Those Dastardly Billionaires, or Something
If you asked who, you should not feel too bad. Staffers for freshmen members of congress are not usually known outside of the feeding frenzy of applicants every two years and the hardest of hardcore politicos. But when you land the gig of being the legislative director to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14) you get noticed. When you break with the tradition of staffers being seen and not heard, and are legislative director for AOC, then you really have a platform.
And he is not shy or subtle about it. His Twitter handle proclaims “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure,” and he is more than happy to expound on the idea.
“It needs to be pointed out how insanely greedy” it is to be a billionaire, Riffle said. “We have to comprehend the scale of $1 billion — just the amount of money we’re talking about. Five million dollars is a lifetime’s fortune; you can live off the interest of that and still be in the top 1 percent. Five million dollars, times 100, is still only halfway to $1 billion.
“It’s a systemic failure on society’s part. On one part of the city, we have people with helipads and yachts that they park inside of yachts, and on the other side we have thousands of people who are homeless and children without health care or food. Those things should not exist simultaneously in a society.”
Setting aside the argument that the one directly corrolates to the other for a moment, I would be curious as to how Mr. Riffle would have us “comprehend the scale” of $7.8 billion, not just $1 billion.
Because that is how much the top 50 philanthropic givers of 2018 donated.
America’s biggest donors gave a total of $7.8 billion to nonprofits in 2018. Foundations received 39.5 percent of the $7.8 billion, college and universities $1.7B, donor advised funds $638M, hospitals and medical centers $431B, tech research $175M, community foundations $140M, science $125M, museums $120M, religious groups $70M, homelessness $57M, international groups $50M, zoos $50M, schools $27M, libraries $10M, and the list goes on. This is just the top 50 according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy of reported and registered giving.
“But wait” some might correctly point out, “the top 50 giving was only half as much as in 2017. Those greedy….”
That might sound bleak, but it’s actually more of a recalibration. In 2017, the numbers were boosted by the fact that many tech titans invested heavily in themselves, giving huge lump sums to their own philanthropic efforts or enterprises. The top three givers were Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Michael and Susan Dell, all of whom gave gifts in the billion-dollar-plus range to their own organizations.
This year, the Gateses, Zuckerberg/Chan, and the Dells dropped to 12th, 7th, and completely off the list, respectively. The overall level of generosity dipped accordingly, but still beat the 2016 total of $5.6 billion.
“That giving is just for tax purposes and to assuage their guilt over having so much money in the first place,” the more revolution-leaning among us might protest. “It’s $7B more in giving than we would have had given, whatever the reason,” retorts the defenders of unabashed capitalism. As much fun as it might be to have all that hashed out again for the billionth time, the fact remains that for the foreseeable future, as it as been in the past, railing against the richest among us will bring political and cultural debate. Good, old fashioned envy and strife make attacking the billionaires effective politics to some, but the truth is much more complicated. Billionaires, as it turns out, have the same spectrum of good folks to bad folks as the rest of us, just with a whole bunch more zeroes involved. Billionaires, like the population at large, are complicated. Because people are complicated, rich, poor, or in between. And more than a few of them didn’t start out rich. At all.
Jeff Bezos, current boogieman par excellence to many folks who feel wealth is inherently a sign of evil, didn’t start that way. The first Amazon boxes where delivered out of his garage shortly after he quit his lucrative investment job. He’s done ok for himself since. Howard Schultz, of late Starbucks fame and more recently deciding the middle path to electoral success means angering everyone on every side, grew up in the Bay View projects of the New York Housing Authority. A poor girl from Mississippi received a scholarship to Middle Tennessee State, became a TV correspondent at 19, then moved to Chicago in 1983 for a gig on AM radio that evolved into The Oprah Winfrey Show. Larry Ellison dropped out of college when his adoptive mother passed away, and knocked around listless doing odd jobs for the better part of a decade before founding a little company called Oracle. Shadid Khan spent time in college washing dishes for $1.20 an hour before turning a car bumper business into billions and now owns an NFL team, an EPL team, and one of the world’s finest mustaches. John Paul DeJoria spent time in foster homes, homeless, and in a gang before joining the military, but you’ve heard of John Paul Mitchell hair care products, which he at one point sold out of the car he was living in, and perhaps Patron Tequila. Clerking at Brooks Brothers, a young Ralph Lauren contemplated maybe there was room in the men’s fashion market for more variety. The list could go on and on.
There are also truly evil billionaires. Not just “those greedy SOB” Twitter-evil, but real life monsters. Jeffery Epstein managed to avoid serious prison time by cutting a deal that is now under review by the DOJ. The suspicion has long lingered that his network of trafficked and sexually used underage girls, if fully revealed, would be a bi-partisan headache to some of the most powerful people in the country. It is inarguable that Epstein used his power and great wealth to perpetrate his crimes and cover them up.
This is not even including the dictators, drug lords, crime syndicates, and various other sundry characters that officially and unofficially make it to the level of being a billionaire at the expense of their fellow man. It may very well be true the richest man in the world is not on any list, but might actually be Vladimir Putin. The former KGB man has risen to be the ruthless dictator of Russia, holding the title of President of a country while using the trappings of state and politics to enrich himself and his band of oligarch friends while functioning in practice like a criminal cartel. The just-concluded trial of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán brought not only a conviction on 10 counts of drug trafficking, and a one way ticket to “Supermax” prison ADX Florence, but also detailed information on just how lucrative such a trade is. Estimates of his personal wealth vary between $1B and $14B.
Even the billionaires that are controversial public figures, come with questionable ties, or are outspoken about their political motivations have complicated stories. Very complicated.
George Soros, if you listen to enough right-wing talk radio, is everything from the financial backer of everything wrong in the world or the anti-Christ of politics. His Open Society Foundations is the second largest philanthropic institution in America and is explicitly progressive in it’s support of causes. He also is old enough to remember actual Nazis in his native Hungary, which can either be taken as “he should know better” when he uses that terminology on American politics, or he truly fears what he sees like he did as a boy when the Gestapo was a very real threat, depending on perspective.
Sheldon Adelson grew up the son of an immigrant cab driver, dropped out of college, lost almost all of his first fortune in a recession, then earned that and more back owning the largest casino corporation in the world. He is also one of, if not the, largest political donors in America, topping the list of all donors for the 2018 election cycle by giving $127M to various campaigns and PACs. Such giving came under even more scrutiny when President Trump award Miriam Adelson a Medal of Freedom, ostensibly for philanthropic endeavors, but certainly with many raised eyebrows.
Our current political discourse is awash in using terms that manage to be at the same time overly broad and penetratingly emotional. “The media” has become nomenclature for any outlet you may not like, not the multilayered, multiplatform reality of information gathering available to the general public now. Political terms like ‘liberals” and “conservatives” are used more as insulting connotations than descriptors, little knowing or caring of the vast shades and internal spectrums people with those beliefs might hold. “Evil rich” and it’s slightly more polite colloquial cousin “greedy rich” are very old – and occasionally true – stereotypes, and will never go away. But we should not accept them on face value, and we certainly should not be making wide-ranging and binding policy based off it.
Policy is a word originating from the Greek politeia, and was used for such words as “state, government, citizenship, administration,” all words used to broadly categorize, all words that put a façade on the fact they involve people. Real life people. Even obscenely rich ones. But it’s easier to deal with abstracts. Vilifying Jeff, George, Sheldon, David and a hundred others just doesn’t have the scope and verve of spitting out “billionaires” through righteously gritted teeth as you punch out a like-minded tweet on your smartphone. Never mind you wouldn’t have that smartphone as we know it, except for a billionaire, but that’s too much nuance for most folks.
There are real life people behind those billions, underneath the lists, and represented by all those zeros. Good people. And bad people. And a whole bunch of people somewhere in between those two. Then there are even more that make their own livings and fortunes because of those billionaires, or become recipients of their giving.
Non-billionaire people. “Normal” people, whatever that might mean these days.
People like us.