Little Rock Among the unforeseen consequences of the perversion of tax rates and the massive shifting of wealth to the one-tenth of one percent, is that now rather than the superrich just building hospitals, buying sports teams, getting university lecture halls named after them, and supporting the local symphony and arts museum, which most of us might have easily ignored or at least adopted a form of causal, “live and let live” indifference, their new newfound passions and playthings are too often in the area of public policy and politics. Too many of them have twisted the old sayings into a new perversion. It’s no longer a case that, “hey, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Now, tragically, too many of them think that because they are rich, that also means they are smart. I find this worrisome whether I agree with their new concerns are not, simply because they have created a cynical marketplace based on their ability to disrupt public life and attempt to define the agenda of citizen concern, simply because they are able to buy the time.
Take Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire, recent Mayor of New York, who is both the best and worst example of the breed. Unlike so many, he was at least committed enough in the political process to stand for election, win, lose or draw, rather than being the puppet master, Koch Brothers style. But reading how flippantly he throws around a commitment of $50 million to mobilize voters around gun control issues is scary even if I agree that guns are out of control. His notion that he’s buying his way into heaven “without an interview,” as he argued, I also found every bit as creepy as the way the Koch Brothers manipulate religion to polarize opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Applauding Tom Steyer, the Bay Area hedge fund billionaire, and his willingness to leverage his fortune to try and raise $100 million to force climate change front and center, would logically also force me to say that John and Laura Anderson are dandy folks for trying to dilute public employee pensions and push workers into 401k’s or look the other way at David Welch’s big bucks financing of unlimited lawsuits trying to end teacher tenure around the country, supposedly in the name of lower income and minority children in public schools. I can’t do it.
All of this just seems like elite attempts to purchase personal billboards in the public space, and none of that advances democracy, no matter whether the cause is worthy or warped. Equally disturbing is the way that these mega-million money drops might also further monetize social change, and tilt the work towards the paymasters and away from the people.
Not that this problem is new or that the Rockefellers were somehow better than the Facebook and Googlers. Elite efforts to divert and coopt social change or to create client constituencies fill up whole book shelves in the libraries of political scientists and social movement theorists.
Old or new, the sheer enormity of the sums involved now, $50 million here, $100 there, and money is no object, are quickly creating a climate though where everything has a price and all issues are on offer and listed for sale with people just pawns to be manipulated every election day.