While some of the most famous ultra-rich Americans—such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and the Koch Brothers—have very public profiles and readily disclose where they stand ideologically or on key issues, new research reveals that a cabal of the U.S. billionaires largely operates in the shadows as they use their vast wealth and influence to maintain their status and undermine democracy.
"Both as individuals and as contributors to Koch-type consortia, most U.S. billionaires have given large amounts money—and many have engaged in intense activity—to advance unpopular, inequality-exacerbating, highly conservative economic policies."
In a piece published by the Guardian on Wednesday, Northwestern University professors Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe lay out the findings of their "exhaustive, web-based study of everything that the 100 wealthiest U.S. billionaires have said or done, over a 10-year period, concerning several major issues of public policy."
The trio of researchers found that "both as individuals and as contributors to Koch-type consortia, most U.S. billionaires have given large amounts money—and many have engaged in intense activity—to advance unpopular, inequality-exacerbating, highly conservative economic policies."
Their research, also detailed in their forthcoming book Billionaires and Stealth Politics, shows that despite spending tons of money over the past decade to advance policies that safeguard and even expand their wealth, "billionaires who favor unpopular, ultraconservative economic policies, and work actively to advance them (that is, most politically active billionaires) stay almost entirely silent about those issues in public."
"Billionaires have plenty of media access, but most of them choose not to say anything at all about the policy issues of the day. They deliberately pursue a strategy of what we call 'stealth politics,'" the researchers explain. "This sort of stealth politics," which enables wealthy individuals to stay off the radar of the general public and avoid political accountability while wielding significant influence over politicians and government institutions, "is harmful to democracy."
We know billionaires exert a lot of influence on American politics. But what do they want?
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While the researchers examined American billionaires' stances on everything from same-sex marriage and abortion to immigration and taxation, as a clear example of such stealth politics in action, they point to Social Security. Among the American public, Social Security—which provides retirement, disability, and survivors' benefits—is immensely popular, perhaps more so than any other safety net program.
However, as the researchers report, "Most of the wealthiest U.S. billionaires have made substantial financial contributions—amounting to hundreds of thousands of reported dollars annually, in addition to any undisclosed 'dark money' contributions—to conservative Republican candidates and officials who favor the very unpopular step of cutting rather than expanding social security benefits. Yet, over the 10-year period we have studied, 97 percent of the wealthiest billionaires have said nothing at all about Social Security policy."
Covert efforts by the American billionaire class to dismantle safety net programs come amid rising wealth inequality that "is largely the result of rapidly growing wealth dynasties and a rigged economy that enables the ultra-wealthy to grow their wealth to never-before-seen highs," noted Josh Hoxie of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), who co-authored a new report detailing how U.S. billionaires have have been able to hoard their money and pass it on to heirs.
To combat the issue of American billionaires using their outsize wealth and power "to rig the political rules and preserve and expand their private wealth dynasties," the IPS report argues that imposing "a direct tax on wealth paid by the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent could generate significant revenue to be reinvested in creating and restoring opportunities for low wealth households to prosper," and that "taxing inherited wealth as income would help break up current and future wealth dynasties."