Book Review: Billionaires (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
Billionaires, as a group, have different political views than the rest of us, and government decisions reflect their views much more than our views. That sentence describes the situation of the contemporary United States, but the increasing political clout of billionaires is going on all over the globe.
Such is the thesis of this little book, insofar as it has one.
The author, Darrell M. West, is not a billionaire, although he has talked with several of them. West is a political scientist affiliated with the venerable Brookings Institution, one of the oldest think tanks in the U.S. Despite its subtitle, “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust,” is not a reflection, it is a survey of previous research on the subject, which in my experience is typical of books from think tanks.
None of the research covered by it will shock anyone paying attention to our political scene. You’ve likely seen the names of many of these political active billionaires in the news: Charles and David Koch, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson.
Or maybe Donald Trump?
In all, there are nearly 500 billionaires in the U.S., and half of them live in the three states of California, New York, and Texas. (My state of Oregon has a paltry two of them. Put down the pot and start working, Oregon!) Worldwide there are about 1,600 billionaires, although methods of counting differ with different researchers.
In the first part of the book West methodically covers his main points. The very wealthy are getting much wealthier and are more politically active than before. They are more in favor of low taxes and less in favor of government spending that benefits the non-wealthy than the rest of us are. They have greater access to the people who hold public office, provide most of their campaign funding, financially support citizen referendums, influence the political activities of charities and social welfare organizations, control the media, and in general often get their way.
But not always. Just a lot more than the rest of us do.
In the second part he describes billionaires and how they became wealthy. They are generally old, white, and male. (That improves my odds!) He presents several little vignettes of how specific billionaires got where they did. I found this to be the most engaging but least informative chapter. Stories are more fun to read than statistics, but guess what? Billionaires made their money through a varying proportions of entrepreneurial skill, luck, and government favors.
In the final part of the book he argues that this situation is a problem and offers proposals to address it. We need more “transparency” of the role of money in politics, a reform of Senate rules, better media coverage of politics, fairer taxes, and well—what’s the point? He offers no suggestion as to how we will get any of this, and resorts at the end to asking billionaires to help make it all happen. Noblesse oblige, I guess.
He does acknowledge at various points in the book that there are billionaires active in liberal causes as well as conservative causes, but does not discuss their relative political strength.
Now that would make for an interesting book—which billionaires are working to enhance the political power of ordinary citizens, why are they doing it, and what obstacles do they encounter? If we have to rely on billionaires to save us from billionaires, we may as well know which ones are friends and which ones are foes.
I have my suspicions, but I think other people may be having trouble figuring it out.
(Full disclosure: I am not a billionaire, nor even a millionaire, but I am a thousandaire and so my views may be biased.)