New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo tells us that he likes to "explore maximalist policy visions" in his columns. He falls well short of this goal in a piece calling for abolishing billionaires, which actually helps legitimate their existence.
The piece repeatedly tells us that their wealth is driven by technology, a point that first appears in the subhead which refers to "tech-driven inequality." The problem with Manjoo's piece is that the inequality is not in fact driven by technology, it is driven by our policy on technology, specifically patent and copyright monopolies. These forms of protection do not stem from the technology, they are policies created by a Congress which is disproportionately controlled by billionaires.
If the importance of these government-granted monopolies is not clear, ask yourself how rich Bill Gates would be if any start-up computer manufacturer could produce millions of computers with Windows and other Microsoft software and not send the company a penny. The same story holds true with most other types of technology. The billionaires get rich from it, not because of the technology but because the government will arrest people who use it without the patent or copyright holder's permission.
This point is central to the debate on the value of billionaires. If we could get the same or better technological progress without making some people ridiculously rich, then we certainly don't need billionaires (I discuss alternatives in chapter 5 of my book Rigged [it's free].) But in any discussion of the merits of billionaires, it is important to understand that they got their wealth because we wrote rules that allowed it. Their immense wealth was not a natural result of the development of technology.
It is unfortunate that this idea is apparently too radical for Manjoo.