Tick-Tick-Tick: Do 60 Minutes And America’s Billionaires Want Us to Beg?

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Campaign for America's Future Blog

Tick-Tick-Tick: Do 60 Minutes And America’s Billionaires Want Us to Beg?

If you’re a jobless person looking for food or a wounded vet who needs health care, “60 Minutes” has a solution: Beg a billionaire for it. That was part of the powerful, if covert, message behind last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” broadcast.

The rest of Sunday night’s message, which tracks closely with the right-wing agenda promoted by billionaires like Pete Peterson, goes like this: Keep downsizing government. Keep tolerating and promoting the hijacking of our national wealth by the rich, even as it suffocates the middle class and creates soaring poverty rates. Surrender democratic control over the social safety net to wealthy donors.

And whatever you do, keep stroking their insatiable egos.

The Agenda

Did the “60 Minutes” staff sit around a table and choose this message? Probably not. Chances are we’re just seeing more evidence of a herd mentality among our well-paid elites. But they might as well have.

“60 Minutes” was once a shining light of independent journalism. Now it’s a covert mouthpiece for the far-right, anti-government values of the Peterson crowd.

This ideological bias agenda was glaringly evident in Lesley Stahl’s “Counterinsurgency Cops” story. Viewers weren’t informed that Stahl is on the board of anti-government billionaire Pete Peterson’s Foundation, for example, or that her foundation works closely with the defense contractors of “Fix the Debt.” Those contractors stand to make billions more in taxpayer-funded profits if America’s cities buy into Stahl’s premise and purchase even more military equipment – including tanks, sniperscopes, full battle regalia, night vision goggles, and drones.

The Peterson anti-government vision dovetails nicely with a conservative fantasy world in which all government spending is bad – but military and police spending somehow isn’t “government,” or “big government,” or whatever it is they’re railing against today. We discussed “Counterinsurgency Cops” in Part 1 of this piece.

Sunday’s broadcast also featured Scott Pelley’s flattering portrait of a hedge fund billionaire’s generosity, which failed to ask the fundamental question: Why do we need to depend on a hedge fund billionaire’s generosity in the first place?

As they say on “60 Minutes”: The answer might astonish you.

Say what?

The “60 Minutes” website[1] tells us that “Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones’ charity – the Robin Hood Foundation — fights poverty with the hardnosed, business sense of Wall Street.” Say what? The “hardnosed, business sense” of Wall Street? That “hardnosed, business sense” was actually, by any objective measure, fiscal incompetence and gross managerial negligence.

Wall Street’s “business sense” would have driven every single financial institution in the country into catastrophic collapse – that is, if the government (which presumably lacks such “sense”) hadn’t stepped in to rescue them. Not only did Wall Street’s titans grievously mismanage their books. There is now overwhelming evidence that executives at every major bank criminally and fraudulently deceived their customers.

You could call that latter trait “hardnosed,” I suppose.

Mr. Jones

What about Paul Tudor Jones himself? We don’t hesitate to trash bankers and hedge funders, and there are plenty of them who deserve it. (See Robespierre of the Hedge Fund Revolution or any of our Jamie Dimon pieces.) But as hedge fund managers go, Jones seems to be one of the smarter ones.

As hedge fund managers go, that is … Jones’ apparent talent doesn’t change the fact that, based on current incentives, today’s hedge fund industry is unethical by design. We remain unconvinced that hedge funds as they’re currently structured are anything except economically and socially destructive.

That said, Jones the Trader seems to be an intelligent and effective business person. Jones the Political Donor is straight GOP, all the way, but that’s not surprising. And Jones the Philanthropist seems to be well-intentioned enough. He deserves a lot of praise for devoting so much time and energy to good works.

So far, so good.

You Are What You Measure

Even Pelley’s misguided “hardnosed” comment has a kernel of truth to it. There are new and smart initiatives which seek to apply better metrics to philanthropy. They’re sometimes called “SROI” (for “Social Return on Investment”). But, as in business, the value of your measurements is determined by what you choose to measure. Those are the decisions which reflect your values. “Applying business metrics” is a meaningless notion in philanthropy, since profit – the proverbial “bottom line” – is always paramount in business.

Profits are relatively easy to measure, compared to questions like: How many kids did we feed this year? Would they have eaten otherwise? Could we have fed more kids, and more needy kids, with different foods? Different advertising? A different location? There are thousands of questions like these for each charitable venture.

“60 Minutes” told us that Jones and his board like to do a lot of measuring, but they didn’t tell us how. The entire issue was glossed over after Jones said “we probably de-fund 5 percent to 10 percent of our grantees.” There’s nothing wrong with that percentage – it’s reasonable and, if anything, on the low side – but the important question was, “How do you decide?” Instead we’re treated to the sight of a starry-eyed Pelley repeating with slack-jawed admiration: “You do that to 5 percent to 10 percent of your projects every year?”

We weren’t told which projects are de-funded or why. Instead the very idea is treated as a novel concept, as if the ordinary concept of withdrawing support for less effective programs is some new visionary breakthrough from the “hardnosed geniuses” of Wall Street.

Government measures its results, and so do independent economists and researchers. Did Paul Tudor Jones and his people find better ways to measure social services? There’s no way to know, because “60 Minutes” didn’t tell us. Apparently it was too dazzled to even ask.

The Unasked Question

About the question we asked earlier: Why would New York City need to rely on the generosity of billionaires? Pelley poses it in typically breathless fashion:

“Paul Tudor Jones wonders that if billionaires, like him, are such geniuses, then why do nearly two million people live in poverty [2] in New York City alone?”[3]

We’ll skip lightly over the “geniuses” remark [4] to offer a better answer to that question than Jones and Pelley provide: One of the reasons is because hedge fund billionaires like Paul Tudor Jones don’t pay enough in taxes.

Paul Tudor Jones, Charity Recipient

When it comes to taxation, Paul Tudor Jones isn’t a philanthropist. He’s their beneficiary of everyone else’s generosity. Let’s do the math. Rather than invade Jones’ privacy, we’ll run some rough estimates instead[5] for illustrative purposes: What if there had been no hedge fund loophole for people like Paul Tudor Jones and he had paid Obama’s top tax rate of 39.5 percent? Our hypothetical Jones would have paid an additional $1 billion in taxes. That’s nearly as much as all the donors to the “Robin Hood Foundation,” including Jones, have given in its entire history.

If the top rate were raised to 70 percent, as it was when Ronald Reagan took over, our presumptive Jones would have paid roughly $2.3 billion in additional taxes, nearly doubling the “Robin Hood” figure.

And if it were raised to the 92 percent level, as it was under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower[6], our Mr. Jones would have paid an additional $3.2 billion in taxes.

Taxpayers Are Subsidizing “Robin Hood”

Of course, Paul Tudor Jones doesn’t want to pay more taxes. That’s undoubtedly one reason why he donated to the McCain and Romney campaigns. It’s much more gratifying to give whatever you feel like giving, whenever you feel like it. And it must be way more fun to dictate terms to women running soup kitchens (as portrayed in “60 Minutes”), give pseudo-evangelical speeches to adoring crowds, and be lionized on television under the adoring gaze of Scott Pelley.

Can’t blame him for that, I suppose. But why should the rest of us subsidize it?

That’s right. If the “Robin Hood Foundation” has collected $1.2 billion in tax-deductible contributions, that means the U.S. government has given up nearly $200 million in tax income (perhaps much more) as a result.[7] The rest of us are picking up the slack – either with our taxes, or in the loss of needed services. We’re subsidizing the generosity of billionaires.

That’s no reason to end deductions for charitable giving, but here’s a thought: If we’re paying 15 to 40 percent of the price tag, shouldn’t taxpayers have a voice in how this massive foundation is run?

Robin Hood, My A**

Most Wall Street billionaires are Robin Hoods in reverse. The work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the Levin Senate Subcommittee, and other investigative bodies have shown that they earned much of their wealth through the duplicitous treatment of bank customers, homeowners, union pension funds, and the plundering of other middle-class financial resources. And over the past several decades leaders in both parties (although the Republicans are far more extreme) have presided over the most extreme upward transfer of wealth in modern history.

“Robin Hood Foundation”? We admire his philanthropic instincts, but Jones should be ashamed of that name. It’s a gesture of supreme arrogance. Robin Hood, as we all know, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Far too many of his foundation’s benefactors have done precisely the opposite.

Jones says he wants to be “at the forefront of actually finding a way to kick poverty’s ass.” Gotta love that attitude. But that particular ass-kicking will require systemic change – and genuine sacrifice from the likes of Paul Tudor Jones.

Nobody wants to steal from the ultra-wealthy class, a group which “60 Minutes” shows celebrating itself at a Jones fundraiser. But we do want them to pay their fair share. It would be nice if they stopped stealing from others, too.

Handout Nation

The Jones/”60 Minutes” vision of America is of that of a nation in which the majority must tolerate the slow siphoning off of its wealth, while hoping against hope that some of the siphoners will then deign to rescue them from poverty. Is that the kind of society we want to become? A “Handout Nation”? A people who must rely on the kindness of strangers?

We’ll close with a few words about the third and final story on last Sunday’s “”60 Minutes”,” entitled “The Invisible Wounds of War.” The producers couldn’t even cover that story without ladling out a thick gravy of anti-government ideology. Instead of covering the Veterans Administration, for example (it’s done some impressive things), the story focuses on yet another private donor. Says host David Martin:

“Head of one of New York’s most successful construction firms, (Art) Fisher offered to build a state of the art brain injury center. His foundation would raise the money. All he asked of the government was to stay out of his way.” (Emphasis ours)

The story never asks why our government doesn’t have the money or resources to treat brain-injured veterans, especially since we supposedly honor and respect their sacrifice. Again: One of the reasons is because people like Art Fisher don’t pay enough in taxes.

The report doesn’t even raise the issue. Instead it gives the floor to Fisher, who sneers that “we can build (a veterans’ brain injury facility) in half the time, half the cost and twice the quality” (as the government can).

The numbers say otherwise. Government health care is more efficient, and more cost-efficient, than its private-sector counterparts. And its greatest cost limitations come from the restrictions which Republicans (beneficiaries of these donors’ generosity) have placed on its ability to negotiate prices and manage its services.

The Kindness of Billionaires

“All he asked of the government was to stay out of his way.”

That’s Art Fisher’s agenda, and it’s Paul Tudor Jones’ agenda too: If you’re nice to us, and if you let us keep siphoning the nation’s wealth, a few of us will help you – just as long as the a) flattery keeps flowing, b) you keep subsidizing our gifts, and c) you relinquish control over your destinies to us. It seems to be the “60 Minutes” agenda, too.

“60 Minutes” was once a shining light of independent journalism. Now it’s a covert mouthpiece for the far-right, anti-government values of the Peterson crowd. Once it spoke to, and for, a majority whose interests it fought to defend. Now it represents an atavistically self-centered billionaire class which expects flattery from its subjects whenever it deigns to take notice of their misery. CBS News, I want my hour back. But then, I want my country back, too.

Tick-tick-tick. They’ll be back next week with another edition of “60 Minutes”.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Curiously, the CBS web page which touts his work also tells us that “Bill Clinton tried to get Led Zeppelin back together.” I don’t get the connection between these stories. That group’s bass player was John Paul Jones. Different guy altogether. Maybe the common thread is the Clintons, who have benefited mightily from the generosity of hedge funders. You’re not likely to find them challenging the “60 Minutes” narrative.

[2] Twenty percent of New Yorkers – one in five – live in poverty. Neither Pelley nor Jones seems curious about that – at least, not curious enough to investigate it.

[3] I don’t know why the CBS News website uses so many commas in its sentences. It’s distracting and hard to read, but that’s how they transcribe their scripts.

[4] The money-making talent doesn’t always equate with intelligence per se, although there are forms of intelligence that can be used to accumulate great wealth. Some billionaires are very gifted people. But sometimes average intelligence, when combined with rapacious greed, personality quirks, or character defects, can do the trick very effectively. And sometimes “idiot savant” is a better description of their gifts than “genius.”

[5] Let’s assume that Jones’ wealth comes from income taxed at the “hedge fund loophole” rate of 15 percent. (That’s generous, since he and his fellow billionaires often pay far less than that.) That would mean that he earned $4.235 billion and paid $635 million in taxes.

[6] Conservatives love to claim that the actual top tax rate under Eisenhower was much less than that. They base that argument on a simple math error, or deception, which has been explained elsewhere.

[7] Here’s the math: Even if all the donors were hedge funders (which is unlikely), they were able to write $1.2 billion off at a 15 percent rate, which comes to $180 million. At the 35 percent Bush tax-cut rate, the figure comes to $420 million in lost tax revenue. (We’re assuming these deductions came to less than 50 percent of donors’ adjusted gross income, which is the limit for charitable deductions.)

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician. He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology. Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries.

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