December 18, 2022
In our country of more than 332 million residents, less than 800 can be counted as billionaires, .00024% of our population! My worry is that such a tiny fraction of our population has been allowed to have such a profound influence on how we live our lives and on how we face the threats we face. Their great wealth allows these people the ability to turn their personal whims into actions that can reshape our world. If great wealth only meant that they could live their personal lives without a care and at a level of extravagance that is beyond the lives of the rest of us, it might not be such a worry. But, because we have allowed these great fortunes to be amassed, we have ceded to these wealthy few the ability to determine how the rest of us live and how our society will function into the future.
And that is a problem. It is a problem that I worry we are ignoring even though it sits behind every other issue we are struggling to resolve including systemic racism, economic inequity, and the environment just to name a few.
If you think that these are outlandish statements filled with my personal envy about not being in their number, you are ignoring the evidence that is here to be seen and heard if you open your eyes and your mind.
The corrosive effects of great wealth on our political system have made government in this country simply another tool to be exercised by the wealthy for their own self-interest. It is our government and our leaders who are buying into the mythology that we are collectively poor and they are individually rich. They believe that we cannot afford to solve our problems together and must accede to their solutions because they are rich.
As reported by the Washington Post, our climate envoy John F. Kerry, speaking to the recent Cairo Climate Summit, told us that very directly. “No government in the world has enough money to get this job done. We will only succeed with a massive infusion of private capital.”
We live at a moment when the actions of man are destroying the very livability of our planet. It is a world facing an environmental calamity, one that we have caused and one which we must turn around. This would seem to be an action that demands a collective response led by governments because they are in place to serve us all. But that does not seem to be the case.
Marc Benioff, one of those billionaires and chief executive of Salesforce explained why this is our benefit in an interview the Washington Post’s Evan Halper gave us the ultra-wealthy perspective on their right to lead. “You can’t expect every government to do everything or be on top of every issue. There always have been philanthropists and this has been the role of philanthropy for generations: to help put a light on places where there is a darkness. We can take on more risk and assume more failure than commercial organizations or governments or NGOs.”
Halper gives us a better picture of what this actually looks like, the ability to put personally favored strategies, which may also have personal commercial interests in place at the front of the national agenda. Policy direction emerges from “…men with household names like Jeff Bezos (net worth: $114 billion, according to Forbes), Mike Bloomberg ($77 billion) and Bill Gates ($106 billion), along with other billionaires who have lower profiles but equally large climate ambition. Their role as shadow policymakers has grown amid the evolution of the Biden administration’s climate agenda and the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, known as COP27, where their projects were on prominent display.
“’ This kind of hobbyist approach has become a big factor in the way we are addressing climate change,’ said David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California at San Diego. ‘Is this the ideal way to do it? No. The ideal way would be large publicly oriented programs. But that is not happening anywhere in the world.’
When our government steps back and allows this small group of rich people, whose expertise may not be great, to assume responsibility for tough decisions that will affect us all, we are all at risk. We are ignoring that they are not above plying their own self-interest as the very businesses they choose to invest in are, not surprisingly, often in the forefront of the climate answers they are pushing us to invest in. It becomes unlikely that the solutions favored by the very rich will ever threaten their personal investments or their wealth, even at the expense of the planet.
This power to control government results from the use of that wealth to reshape how we vote and how we govern.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy provides just one more example of how great wealth has taken over our democracy by shaping law and policy to allow them to do so. In order to take control of our government, to control the outcomes of our elections, and to protect their own wealth, wealthy men and women on both sides of the political spectrum have turned the mechanisms of philanthropy into political weapons available only to themselves.
“In the past two decades, election-related activities have become increasingly common in the nonprofit world, with millions of dollars going directly to 501(c)(3) groups — organizations that can’t do much lobbying — and 501(c)(4) organizations. which can pursue more advocacy.
“Foundations have given more than $2 billion to activities focused on elections since 2011, according to data compiled by Candid, an independent research group. Very wealthy donors often donate appreciated assets, such as stock, thereby avoiding capital-gains taxes. If the recipient is a 501(c)(3), they also receive a charitable deduction.
“These contributions are undoubtedly legal, but they also stretch and bend the core framework separating charity and politics….
“…the recent mega donations by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and electronics magnate Barre Seid show how this aspect of the law can work to a donor’s benefit. Chouinard gave nearly $3 billion in his company’s stock to a (c)(4) climate-policy advocacy group, and Seid made a $1.6 billion stock contribution to a politically focused conservative organization. Neither donor received charitable deductions, but both enhanced their politically motivated donations by avoiding federal capital-gains taxes.”
If you think that the actions of the very rich approach our collective challenges with anything other than a personal lens, just look at the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, who has turned a flawed, but publicly accountable corporation, Twitter, into his own personal weapon of influence. The price for his purchase was “just” $44 billion, but for a man with wealth that even after the recent market declines is estimated to be almost $170 billion was certainly affordable. Able to spend that sum he has taken unilateral control of a “public square” with more than 235 million monthly visitors. And he is able to use it as only he sees fit.
With claims that he is just defending our free speech rights, Musk has eliminated Twitter’s established, even if flawed, mechanisms for assuring that we are not inundated by hate-filled speech and personal attack. He is able to turn his personal animosity for Dr. Anthony Fauci, posting “Prosecute/Fauci” that previously might have been filtered out by mechanisms he has disabled. He released internal documents which he then used to characterize a former employee who he had just fired as a pedophile, again something that might not have been allowable prior to his taking control. And he just abolished the panel of outside advisors who had been charged with providing Twitter with expert guidance on how to keep the platform from becoming a weapon of hate and harm.
The list of how those with great wealth are usurping the mechanisms of a democratic society in their own self-interest go well beyond these three examples. It is pernicious and at some point, perhaps one we have already gone past, we will reach a point of no return. Our nation will have become a weath-ocracy where one dollar=one vote will have become our underlying philosophy.
Fighting back is difficult. Wealth has done well in fostering a political climate of distrust, not-in-my-backyardism that has separated those with a common interest into warring camps. The first step in stopping our downward slide is to recognize that the accumulation of great wealth is a problem and can be stopped. Tax laws can be changed. Charity laws can be changed. Political spending can be controlled. But only if the majority wants it to be. We all do not to have the same economic profile to say that it is intolerable for one man or woman to have more than 7,800 times the wealth of a household in the middle of our national wealth range. (That’s the difference between the median household wealth of $127,760 and a household with just $1 billion in wealth; for Elon Musk that ratio exceeds 1 million!).
We just need to understand that those of us with more than average wealth have little to fear from limiting the fortunes of the very rich. We need to stop fantasizing that we are going to be the next billionaire if only we keep the status quo. That’s the fantasy that we’ve been sold. Let’s not be a buyer.