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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's easier to turn power into money than it is to turn money into power. That said, if you want power, and even if you want money, it helps a lot if people think you're a billionaire.

Driving the news: Jeffrey Epstein, whose pedophilia is now back in the public eye, was almost invariably described as a billionaire even when there was no evidence that he was worth anywhere near that much money.

  • Epstein's conspicuous displays of wealth included owning the largest private residence in New York (9 East 71st, which was originally purchased by one of his clients, Les Wexner) and a $10 million charitable foundation called Gratitude America (which seems to have been funded by another client, Leon Black). They also included private jets and a private island in the Caribbean.
  • Epstein's mysterious yet ultra-opulent lifestyle served two purposes. It helped to seduce both men and women — and it gave him an aura of impunity. By creating a bubble of spectacular privilege, he successfully persuaded everybody — not only his friends, but the underage girls he was accused of having sex with — that he was untouchable. Even after the bubble burst, he got away with an astonishingly light punishment for his crimes.

Epstein is far from being the first fake billionaire. Malaysian fraudster Jho Low similarly attempted to buy himself impunity, with some success: He remains at large.

  • The power of Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos fame, resided almost entirely in the fact that people thought she was a billionaire.
  • Most intriguingly, press baron Robert Maxwell stole $600 million from his newspapers' pension plans in order to keep his empire together. His daughter Ghislaine went on to become Epstein's closest confidante (and co-defendant).

The bottom line: Some people want to be wealthy; criminals, by contrast, often find it more useful to be perceivedto be wealthy. The genuinely rich tend to care about preserving and growing their wealth. Really big spenders are disproportionately likely to be frauds.

Go deeper

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

5 hours ago - World

Zelensky questions U.S. warnings of "imminent" invasion in Biden call

Biden and Zelensky at the White House last October. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a back-and-forth in their call this evening about just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.

Why it matters: Biden has said previously that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably "move in" to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "an invasion could come at any time."