Maybe Ronald Reagan was right. Maybe the government is overrated.
If you don’t believe that, look at what we have now.
While congressional outliers like Marjorie Taylor Green and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are getting most of the media’s attention, both parties focus primarily on “owning” the other. Actually, getting anything done that benefits the country requires a certain degree of compromise, and compromise is not only hard work but no longer cool.
It’s important to remember, though, that most of the people in Congress aren’t there because they represent some significant social movement back in their home states. Rather, their presence in Washington means that a majority of voters happened to choose them over the person they were running against. They weren’t anointed or crowned, just elected.
So if Reagan’s point about government — a philosophy that has provided the backbone of the Republican Party for decades — is at all valid, who is really in charge here?
How about rich people?
The time-worn and irrational stereotypes wielded against African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Jews, and other groups are often and rightly criticized as mindless, unfair, and counterproductive. Yet rich people are stereotyped constantly, and people nod their heads.
All the while, however, the very definition of “rich” is changing. Millionaires have become commonplace — 12 million American households fit that description in 2021 — so the bar has been raised by multi-millionaires and billionaires.
As former House speaker Everett Dirksen once observed: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” A lot of that finds its way into political campaign funds.
Does that confirm the existence of a hidden cabal of the evil wealthy throwing “dark money” at elected officials in the hope of undermining our democracy? Probably not.
Numbers like those attached to Jeff Bezos ($118 billion in personal assets) are probably misleading, anyway. If someone held a gun to the Amazon founder’s head and demanded that he write them a check for all that money, he couldn’t do it because most of it is tied up in stock.
Unlike Everett Dirksen’s “real money,” stock money exists in a constant state of vulnerability. It can go up and up in value with no help from its owner, but it can also collapse in the face of some unforeseen circumstance. Just ask anyone who was heavily invested in the typewriter business at the dawn of the computer age.
Of course, no one really needs $188 billion — or even a billion. To spend it all, Bezos would have to start buying other countries.
But say you’re rich, and everybody knows it. Chances are you associate mainly with other rich people, most of whom are not all that impressed with what you’ve managed to accumulate. Along the way, you’ve discovered there are only so many luxury cars and boats and houses you can buy, so many sports teams you can own, so much rare art you can collect.
In the tune of “Life’s Been Good To Me So Far,” Joe Walsh of the Eagles sang: “I have a mansion, forget the price. Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.”
When you say “rich,” many of us envision grumpy old white guys who live in penthouses and hang out at country clubs when they’re not counting their money—kind of like Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, Trump pretended he wasn’t rich while he was massaging the “working class” at his raucous campaign rallies. No, he said, it was the shadow rich, the backstage string-pullers, who were really the cause of all their problems—those other rich guys.
But like any other group, rich people actually come in all varieties. There are those, like Trump, who were born into wealthy families. Others, like the Kansas-based Koch clan, were enriched through buying up and cleverly marketing already established products. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk made smart and lucrative bets on emerging technologies. Some succeeded in high-profile areas such as sports, TV and music, and a few gained entrance clutching a winning lottery ticket.
As a demographic, these people matter. A lot. It was reported this week that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy only came out against one of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s more outrageous statements because “very important Republican donors” had leaned on him. Greene is a multimillionaire herself, but their stash obviously trumped hers.
Politically connected rich people have a lot more to be concerned about than the popularity of “their” government officials. Their lives and fortunes are affected not by voters or ideologies, but by the consumer forces of the marketplace. They also tend to react to change much more quickly than politicians.
Before long, there may be a lot more money to be made in renewable energy and electric cars than the old energy standbys, which will help drive environmental progress. In most cases, politicians don’t oppose these things on a personal level, but rather because their donors tell them to oppose them. And the ground is shifting beneath their well-heeled sugar daddys and sugar moms even as we speak.
The Koch family has always been known for its staunch conservative battle plan and resistance to climate change legislation (bad for business), but there are signs that even the Koches might now want to be liked a little more.
In fact, family heir apparent Chase Koch told Politico: “I have found that focusing on the things you can agree on can lead to amazing opportunities to solve problems, even if you disagree on a whole host of other issues,”
He went on to add that he aims to be “a bridge-builder and an innovator focused on civil society.”
Chase Koch? Really?
Yes, some rich people are greedy, grasping, and even cruel. Whatever you may think of them as a group, though, they have the ability to be game-changers on so many levels. I might be able to send $10 or $20 to some organization I deem worthy, but Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett can rock their world.
Even if I had life savings, I wouldn’t dare risk it on some promising but iffy new thing. By contrast, really rich people can make or break an entrepreneurial enterprise while hardly making a dent in their bank accounts. If they lose, they write it off.
Maria DiMento of “The Chronicle of Philanthropy” sees a difference between the traditionalists who built up their wealth slowly over time and the new crop (hedge fund managers, YouTube heroes, NFL quarterbacks).
“They didn’t spend 25 or 30 years becoming billionaires,” she said. “It happened within a couple of years or less and it was huge.”
Athletes and entertainers are fascinating because social and cultural barriers don’t apply in their worlds. If you have genuine talent, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity might be, where you grew up, or the extent of your education.
More often than not, the old rich were able to fashion a lifestyle that walled them off from everyone else. By contrast, many athletes and entertainers grew up in poverty — or close to it — before becoming multi-millionaires. When it comes to redirecting some of that money toward social issues, they tend to remember where they came from.
Melissa Berman, an advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation, now sees “expectations that include embracing worthy causes and changing the world, which is appealing to many with the money to make a difference. Also attractive is the recognition derived from championing a cause — a motivation that has fueled philanthropy for generations.
“For many donors,” adds Berman, “the idea of being celebrated and having their names on things is tremendously appealing.”
Joe Gebbia, the 39-year-old multi-billionaire founder of Airbnb, recently donated $25 million to two San Francisco groups dedicated to helping the homeless.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate and believe that comes with the responsibility of giving back,” he said. “Where will I take it? The sky is the limit.”
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."