but experiments like this can help put things in perspective. The results of Maezawa's generosity remain to be seen, but it's hard to imagine that the recipients' happiness wouldn't be improved by an extra $9,000 in their pockets.
Meanwhile, Maezawa's total fortune is estimated to be around $2 billion, which means that he could give away another $9,000 every hour for 20 years…and still have hundreds of millions of dollars left over for himself. In other words, he could substantially improve the lives of 175,000 people without experiencing even a negligible decline in his quality of life—though he might have to trim his fine-art budget.
Last year the world's wealthiest 500 people saw their wealth grow by 25%, adding $1.2 trillion to their collective net worth. You could fit those 500 people in one large room—Maezawa would be about $1.5 billion short of making the cut—and they made enough money in one year to give $9,000 to everyone in the country of Mexico. If they dipped into their total wealth, they could easily expand that to include everyone in the US—again, without substantially impacting their quality of life. Dropping from billionaires to people with only hundreds of millions of dollars would not impact their way of life in any meaningful way. It would only affect their absurdly elite status—their access to that exclusive club policed by Forbes.
So is the status of those 500 people somehow worth more than the happiness of 500 million? Should we all be subject to the whims of people who got extraordinarily lucky? None one should be comfortable with the idea of this kind of wealth existing in a world where so many suffer and where nations struggle to fund programs for the public good and the future life-sustaining capacity of our planet.
It's estimated that it would cost only $300 billion to delay the catastrophic impact of global warming for 20 years—a tiny fraction of what billionaires like Maezawa made last year. A Universal Basic Income could turn out to be a great thing, but until we have a clear sense of how to do it right, the wealth taxes proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem like a small first step in the right direction.