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Friday, December 9, 2016

The super rich really are different from most Americans, and not just because they have more money. They are also more political — a gap that is as disturbing as the wealth gap, and a major contributor to its growth.

In his new book, Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, analyzes the careers, personalities and politics of the world’s wealthiest. “You have a lot of people trying to convert economic power into political power,” West told me. “I wrote the book to inform people about all of the political activism, so at least they are aware of all that’s going on.”

The clear message is that non-billionaire Americans need to get their cynical and harried selves to the polls. A few of the many reasons:

  • The very rich are not all that interested in altruism or the public good. In a 2013 study cited by West, they were twice as likely to support cuts in Medicare, education and highways; less than half as likely to favor government help for education or the unemployed; less inclined to believe the government should regulate markets, and less willing to pay higher taxes to finance universal health coverage.
  • The very rich understand that politics carries “huge consequences” for their lives and businesses, so they invest heavily in politics and are much more active than Joe Citizen. They vote at twice the rate of other Americans, they make political contributions at five times the rate, and they frequently run for office. And why not — they can afford it. In Florida’s 18th congressional district this year, for instance, four Republican primary candidates were between 70 percent and 80 percent self-funded.
  • The very rich are very savvy. West illustrates this with what he calls the “get a senator” strategy. The elites know that because any single senator can put a “hold” on any vote, they only need one senator to stop a nomination or policy they don’t like. Compare that to the quotes people often give reporters about how their vote won’t make a difference (even when elections are so often decided by a few or a few dozen votes) or how Democrats and Republicans are all alike (tell that to a minimum-wage worker, a woman who needs an abortion or a business owner dealing with the Affordable Care Act).

A particularly annoying characteristic of some super rich is their self-regard. Many seem to have little understanding of how and why they got to be where they are. West paraphrases Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, a former Mitt Romney adviser, as attributing the achievements of rich people to their vision, creativity and innovation. Of course, that leaves out a few tiny factors, such as a good start in a loving, verbal home; elite social networks that facilitate and magnify success; government investments in education, research, infrastructure and a stable business environment; tax and inheritance policies that enable the wealthy to keep and grow their money, and the government subsidies, tax breaks, regulations and contracts that help their companies and industries.

“In many cases it takes a village to make a fortune, ” as West writes. “Wealth creation is not a one-person act, despite the myth that some billionaires peddle.”

The wealthy are highly visible players today on both the left (Michael Bloomberg promoting gun control, Tom Steyer focusing on climate change) and the right (the Koch brothers spending lavishly on this year’s midterms, and the tens of millions Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess spent fruitlessly in the 2012 presidential campaign). They don’t always get what they want, but it’s not for lack of energy, money or headlines.

The least public political activism by the rich, their lobbying for policies that preserve and increase their wealth, is often their most successful. Yet it is also the most counterproductive from a societal standpoint. West argues that the wealthy should promote opportunities for others for the same reason Henry Ford paid his workers well, to create more customers. He also prescribes greater transparency and accountability to tame “a Wild West of political activism,” and Senate reforms that would make it harder for small groups of people to work their will.

What are the chances we could achieve these shifts through our political system? The states are the key, West told me. But he hasn’t given up on Washington, and neither should we. It’s worth trying. Anything is.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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