There is a scourge on this great country. A pestilence brought by a group of miscreants whose power comes not from number, but in their power to do harm. They threaten our children, the promises of previous generations, and the fabric of American society. Who are these miscreants? Drug kingpins? Mass murderers? TV personalities?
Jeff Bezos may well do good things with the Washington Post, but his ability to buy it from his personal wealth is a sign of a deeper problem within America. PHOTO: Steve Jurvetson
Jeff Bezos, who recently used around 1% of his personal wealth to buy the Washington Post, seems like a good guy. He's got a great smile, and the company he founded, Amazon, is one that simply took a new efficiency available in the market and exploited it. You don't have to like Amazon, but its general reputation is that of a non-evil, just huge corporation. The power it has afforded Bezos, however is simply too much. America allows for almost any kind of power from the media to politics to be bought if you have the money. That's not always a good thing. Here are 5 ways that billionaires, just by doing simple things that are possible for them, warp American values:
The Boston Globe and Washington Post were recently purchased by John Henry (businessman and owner of the Boston Red Sox, $1.5 billion) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder, $25.2 billion). The Koch brothers own many local newspapers and have recently attempted to buy the Chicago Tribune. Recently, David Koch blocked NPR from airing a story about him
by using his clout as an NPR donor
. Rupert Murdoch of Fox News ($11.2 billion) has as much control over public opinion as any American, not because he has influential ideas, but because he has influential money. An independent media is crucial to democracy, but right now, too much of the media is owned by the most powerful Americans.
In October 2011, Newt Gingrich's run for president looked over. His numbers were way down in the polls, much of his core staff had just quit, and his campaign was looking more and more like a campaign to sell books and the Newt Gingrich mailing list. And yet, Gingrich mounted an incredible comeback: he won South Carolina, and was leading in Florida days before the primary. Had he pulled off Florida, he might have beaten out Mitt Romney for the nomination. How did he do it? By having one fabulously rich supporter named Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, a casino magnate that
is worth $26.5 billion, bankrolled the Gingrich campaign and kept the former Speaker of the House in business while he righted the ship. When Adelson couldn't defeat Mitt Romney, he joined him, donating over $50 million to PACs supporting him against Barack Obama.
With campaign finance laws gutted to near-pointlessness, billionaires like Adelson, George Soros and the Walton family (of Wal-mart) can support candidates for high office single-handedly. One reason the Tea Party is so powerful is that the billionaire Koch brothers can fund a Tea Party challenger against any Republican who steps out of line. In a country founded on one person, one vote, our candidates first need to be approved by the rich before they can proceed.
In 2009, the net worth of all Americans was $54.2 trillion. Billionaires hold about 10% of that with a sum total of $5.4 trillion at the latest count. That might not sound too egregious, until you realize that there are around 440 billionaires in the U.S., which is
0.00014% of the U.S. population. Sure, some of that money gets reinvested and eventually makes its way down to the middle class, but most of that 10% of America's wealth stays within the billionaire's control, leaving a much reduced portion for the remaining 319 million of us. Some of that money is taxed and used for public projects, but an unknowably small percentage of it is subject to tax due to...
Offshore is worth its own discussion, because it's a travesty that helps no one but the richest people and corporations, and not in any way that helps them hire more people. The offshore system, which in reality expands beyond the Cayman Islands and Bermuda into the City of London, Switzerland and even Deleware, allows drug runners, gang leaders and bankers to escape taxes and scrutiny. It's a system made by billionaires and for billionaires. Money removed from the economy and hidden from scrutiny helped create the toxic financial environment that led to the 2008 economic crash.
There is no substitute for hard work, and real success is unattainable without it. But no one is capable of working literally 3,000 times harder than, say a coffee barista, Wal-mart shelf-stocker or a short order cook. Even if we attempt a nebulous formula of hard work times smart work, we're still not going to justify some people making 1,000 times what other people make. Mark Zuckerberg seems like a really smart, determined guy, but he's also just plain lucky. So is Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, and anyone else worth a billion dollars. People succeed on their merit, but also on the fortunes of birth, school quality and who you know.
That's not to suggest that everyone has to make exactly what they are worth to society, but what are John Paulson ($11.2 billion, hedge funds), Jack Taylor ($11 billion, Enterprise Rent-a-Car), Pierre Omidyar ($8.7 billion, ebay) worth to society? And how much of that worth comes from their own hard work and ingenuity? That their great great great grandchildren don't need to work a day in their lives, and millions of Americans work 160 hours a month and pull in their rent plus a few hundred bucks is not just lopsided, it makes a mockery out of any idea that America is a real meritocracy. On a local level, meritocracy lives. Zoom out and it disappears.
This is more a diatribe against the rules of our society than the people who win playing by them, but until we change those rules, America cannot afford its own billionaires due to their political power and their ability to avoid playing by the same rules as everyone else.