Game of Billionaires

Income inequality is the hot topic of conversation in left-leaning circles right now, and for good reason. The American Dream seems increasingly out of reach, wages are stagnant, and the top 1% of incomes control almost half of all global wealth.

But the standard Occupy-style formulation of the 1% versus the 99% actually undersells the real story: that it’s not even the multimillionaires who are distorting the economy, but the billionaires and near-billionaires at the very tip-top of the economic chain. Well before Thomas Piketty dropped his bombshell new book on the world, he and Emmanuel Saez shocked the political establishment by showing the way that the economic power of the top tenth of one percent exponentially dwarfed even that of the top 1%.

But economic power is one thing. Political power is quite another–or it should be, at least in theory. Unfortunately, our conservative Supreme Court has declared that money is somehow fully equivalent to speech, and ruled again and again in favor of letting those with the most money do the most talking.

The ripple effects from allowing billionaires free rein over our democracy are only beginning to be felt, but four recent stories should give some clue about the terrifying road ahead.

First, let’s look at the Koch Brothers and their effect on the Republican Party. Al Gore made headlines a few days ago when he declared that the Koch Brothers were warping the GOP toward an extremist “enforced orthodoxy” of climate change denialism. Gore was right. Even as the evidence for human-caused climate change has dramatically increased, the Republican base has grown much more skeptical of climate science since 2009. It is difficult to attribute this phenomenon to anything but the narrow interests of the wealthiest fossil fuel magnates influencing conservative media to drive an anti-science narrative.

On the other side of the climate debate, however, is another billionaire named Tom Steyer. The California-based hedge fund maven and climate change activist is putting ads on the public airwaves throwing down a debate challenge gauntlet to the Koch Brothers as part of a $100 million campaign push to place climate change higher on Congress’ political radar. His efforts are already turning heads and causing Democratic politicians to become more forceful about climate change, even as long-time climate activists themselves hang on his every word in the hope that some of that money and attention will come their way.

It’s not just climate change. One of the hottest fights in Washington right now is over net neutrality. This would normally be yet another depressing tale of corporate interests winning out over popular interests, except for the fact that the public interest has champions in Google, Yahoo and Netflix on its side to do battle against Comcast and Verizon. It’s less a battle of David and Goliath (the Davids almost always lose those fights) than it is of competing behemoths.

Finally, there is the sudden and mysterious departure of Marcy “Emptywheel” Wheeler from billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s The Intercept/First Look. Mr. Omidyar famously provided a perch for Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Matt Taibbi and Marcy Wheeler to do supposedly independent journalism free from the constraints of a more institutional media organization. But reading between the lines of Marcy’s announcement, it seems a safe bet that not all was well in the relationship. Gifts from billionaires tend to come with strings attached, after all.

And that’s really the whole problem. When billionaires are allowed to rake in such vast sums of money and spend them on pet political causes, the entire world starts dancing to whimsical tunes. Some of their causes may be good. Some of them almost certainly will not be. But if the American people don’t act to curb their economic and especially their political power, we’ll all end up as the puppets at the end of their strings.