Last Sunday’s non-myth myths: Can the nation’s billionaires affect the political process?
Just offhand, we’d say they can! But then we read last Sunday’s Washington Post, which seemed to say they can’t.
We refer to last week’s “Five Myths” feature, a weekly rumination in the Outlook section. Last Sunday, the feature was written by Darrell West, a honcho at the Brookings Institution.
West’s feature bore this headline: “Five myths about billionaires.” Somewhat strangely, this was the first “myth” West listed and discussed:
1. Billionaires can buy elections and change public policy.
Really? It’s a “myth” that billionaires can change public policy?
We think it’s obvious that billionaires actually can change public policy. We were puzzled when we saw the idea described in bold print as a “myth.”
As it turned out, Darrell West believes that billionaires can change public policy too! As such, his piece offers a slightly unsettling look at the skills and standards which characterize our upper-end so-called journalism.
Let’s continue with that first “myth.” Can billionaires change public policy? This was West’s complete discussion of that so-called “myth:”
WEST (9/28/14): Billionaires get a lot of attention for their outsize campaign contributions: According to ProPublica, Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent at least $98 million during the 2012 election cycle. And Charles and David Koch are reportedly spending $290 million in the 2014 cycle to help Republicans regain control of the Senate and to push policies that limit the role of government.Obviously, West is saying that billionaires can change public policy. He just says their efforts aren’t always successful.
But money doesn’t always equal political power. Recent elections have been littered with failures on the part of billionaires. Conservative financiers didn’t defeat President Obama in 2012, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do so. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have failed to persuade members of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This year, Bloomberg is devoting $50 million to lobby legislators to adopt relatively mild measures designed to reduce gun violence, but so far the campaign hasn’t produced much legislative action. Conservatives have not gotten Congress to repeal Obamacare, despite numerous ads and outreach activities publicizing its defects. There has been no meaningful entitlement reform, even though many billionaires, including Peter Peterson and Stanley Druckenmiller, warn about the dangers of high debt levels and the need to address long-term deficits.
Despite all the coverage of national political and policy advocacy, some of the most successful billionaire efforts have taken place at the state and local levels. Peter Lewis invested millions in lobbying to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Paul Singer, Seth Klarman, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) have supported same-sex marriage in various states. John and Laura Arnold have backed public pension reform in California, Rhode Island, Utah, Illinois and New Jersey.
In a more rational world, you couldn’t get from that obvious fact to that first “myth about billionaires.” But the logical skills of our upper-end press corps are often amazingly weak.
West’s second discussion doesn’t parse either. Here it is, starting with his second “myth:”
WEST: 2. Most billionaires are conservative anti-tax and small-government advocates.In bold print, we’re told that it’s a “myth” to think that “most billionaires are conservative anti-tax and small-government advocates.” But in his subsequent discussion, West merely shows that some billionaires don’t fit that description.
A number of prominent billionaires are free-market conservatives who want to limit the government’s role in the economy. Yet my analysis of Forbes magazine data shows that the 492 billionaires in the United States have varied interests. For example, James Simons and Jeffrey Katzenberg supported Obama’s reelection effort, and have financed moderate and liberal causes. Warren Buffett believes that, as a billionaire, he should be taxed at a higher rate than his secretary and has joked that “if you have trouble living on $500 million, I’m gonna put out a book, ‘How to Live on $500 Million.’ ” Others, like David Rubenstein, have spoken out about the need to address income inequality. And in terms of state advocacy, there are a number of libertarian billionaires, such as Peter Thiel, whose efforts to keep the government out of personal affairs lean conservative on tax matters but liberal on social issues.
Some is not the same as most! It’s been proven many times.
Can anybody here play this game? Perhaps some people actually can. Please consider:
We were struck by the reassuring portrait of billionaires the Post ended up presenting. In bold letters, readers were told that these beliefs are all “myths:”
The Post says these claims are all myths:Billionaires come out seeming like crunchy granola once we reject those claims as myths. But the only “myth” West really debunks is the claim about most billionaires inheriting their wealth.
Billionaires can buy elections and change public policy.
Most billionaires are conservative anti-tax and small-government advocates.
Most billionaires inherited their wealth.
All they care about is making money.
(According to West, 65 percent of billionaires were self-made. Plainly, that’s more than half!)
By the time the Post had structured this piece, billionaires sounded like the kind of folk you’d want to have next door. That said, might we note a groaning omission in this slightly peculiar piece?
There is one major policy area where billionaires seem to have been running roughshod in the past decade or so. (Aside from taxation, that is.) We refer to education, where a so-called “billionaire boys’ club” has had a gigantic effect on the widespread adoption of certain “reform” ideas.
Of course, the Washington Post loves those “reform” ideas. Perhaps for that reason, this policy area goes unmentioned in West’s report.
Bill Gates is mentioned (see myth #1, above) for his support for same sex marriage. His gigantic effect on education policy ended up on the cutting room floor.
This was a very shaky piece. At the billionaire-friendly Post, was somebody’s thumb on the scale?
One last unpleasant point: We never hear about the “billionaire boys club” on MSNBC either. Is there any chance The One True Liberal Channel is billionaire-friendly too?
Would fiery progressives like Rachel and Chris ever put up with something like that? People, we’re just reporting here! We’ll let you decide.