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Does Anyone 'Deserve' to Be a Billionaire?

Most of the candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination seem to have no problem with the presence of grand private fortunes

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The two dozen candidates for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination all have extremely busy schedules. Especially this week, what with the first candidate debates in Miami.

So none of us should be surprised that none of the Democratic Party’s White House hopefuls showed up this past Tuesday at the landmark Taxing the (Very) Richconference that two of the nation’s top progressive think tanks — the Economic Policy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies — hosted in Washington, D.C.

That rates as a real shame. A lost opportunity. Some of the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates could have learned great deal at the conference. In fact, most of the candidates could have learned a great deal. Most of the these candidates, a newly released New York Times survey shows, have next to no clue why anyone ought to be up in arms about how jaw-droppingly wealthy our wealthiest have become.

The Times gave all the prime candidates for the Democratic nomination a slate of 18 questions, on everything from policy (“Would your focus be improving the Affordable Care Act or replacing it with single payer?”) to the personal (“What do you do to relax?”).

Some of the questions had a distinct edge.

“Do you think it’s possible for the next president,” the Times queried, “to stop climate change?”

The last of the 18 questions had the sharpest edge of all.

“Does anyone,” the Times asked, “deserve to have a billion dollars?”

This just may be the most important question a mainstream news outlet has asked presidential candidates since America’s richest began crushing the egalitarian ethos of the mid-20th century. The great plutocratic comeback of the last four decades has rested on the notion of a “deserving” rich.

The rich deserve their good fortune, cheerleaders for concentrated wealth assure us. They create jobs. Their genius makes our lives easier. The lush rewards they pocket give us all an incentive to achieve.

Politicians who buy into this notion of “deservedness” play right into the plutocratic narrative. If the unreasonably rich “deserve” their wealth, after all, then any action that appreciably limits that wealth amounts to an assault on us all, not just the rich, since the rest of us would be hopelessly lost without the benefits their “genius” and their “hard work” bestow upon us.

Who among the Democratic candidates accept this deservedness rationale for grand private fortune? Many more than you might think.

The New York Times put its billionaire question, on camera, to 21 candidates for the Democratic Party’s 2020 nomination. One candidate, former vice president Joe Biden, declined to answer the billionaire query — or any of other 17 questions the Times asked.

Among the remaining candidates, the billionaire question did draw some predictable responses. The two candidates with business backgrounds both see no reason to doubt the deservedness of billionaires as a class.

“Do I think there’s something intrinsically wrong, there being billionaires in the world?” the high-tech exec Andrew Yang told the Times. “No, I do not.”

“Does someone deserve a billion dollars if they do something great? Sure,” answered John Delaney, a wealthy former member of Congress.

Other responses endorsing the notion that, yes, billionaires could be deserving came — somewhat surprisingly — from candidates who’ve positioned themselves as staunch proponents of greater equality. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio won his first mayoral election attacking America’s new Gilded Age, but he gave an answer that left no daylight between him and either Yang or Delaney.

“People work hard and make a lot of money,” de Blasio opined. “I don’t begrudge them that they earn their money.”

The mayor had plenty of candidate company.

Eric Swalwell, a member of Congress from California: “If you work hard, this should be a country where your potential is limitless.”

Tulsi Gabbard, a member of Congress from Hawaii: “Those who work and earn money in this country, it’s not a bad thing.”

Former housing secretary Julián Castro: “If they’ve worked hard and come about it fairly.”

Kamala Harris, senator from California: “If they earn it and work hard for it, sure.”

All these comments feed the most basic of rationales for grand fortunes: The wealthy, we’re told, work hard for their money. But grand fortune has never come from the actual labor outrageously wealthy people may do. Grand fortune comes from the control the rich hold over assets. Billionaires don’t build their billions paycheck by paycheck. Their billions come from the money their money makes.

Philip Stallworth, an analyst at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, detailed the latest stats on the source of deep-pocket income earlier this year. The “vast majority of us,” Stallworth notes, “make our livings almost entirely from wages, salaries, or other forms of labor compensation.” Americans in the top 1 percent make for the “sole exception,” and, Stallworth’s analysis goes on to note, the higher up within the top 1 percent you go, the lower the share of your income that comes from the actual labor you do.

Within the top 0.1 percent, a mere fifth of total income comes from the compensation employment brings. Much more of annual top 0.1 percent income — over half — comes from “capital income,” the interest, dividends, and capital gains the rich make by owning and trading stocks and bonds, real estate, and other assets. Most all the rest of top 0.1 percent income stems from the profits of the businesses these deep pockets own — and this profit income comes above and beyond whatever top 0.1 percenters might draw from their businesses as salary and bonus

Wealth, in short, begets lots more wealth, a reality most 2020 candidates show no sign of getting — or caring much about. They mouth instead the feeblest of clichés.

“We live in a country that is founded on the principle of equal opportunity,” as presidential candidate Seth Moulton, a member of Congress from Massachusetts, put it. “We are not a country of equal results.”

Other 2020 candidates, confronted with the Times deserving billionaire question, simply punted.

“I’m not sure anybody cosmically or morally deserves to have a billion dollars,” expressed South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. “but I don’t hold it against them.”

“I don’t know how to call it ‘deserve,’” added Washington State governor Jay Inslee. ‘‘Deserve’ is in the eye of the beholder.”

And all of us would love to behold, pronounced former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a grand fortune in our bank account: “I think that people in this country have always had the aspirational values to make a billion dollars.”

Still other candidates responded to the Times query on the deservedness of billionaires by pivoting to the plight of Americans of modest means.

“Somebody may well deserve if they’ve earned $1 billion,” replied Montana governor Steve Bullock, “but I’m more concerned about the person that deserves to be able to take care of their family.”

Answered Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar: “The key to me is: How does our country make sure that there’s shared prosperity?”

“A democracy cannot survive this lack of economic mobility,” agreed Colorado senator Michael Bennet, “and that’s what the next President has to address.”

The core problem, several other candidates contended, comes when billionaires don’t pull their weight and help society advance.

The rich, insisted Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, “should certainly pay more in taxes.”

“I’m bothered,” lamented New Jersey senator Cory Booker, “when people don’t understand that they have an obligation to use their best measure of devotion, of resources, to sacrifice for the common good.”

“When kids are struggling with a trillion and a half dollars in student debt,” as senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts put it, “then I got a lot of problems with billionaires who are not paying their fair share.”

“We have grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality,” posited senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. “We need an economic system and we need a tax system which demands that the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes. My guess is that when you do that, you’re not going to have too many billionaires left.”

None, two candidates said plainly, would be the appropriate number that should be left.

“I don’t know that anybody deserves to have a billion dollars,” former congressman Beto O’Rourke from Texas noted.

Echoed senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York: “I think no, no one deserves to have a billion dollars.”

Speakers at Tuesday’s Tax the (Very) Rich conference took those two sentiments an important step further. None of us, their presentations carefully explained, deserve the burden that the presence of billionaires in our society creates.

Conference keynoter Paul Krugman put that burden in terms of our contemporary deficit in democracy. Extreme wealth, the New York Times columnist detailed, “has degraded the ability of our political system to deal with real problems.”

That same extreme wealth, economist Heather Boushey of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth added, “obstructs, subverts, and distorts” the economic development that makes for shared prosperity.

We clearly need to become a significantly more equal society, Duke University’s Nancy MacLean followed up. But that greater equality will be difficult to achieve, she went on, because our ultra rich are leading a charge to perpetuate “our catastrophic concentration of wealth.” Billionaires and their allies are spending large fortunes “to pin the political pendulum to the right so that it can’t swing back again.”

MacLean, the author of the widely praised Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, sees our democracy “in profound danger.” Right-wing billionaires are quietly pushing for a new constitutional convention to lock in their gains of the past four decades. They need 34 states supporting such a move. They have 28 already lined up.

Can this constitutional putsch be stopped? Certainly. But we’ll stop nothing until we have a president in the White House who sees mega private fortune as a menace, not a reward for “working hard.”

Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 and Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.