Are There Good Billionaires?

Updated 2/28/2020

The image of the benevolent, philanthropic billionaire, riding to the rescue against Donald Trump, is more and more working its way into the zeitgeist. After all, did not Oprah bequeath to us Barack Obama? Didn’t Tom Steyer promise to buy us an impeachment?

In my considered opinion, the very existence of billionaires is a threat to the security of our nation. Representative government becomes a joke when one individual can purchase a media empire that has the power to launch a thousand votes on any issue (such as Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com who now owns the Washington Post and a $600 million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency.)

Running for high public office has become ridiculously expensive, since almost all campaigning is now done via paid advertisements over electronic media. Presidential candidates are now spending in the range of $1 billion to get elected. Where are they going to get that kind of money? Not from schoolteachers or the guy driving for Uber. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the money they get from billionaires has strings attached. In fact, during the most recent decade, we have seen the billionaires simply eliminate the middleman and run for president themselves.

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The US has been drifting towards a feudal, oligarchic form of society for generations. One thing, which might not seem to be a problem at first blush, is that wealthy people can make tax-deductible donations. Isn’t that a form of altruism? Er, nope. The wealthy person who endows a department at a university, sets up a foundation to contribute to public broadcasting, or spends his money in other public-spirited ways gains an influence in shaping the way the next generation of leaders or the present generation of decision-makers perceive controversial questions of politics or economics, and can put his thumb on the scales to ensure that the public debate does not go in a way that is inconvenient for the billionaire community — and then write it off his taxes. Why do you suppose that the US is the only major power that does not have single-payer health insurance, for example?

Let’s take a look at an example of one politically hyperactive billionaire who is seen as angelic by liberals, and as a nemesis by conservatives.

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The New York Times characterizes George Soros as a philanthropist and “free-lance statesman” who “poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy.” That has a pretty benevolent ring to it, wouldn’t you say? But what Soros actually promotes is Sir Karl Popper’s doctrine of the “open society”. Although generally swathed in academic verbiage, this is simply a re-hash of the old British orthodoxy of “free trade,” which although it has that appealing word “free” in it, was used for centuries as the ideological cudgel to club Britain’s colonies into submission.

Eventually nations became suspicious of “free trade,” so the concept was re-packaged as the “open society.” Essentially, it means that no one should ever try to regulate the flow of capital. Any attempts by governments to impede financial speculation are equated with attacks on democracy and human rights, or are characterized as a form of corruption, and you will be besieged by legions of NGOs if you try it.

Let’s take a moment to recall how Soros made his money. One of his specialties is currency speculation — buying up huge amounts of a given nation’s currency and exploiting small fluctuations in its value to sell it at a profit, or buying derivatives contracts that bet against that nation’s currency and then manipulating its value downward in order to cash in. There are many different variations of this approach, but they all involve making Mr. Soros dramatically richer and the nation in question dramatically poorer — all without any tangible wealth being produced.

Soros was a major player in the “Asian Crisis” of 1997. He and kindred speculators descended like raptors on the economies of Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The one nation that was able to put up a fight in self-defense was Malaysia under the leadership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir instituted what are called capital and exchange controls. There are a variety of ways to do this; a financier who wishes to bring large sums of money into your nation may be asked what he intends to do with it. If the answer is, “I’m going to speculate against your currency,” he may be asked to take his business elsewhere. Measures might be taken against what is called “motel money” (because it comes into your country for the night, does something sleazy and leaves the next day.) One way this can be prevented is by a rule that anything called an “investment” must last for a minimum of a year. These are precisely the kinds of self-defense which the “open society” seeks to prohibit.

In any place where Soros saw an opportunity to loot a nation via these forms of speculation, he first sought to make that nation vulnerable by ruling out defensive measures while braying about “civil society and liberal democracy.” Now, this begs the question: why do both liberals and conservatives think that Soros is some sort of leftist? They are as wrong about him as they were about Obama.

Soros has no shortage of detractors, generally people involved in some political controversy who have realized that Soros is funding their opponents. Much has been made of the 60 Minutes Interview in which Soros describes his boyhood experiences in Hungary under Nazi occupation. A non-observant Jew, he posed as a Christian and assisted in the confiscation of Jewish property. He expresses no remorse, and some have parsed this to make him a collaborator, but this is not supported by a careful reading of the transcript.

On the other hand, Soros’ apologists are quick to exploit his nominal Jewishness to make any criticism of him into an “anti-Semitic dog-whistle”, which is equally unjustified. In fact, any tenuous connection between Soros and Judaism is largely irrelevant to a real debate about his political role.

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The importance of Soros is that he is a person who is able to spend astronomical amounts of money in ways calculated to make him even more astronomical amounts of money, and is clever enough to proclaim that he is doing it in the interests of “civil society and liberal democracy.” In this sense he is a typical representative of the British Empire, which always insisted that its plunder of weaker nations was essentially benevolent.

I submit to you that this sort of behavior is characteristic of billionaires, particularly the ones that offer to rescue us from whatever predicament our nation may find itself in at the moment. People don’t become billionaires by giving their money to the poor. They may make concessions of the sort that the Fabian Society advocated — “crusts of bread and such” — to soothe the passions of the lower classes, so that they aren’t tempted to challenge the class system itself.

But despite the standard litany of complaints about government abuses and incompetence, you stand a far better chance of compelling your government to spend money on things that are sensible and necessary, such as science, education, health care and infrastructure, than you do in beseeching billionaires to do it.

No one needs to be a billionaire. Even the most luxurious lifestyle does not cost that much, which means that the rest of the bank account represents a political base of power which does not respect what we think of as democratic process, nor particularly care about the general welfare as described in the preamble to our constitution. Now, in 2020 we have the ghastly phenomenon of billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg making themselves into credible presidential candidates (in the eyes of the media) by simply buying huge amounts of ads on television. There are federal regulations which limit how much money any one person may contribute to a presidential candidate — but a person who is contributing to his own campaign is exempt from those regulations. This is a huge mistake which must be corrected.

It is in the interest of our national security to impose confiscatory taxes on wealth above a certain fixed limit, both to finance useful improvements for the nation, and to limit the ability of self-interested parties to harm the interests of the nation. Until our playing field is much, much closer to being level, we have no business calling ourselves a democracy.

Marisol is an arts aficionado and a social media habitué.

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