billionaires income inequality
Here is how it works these days: You start hearing about a big, national problem and then it becomes a drumbeat. First there are a few articles and columns mentioning that such-and-such is a problem. Then a number of articles appear, then a "study" from a "think tank" confirms the problem and sounds the alarm about how terrible it is, and then just as the issue seems to be the only thing you are hearing about a solution is presented. Of course, the solution always involves taking something away from you and giving it to some company or industry standing in front of a billionaire or three. The right question to start asking when you hear about these "problems" is which billionaire is driving this.

Here are five-plus examples of billionaires who use their money to try to get us to think what they want us to think in order to enact a right-wing economic agenda.

1) Pete Peterson's deficit/debt scare campaign and his ongoing effort to gut Social Security and other entitlements. Leading every list of billionaires pushing an issue is billionaire Pete Peterson and his forever war on government doing things to make our lives better, especially Social Security. Peterson leads the list because of reports of his pledge to spend $1 billion on his pet issue.

Have you ever heard anywhere that the budget deficit and national debt are a problem? You can't pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the radio or TV, or listen to any politician from the so-called "center" to the far right without hearing that, and the reason is Pete Peterson and his money.

Peterson and his money are a big part of the backing for the Concord Coalition, Fix the Debt, The Can Kicks Back, the Comeback America Initiative, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Moment of Truth Project, the Committee for Economic Development, America Speaks plus contributions to many other groups. As Michael Hiltzik worded it in Unmasking the most influential billionaire in U.S. politics at the LA Times, "The shame of Washington... comes from the fact that almost every organization promoting the grand fiscal bargain in which those programs will be on the table has accepted, somewhere and somehow, money from Pete Peterson."

Sourcewatch's Fix the Debt portal contains much more information on this big-money influence campaign, including this graphic:
billionaire lobby groups
© Center for Media and Democracy
Last week one of Peterson's deficit-scare groups was in the news. The Can Kicks Back is an organization named after the narrative that not cutting Social Security is just kicking the debt can down the road. They claim this is because there is a generational war where older people are living high on the hog and younger people will have to pay for this. The group tries to make legislators think younger people want them to cut Social Security, etc. using astroturf videos, Twitter posts, etc.

Well, the Peterson spigot seems to have dried up. The anti-debt group is... wait for it... in debt. All of that astroturf hype about younger people demanding Social Security cuts? When the Peterson money ran out, the urgency went away.

Here's the thing about this massively funded deficit-debt scare the country has been put through. Getting people whipped up about budget shortfalls (when raising taxes on the rich or cutting the bloated military budget are off the table) necessarily leads to certain conclusions that benefit a wealthy few. It leads people to believe that our government should cut back on the things it does to make our lives better - also called "government spending."

Meanwhile the country's real deficit problem is our trade deficit, especially with China. The trade deficit is the measure of jobs and factories moving out of the country. Fixing this deficit just happens to create jobs, lift wages and repair our economy.

If you are hearing about how terrible the budget deficit is and how it is so important that we all make sacrifices in order to bring that deficit down, it's Pete Peterson 's money talking. Too bad there is no billionaire pushing us to fix the trade deficit.

2) Billionaire John D. Arnold's attack on public-employee pensions. Have you heard that the biggest problem facing our states, counties and cities is the bloated, lavish, insane level of money that goes to public-employee pensions? Of course you have, and that's partly thanks to billionaire John Arnold. Arnold got his start at Enron trading natural gas derivatives. After Enron he used his Enron money to form an energy-trading hedge fund. Now he is using his fortune to fund various philanthropic causes, including helping to keep Head Start running when Republicans recently shut down the government. Unfortunately he has also dedicated part of his fortune to gutting public-employee pensions.

In a September report for the Institute for America's Future, the Plot Against Pensions (which has excerpts posted on Salon), David Sirota showed how the Pew Charitable Trusts was working in partnership with (and funded by) Arnold. The findings in Sirota's report include:
  • Conservative activists are manufacturing the perception of a public pension crisis in order to both slash modest retiree benefits and preserve expensive corporate subsidies and tax breaks.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation are working together in states across the country to focus the debate over pensions primarily on slashing retiree benefits rather than on raising public revenues.
Then last week, in The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS's news division at PandoDaily, Sirota revealed how PBS' WNET had solicited Arnold to fund a two-year series of "news" shows named "The Pension Peril" that would promote cutting the pensions of public employees. In this story, Sirota wrote:
"In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees' retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country "to stop promising a (retirement) benefit" to public employees."
WNET severed the relationship. According to the New York Times, "WNET, the New York City public television broadcaster, said on Friday that it would return a $3.5 million grant it received to sponsor an ambitious project on public pensions in the face of charges that it solicited inappropriate underwriting for the series."

To its credit the Times' story gave full credit to Sirota's reporting,
"Earlier, after a critical report on Wednesday by David Sirota on the website PandoDaily, WNET officials said they were comfortable with the foundation's funding. Mr. Sirota sharply criticized WNET for accepting the Arnold Foundation money because John Arnold, a former hedge fund manager, has financially backed efforts to persuade municipalities to cut public employee pension benefits."
Note that Arnold allies are pushing a ballot initiative in California to gut public-employee pensions.

P.S. A while back I also took a look at the campaign to turn the public against public employees. In Discover The Network Out To Crush Our Public Workers I looked at some of the names behind the network of "institutes" and "policy centers" and what I called "cookie-cutter think tanks" that were issuing "reports" that basically claimed that the world would end if we didn't "reform" (gut) the pensions and other compensation of public employees and stop them from being allowed to organize unions. Tracing through the directors of the various "institutes" and "pulling the threads" of partner organizations they listed, I found that many or most of the strings lead back to Wall Street. I wrote then:
"These corporate/conservative organizations are very good at manipulating the media and public opinion - it is their purpose. Their "experts" are well paid and always available to talk to reporters, appear on TV and radio shows and write articles and opinion pieces for newspapers, blogs and for their network of similar organizations. Their "reports' and "studies" reach the conclusions that fit the strategy, and are crafted to sound just right. And there are so many of them! The result is development of "conventional wisdom" about what is going on in our society. This is why that conventional wisdom more and more reflects the corporate/conservative line."
Of course, getting these things enacted often runs up against a troublesome problem: democracy. There are still places where voters have enough of a say to block some of the things the billionaires are demanding. But never fear, there are a few billionaires working on fixing that pesky democracy problem, too.

3) Charles Munger Jr. (near-billionaire and son of a billionaire) bankrolled California's Proposition 20 in 2010 to create a "citizens redistricting committee" that took the process of drawing political districts out of the hands of California's politicians. Munger and many Republicans believed this would immediately turn the state over to the Republicans because the districts were "gerrymandered" - rigged - to have a majority of "safe" Democratic-voting districts.

Prop. 20 passed, but it didn't work out the way Munger and Republicans had hoped, not by a long shot. The earlier Democratic gerrymandering process had been "too clever by half." To make sure Democrats would have a guaranteed majority in the legislature they drew up districts in a way that moved Republican voters into a minority of "safe" Republican districts. The problem with this is that it takes a two-thirds vote in the legislature to pass a budget, and Democrats had rigged the system in a way that left Republicans with just over one-third control. So year after year Republicans blocked everything, demanding big tax breaks for corporations as a ransom for passing anything that helped any actual people. (Why does that sound familiar?)

It turns out that fair redistricting is a gift to citizen control and democracy. After the citizens commission got rid of the gerrymander, voters kicked out enough Republicans to give Democrats two-thirds contro. Prop 30 increased taxes on the wealthy, while also bumping up the sales tax. Now the state has a budget surplus, schools are starting to get re-funded, infrastructure is starting to get repaired and things are getting done again.

Other Munger-financed propositions include Proposition 32, a failed attempt to keep unions from being involved in politics and Proposition 14, which passed and gave California an "open primary" which keeps political parties from being able to choose their own candidates - instead the top two vote-getters in the primary go into the general election regardless of party.

4) Billionaire Tom Perkins laid out his own solution to the democracy problem the other day in an interview at the Commonwealth Club INFORUM in San Francisco, saying, "The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes," Perkins said. "But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?"

There you go: one-dollar-one-vote plutocracy vs one-person-one-vote democracy is now openly part of the public discussion. Think Progress' Igor Volsky explained how Perkins' idea is "already in the works."
"The nation's growing gap between the rich and poor has become a full-blown crisis, with the top 1 percent of families experienced a 278 percent increase in their real after-tax income from 1979 to 2007, while families in the middle 60 percent saw an increase of less than 40 percent. A large body of research suggests that high inequality leads to lower levels of representative democracy and a higher probability of revolution, as poorer citizens become convinced that the government is only serving and representing the interests of the rich.

Wealthy people's disproportionate impact on democracy also has the effect of perpetuating income inequality. During the 2012 elections, "the top 0.01 percent of campaign donors - one percent of the one percent - contributed more than 40 percent of all the money spent in the 2012 elections," compared to 15 percent in 1980. Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaeser argues that as the rich become richer and secure more political influence, they support policies that make them wealthier at the expense of everyone else."
But wait, there's more. Conservatives really are advocating migrating to a plutocracy. The conservative National Review's Kevin D. Williamson argues that progressive taxation in which the wealthy are asked to pay more than others sets a precedent that should apply to votes. He writes, "If our political liabilities - taxes - should be as a matter of justice proportional to our income, then why shouldn't our political input be likewise proportionate? Why should proportionality be the rule in one context and not the other? The leap from 'No taxation without representation' to 'proportional taxation with proportional representation' is not a very dramatic one."

5+) Silicon Valley billionaires Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and others pushing low wages for people who work for them.

Speaking of Silicon Valley billionaires...did you think billionaires were in favor of "free markets" and such? Well, it turns out not so much. In one (more) example of billionaires rigging the free market for their own gain, a lawsuit alleges that the top executives of Apple, Google, Intel, LucasFilm, Pixar, Adobe and others conspired to set up a scheme to drive down the pay of executives, engineers and others. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 100,000 employees and claims that around $9 billion was stolen from these employees in the 2000s. eBay and Intuit are involved in a similar suit. See Pando's The Techtopus: How Silicon Valley's most celebrated CEOs conspired to drive down 100,000 tech engineers' wages.

Dave Johnson is a fellow at Campaign for America's Future.