Column: Billionaires Shouldn’t Be Setting Our National Priorities

  • Jeff Bezos arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, March 4, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

  • Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite personal devices, in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

For the Valley News
Saturday, May 12, 2018

A recent op-ed in The New Yo rk Times suggested many good things Amazon founder Jeff Bezos might do with his fortune. Harold Pollack, professor at the University of Chicago, offered, among other things, that Bezos could use his $131 billion fortune to make major improvements to health, education and welfare of people across the globe.

Bezos prompted this by declaring his intention to use his vast fortune to fund space exploration.  According to the Times piece, “He (Bezos) has founded a company called Blue Origin that builds reusable rockets. He wants to send tourists into space and envisions a future in which heavy industry — and millions of workers — will be based out there. Mr. Bezos called Blue Origin ‘incredibly important for civilization long term.’ ”

I recently had a chat with a young man doing tree removal at our house. He worked very hard and was invariably cheerful. I suspected our politics might differ as he wore a cowboy hat and a T-shirt that declared, “The Second Amendment is my gun permit, issued in 1791.”   

He grew up in Boulder, Colo., before high tech and trust fund money made the community preciously unaffordable. A recent news article pegged the average 2018 home sale price at about $2 million. Commenting on the recent construction of $4 million to $5 million homes in his old neighborhood, I quipped, “Nobody should have that much money.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Sure they should. They earned it.”   

I suspect he also believes that Bezos should do whatever he wants with the $131 billion he has “earned” (so far).

Amid the endless scandals, the daily headlines about the president of the United States and a porn star, and the dangerous and arrogant distancing from the international community, the surrender of America to plutocrats is barely noted. This capitulation is insidious and has been steadily eroding our republic for decades.

Perhaps the most ironic dimension of this national failure is the extent to which it has been aided and abetted by the very people who are harmed by the myth of free market infallibility and its basic tenet that you get what you deserve and deserve what you get.

My hard-working tree remover has a small child, works several jobs, none of which are likely to provide health care, and still believes in the American dream. Perhaps he believes his ship just hasn’t arrived yet, even though facts suggest that it is sailing fast in the other direction.   

The schools his daughter will attend are underfunded. The health care system is more likely to bankrupt his young family than to protect it. The infrastructure and services that were the foundation for building a satisfying and productive life are frayed and fragile.

It’s not complicated. The progressive tax rates of a generation ago have been replaced by a system that rewards wealth accumulation and provides incentives and loopholes to allow the creation of vast fortunes. Bezos alone has more money than 25 percent of the world’s poor people combined.  

In his op-ed, Pollack cites the examples of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, whom he cheers for their more thoughtful charitable endeavors. It is true that Gates and Buffett have done somewhat more useful things than funding an ego-driven space program, but that misses the point. Gates has severely damaged education in America with his financial leverage. The deservedly notorious Koch brothers are undermining democracy and accelerating climate change through billions of dollars of influence-peddling and propaganda.   

The Walton family uses their vast fortune to fund anti-democratic approaches to school reform and engage in union busting and gender discrimination. And, of course, Betsy DeVos and other obscenely wealthy plutocrats are destroying our civic institutions from the inside.

Yes, some very rich people are very generous. But we can’t lose sight of the difference between charity and justice. I don’t want Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the Waltons or the Koch brothers to decide what is important to the future of our country or the well-being of my grandchildren. They accumulated vast wealth using our resources: our infrastructure, our freedom, our means of communication, our government protection of intellectual property and our labor.   

We don’t owe them. They owe us.   

They should not set the priorities for the deployment of America’s vast wealth. The marginal tax rate for the richest Americans in the ’50s and ’60s was 91 percent. Today it is 37 percent. (In both eras, manipulation and loopholes made the actual rates lower.)

Pollack offers many examples of how Bezos might better use his wealth. But he concedes too much when he writes, “Hey, it’s a free country. As long as they follow the law, billionaires have the right to do what they want with their wealth.”

Conservatives have won the propaganda battle. They’ve convinced ordinary folks, like my hard working tree remover, that we shouldn’t take away the hard-earned fortune of entrepreneurs.   

But that’s backwards. Progressive taxes are not confiscating “their” money. It is recapturing some of “our” money to deploy for the collective good.

I suppose it’s true: “As long as they follow the law, billionaires have the right to do what they want with their wealth.” And we have the right to change the law they must follow.  

 That may be the greatest imperative in the years ahead, if it’s not already too late.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@ gmail.com.