Michael Mordarski: Benevolent billionaires

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 6:11pm

Currently, it seems that the tumultuous political environment of America will never calm, and the news of Mark Zuckerberg awkwardly testing the waters of the potential presidential arena only adds to the absurdity of our present democratic state.

Zuckerberg, a thirty-three-year-old computer programmer who has a net worth greater than the GDP of Luxembourg, is yet another example of the growing belief that billionaires are able to solve America’s problems by entering into politics and policy creation. Due to their massive financial success, we as the poor citizens we are should willingly allow for the transformation of our democratic system into an oligarchy full of benevolent billionaires who so generously bless us with their intelligence and talent.

This trend in American culture is the culmination of several factors all stemming from specific attributes and common desires we as a collective citizenry share. This trend was detailed excellently on a recent episode of the podcast “Politically Reactive,” where writer Naomi Klein explained how several of the solutions to the growing wealth and income inequality in America relied on the generosity of the rich, or “philanthro-capitalism.” She argued that throughout the 1980s into present day, growing materialism and the idea that wealth is synonymous with success led to this reliance and idolization of the mega-rich within America. And despite this phenomenon occurring and growing for years, its fruitions have only become blatantly visible recently with the election of famous rich person, Donald Trump.

Trump, throughout the entirety of his celebrity life, has been selling a “brand” — and the Trump brand is all about money, power, success and happiness achieved essentially through material wealth. From his name plastered in gold on the side of every building he owns, to the fact that he is rarely ever seen in something other than a suit — the man sold the idea that his massive financial wealth was more than enough evidence that he could fix America’s political problems.

His election demonstrated that many Americans believe success within the private sector can translate to victories within America’s complicated and massive public bureaucracy. That by enabling these wealthy geniuses, we can allow them to transform and fix our country the same way they did to their company, brand or social media site.

As Klein stated in an interview with The New York Times, “rather than trying to solve these huge global problems through institutions with some kind of democracy and transparency baked into them, we’re just going to outsource it to benevolent billionaires.” From the billionaires who own charitable foundations to unregulated political contributions — the mega-rich have been entrusted to serve our best interests crafting policy and changing the political landscape. And most of these actions go unnoticed by the public, mostly through the privately-run charitable organizations which are controlled by only a few individuals whose policies, viewpoints and politics are often unknown to those outside these groups. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone determines many policies for public education in America, free from citizen input and comment.  

And what this trend is doing is undermining our American democracy. Essentially, we are creating a pseudo-oligarchy in which money and material wealth dictate public policy in America. We do so willingly with the current political campaign finance laws, the allowance of massive lobbying firms to draft laws and the ongoing idolization of the super-rich. Our democracy is meant to function with public input and participation on all levels, in which our statesmen and women are empathetic citizens representing constituents they truly understand. Willingly sacrificing our political input and interest to a handful of billionaires who we have come to believe are more intelligent, empathetic and qualified than contemporary political operatives undermines the communal political actions that are central to American democracy.

This obsession and idolization of the wealthy has begun to seriously jeopardize the overall strength of our democracy. The solution to the level of growing inequality is not the gracious donations of billionaires who take time to step away from their business and into the positions of public office. Historically, America has been plagued before by gross levels of inequality in which wealthy families wielded massive control over the politics of the time. The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Morgans of the past shaped political and public policy to bend toward their interests. From atop their golden estates, they were thought to grace the working public with their immense knowledge and wealth during a time in which inequality had reached a historical high.

And now, the robber barons of the past have been replaced by the tech and finance titans of the present. Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos or Trump — regardless, their wealth has somehow justified the assurance that they can change America, they can fix its problems.

Billionaires and the super wealthy are obviously intelligent and their accomplishments impressive. Whether they created luxury hybrid cars, built massive fortunes in investments or decided whether Joan Rivers or Dennis Rodman would make a better “celebrity apprentice” for a hypothetical company that will never exist — billionaires’ accomplishments are complemented by their immense wealth. Yet that wealth should not serve as an automatic guarantee that they understand and can solve the complex political issues facing the country.