America’s Billionaire Boys Club has been on the top of the world in the fraught-for-everyone-else 2020s — except when they’ve liquidated a few billion dollars here or there to climb into their spaceship and soar above it.
During a global pandemic that has killed one million of their fellow U.S. citizens, the nation’s roughly 600 or so billionaires saw their wealth spike by an estimated 55%, with the richest of the rich doing even better than that. What’s more, even 2021′s (just-barely) Democratic Party takeover on Capitol Hill can’t produce the votes to increase taxes on these high earners, even as the middle class struggles with the cost of health care, college ... and now everything else.
So why, all of a sudden, are America’s oligarchs so gosh-darned miserable?
Exhibit A, of course, has been the ridiculously public midlife crisis of the world’s richest human (at least as of this afternoon), the electric-car-and-space mogul Elon Musk, whose estimated $210 billion under his mattress is equal to 1% of the U.S. gross domestic product. In recent weeks, the just-turned-50 Musk has tried to prove that “poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything” is more than just a Bruce Springsteen lyric.
It has not gone well.
The Philadelphia-educated Musk’s scheme to buy Twitter with a combination of his obscene wealth and other people’s money, take the social media site that’s most beloved by the world’s intelligentsia private, and declare himself a hero of the brand of “free speech” that tends to be freest for privileged white men, hasn’t turned out like he’d planned. It’s not just that the love Musk has taken from conservatives for his plans to remake Twitter (and, among other things, bring back the banned Donald Trump) has not been equal to the enmity from so many others who don’t want their social media Musk-ed up.
Musk’s increasingly manic and arguably unhinged tweets now seem not only on the brink of killing the Twitter deal (and, if so, thank God), but his odd public behavior has raised questions about his bigger high-tech empire. In just the last six weeks, shares in Musk’s flagship company, Tesla, have plunged an astonishing 40%, erasing some $400 billion in wealth for the South Africa-born American and his investors.
In calling so much attention to himself, Musk has helped folks focus on some of the other unseemly aspects of his rise to the greatest fortune in human history, including a growing investigation into harassment of Black employees, racist graffiti, and other bias at Tesla’s California factory, and now a report that Musk’s other major company, SpaceX, paid $250,000 to an employee who claimed the CEO exposed himself and sexually propositioned her — an extreme moment in a wider culture of misogyny in Musk World. Like the Greek legend of Icarus, the SpaceX mogul seems to have flown too close to the sun, and we are watching the wax and feathers rapidly melt.
What’s been fascinating to watch, though — in perhaps a perverse way — is how Musk’s public meltdown has caused him to openly embrace the toxic political culture of the far right, including the strange notion that real power in society doesn’t rest with our orbiting kleptocrats like Musk or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, but with a “cancel culture” of educated progressives.
On Wednesday, Musk tweeted that he was leaving the Democratic Party, which he claimed has “become the party of division + hate,” to join the GOP. To put that claim in context, it came just hours after Pennsylvania Republicans nominated a Jan. 6, 2021, attendee as their gubernatorial candidate and after four days in which conservatives seemed to double down on the racist theories that animated the 18-year-old who murdered 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket. Since then, Musk has traveled to Brazil to meet with that country’s autocratic leader Jair Bolsonaro and — apparently in response to the sexual misconduct charges — claimed he was creating a team of lawyers and that “there will be blood.”
Even wilder is that Musk isn’t alone among America’s billionaires in either melting down on Twitter or finding common cause with the political right. Bezos — whose net worth soared to $132 billion as shoppers fully embraced Amazon during the pandemic lockdown — once rarely appeared on social media, but has now taken to retweeting conservative thought leaders and openly feuding with President Joe Biden, calling the idea of pairing higher corporate taxes with the fight against inflation “just misdirection.”
Match the political right turn by Musk and Bezos with this month’s disclosure that Oracle founder Larry Ellison (current net worth: $94.5 billion) took part in a November 2020 call with Sean Hannity and Sen. Lindsey Graham, among others, about contesting Donald Trump’s election loss to Biden, and you see the makings of a trend. Once upon a time, billionaires at least pretended to be socially progressive. But at a time when both their wealth and their status — especially amid allegations like those levied against Musk or around Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ strange ties with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — are under assault, they are finding solidarity with the fetid swamp of white male supremacy that is modern conservatism.
Some of this is Psychology 101 — that you may leave here for 11 minutes in space, but when you return it’s the same old place, where all the money in the world can’t buy you love, or respect. It probably irks the hell out of Musk and Bezos that more people don’t admire them for skyrocketing to the top of American meritocracy, because more and more of us are seeing the ways this so-called meritocracy is just a game that was rigged from Day One.
But billionaires also understand that the threats to their status — and their wealth — are starting to get more real. Bezos, in particular, seems rattled by the first successful vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse, on Staten Island, and by the fact that Biden hailed the leaders of the new union. And they know that at least through the midterms their ability to avoid higher federal taxes is probably clinging by the fingernails of former progressive turncoat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
It’s been disturbing how little attention has been paid in 2022 to a political phenomenon that maybe seems like old news but continues to shape our world, for the worse. That’s the flood of unlimited campaign cash from the super-wealthy aimed at circumventing the will of ordinary people. The richest man in my home state of Pennsylvania, a libertarian hedge fund billionaire named Jeff Yass, has so far spent $18 million on 2022 races, much of it to install a state legislature that would undermine our public schools. Nationally, Trump’s man in Silicon Valley, billionaire Peter Thiel, is busy electing extremists to the U.S. Senate in Ohio’s J.D Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters.
Yet even this one weird billionaire trick is getting increasingly harder to pull off. In Pittsburgh, wealthy interests invested a gobsmacking $4.5 million trying to keep a true populist — pro-union, anti-climate change Summer Lee — out of an open congressional seat and failed. No wonder the oligarchs have come to feel that it’s not enough to own our elections — that in an era of nanosecond political dialogue, they now need to control the entire conversation.
Thus, Musk could think of no better use for his pandemic-infected windfall than taking single-handed control of Twitter, while Bezos accepts praise for maintaining investigative reporting at his Washington Post even as his editorial board shoots down help for the middle class like student debt relief, and Thiel serves as the enforcer — shutting down the original Gawker with a lawsuit that has had a chilling effect on actual free speech, the kind that criticizes billionaires.
It’s time that Americans remember that while there’s 600 of them, there’s 330,999,400 of us, and while we still nominally have a democracy we can put those tools to use, in a couple of ways. For starters, the Biden administration can do a lot more to weaponize Bezos’ fears about rising union power than just patting the folks from Staten Island on the back. The president and his team should move a lot more quickly to enact his task force’s recent pro-union recommendations. The American middle class was a lot stronger when labor unions were at their peak, in the 1950s — when the CEO forerunners of Musk and Bezos earned a fraction of today’s obscene hauls.
But Biden also needs to make sure that his No. 1 priority between now and Election Day is to work with Democrats and foster, or bludgeon, or whatever, a deal that would substantially raise taxes on Musk, Bezos, and their fellow billionaires and multimillionaires, and then use that windfall for programs to rebuild the middle class. The president’s latest proposal — to raise $360 billion over a decade by taxing the top 0.1% at both a higher rate and for unrealized gains in their stock portfolios — should only be the starting point. We should talk more seriously about ideas like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive wealth tax. Indeed, Musk’s meltdown almost feels like a plea for those of us in the 99% to put him out of his current misery.
These dollars could be put to such good use, starting with the unconscionable failure by Congress to extend the expanded Child Tax Credit, which has plunged 3.7 million of our children back into food insecurity and poverty. I’d also love to see a wealth tax pay for free or nearly free public universities and trade schools, which would allow Biden to end the current student debt crisis without watching the start of a new one. After all, Musk, Bezos, and their ilk have gotten so rich through the innovations of their young workers saddled with a big chunk of that $1.75 trillion ball-and-chain. Making these whiny, spoiled oligarchs pay it back is the one thing I can think of that would feel even better than shutting them up.
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