Our billionaire problem

Our billionaire problem

Elon Musk

In theory, I have nothing against billionaires. I believe in capitalism — highly regulated and appropriately taxed. There is nothing inherently wrong with the lawful accumulation of wealth.

But the United States has a billionaire problem. We don’t tax them appropriately, so their staggering wealth contributes to the economic inequality that roils our culture and politics. That’s troubling enough. But the bigger problem is this: Too many of them are autocrats, fascists, anti-democrats. Too many American billionaires reject the US Constitution; they want a feudal society in which they rule as potentates.

Of course, there are some among the Americans on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index who are forceful advocates for democracy, defenders of constitutional values, activists for social justice and broad equality. Michael Bloomberg (owner of the company that compiles the index) is a political moderate who supports gun control and action on climate change. Tom Steyer sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency on a strong environmental platform. Bill Gates and his ex-wife, Melinda French Gates, have dedicated themselves to spending their fortune on philanthropic causes that benefit the entire planet, fighting poverty and disease.

But the admirable commitment to mending the tattered fabric of American democracy and working for the benefit of humankind that is shown by a few is overwhelmed by the selfishness, greed and narcissism of so many others among the super-rich. Former President Donald Trump himself, who leads the autocrats, claims to be a billionaire. The Koch brothers, Charles and his late brother, David, have long been known as petro-billionaires who oppose any action on climate change; they have funded a host of rightwing causes. Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel has come to public notice for his support of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters, both of whom have embraced Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen through fraud. 

The late Sheldon Adelson, gambling magnate, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Sanders and Marvel Entertainment’s Isaac Perlmutter have all given millions to pro-Trump groups. Then there is Barre Seid, who earlier this year gave a reported $1.6 billion to an ultra-conservative political advocacy group. 

As recently as a few months ago, though,  I wouldn’t have put Elon Musk, reportedly the richest of the supremely rich,  among the autocrats. He’s a mercurial businessman with a history of outlandish comments, such as his early insistence he would not take the COVID-19 vaccine — a stance he later reversed.   (I am not listing the entertainer formerly known as Kanye West among the fascist billionaires because he is reportedly on the verge of becoming a mere multi-millionaire.) Still, Musk has contributed to both major political parties over the years, more concerned with boosting his own business interests than investing in his adopted country, it seemed.

But with his takeover of the social media platform Twitter, Musk showed his beliefs as he quickly helped to spread lies about the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The speaker was in Washington when a man, fueled by far-right conspiracies he had absorbed online, broke into her San Francisco home looking for her and found her husband instead. 

The speaker has long been the target of conservative anger and resentment. But leading conservatives don’t want to acknowledge their responsibility in promoting political violence, so they make up far-fetched scenarios to escape blame. Musk boosted the effort.

In a healthy democracy, billionaires would not have such outlandish political influence. There would be campaign finance laws that would strictly regulate political donations so that the rich couldn’t buy outsized influence. They would also be taxed appropriately to fund social programs, such as universal health care, that help a broad swath of citizens. (A fairer tax structure, by the way, would not limit innovation or discourage business investment. The economy would thrive.)

But the United States no longer boasts a healthy democracy. The oligarchs have purchased themselves a far-right Supreme Court which not only allows them to continue funding campaigns and buying politicians but which will let them bend the Constitution to their will.  Campaign finance laws won’t change any time soon. Neither will the tax code. 

And the rest of us don’t have enough money to buy our democracy back.