How billionaires weaponize their huge fortunes to get more for themselves — at the expense of the rest of us
The rich aren't merely different from you and me. ... They're ridiculous!
I mean the uber-rich, the billionaire barons of Wall Street who literally live above the real world and are clueless about the gross inequality their financial schemes are creating. Take Kenneth Griffin, a hedge fund tycoon who's the latest gold medal champion of conspicuous consumption. He just paid an obscene $238 million for a sprawling 24,000-square-foot New York City penthouse located 79 stories above street level at Central Park South -- a strip nicknamed "Billionaire Row." Griffin's splurge on three floors of the luxury building is the most expensive residential purchase in U.S. history, exceeding the excesses of robber barons in the Gilded Age.
Adding to the overindulgence, he will live in his mansion in the sky only occasionally, for he also has a little $60 million penthouse in Miami, a backup $122 million mansion in London and posh crash pads elsewhere. Griffin is the poster child for that disgraceful Trump-GOP tax cut for the superrich, which they passed by claiming that beneficiaries like Griffin would put their windfall into jobs and wage increases for the working class.
Interestingly, his exclusive new skyscraper residence replaces a modest, 20-story building of affordable, rent-controlled apartments where dozens of middle-class tenants lived. All of them were evicted by the corporate developers to provide opulent digs for a few house-hopping billionaires. That ought to be illegal, but instead a state law specifically empowers high-dollar landlords to toss out middle-class and low-income tenants, demolish their apartments and put up a swanky new building. If you wonder where inequality and America's affordable-housing crisis comes from ... there it is.
Yet, Griffin is so out of touch with reality that he has complained that rich elites like him have "insufficient influence" in politics. Really, Ken? Who had the political clout to eject dozens of families from their homes?
Once upon a time, there was a place where the prevailing ethic of the very richest people was that monetary self-indulgence was tacky, and they had an awareness that wealth was a matter of good fortune, carrying with it an obligation to the Common Good.
Believe it or not, that place was the USA! Where did it go?
The prevailing ethic of today's billionaires club is one of entitlement, superiority and grandiosity -- including flaunting their wealth like the robber barons of old. They've contrived a new Gilded Age of plutocratic privilege, with the same sort of excesses as the old one, erecting ostentatiously enormous residences. For example, a ludicrously large "house" is now under construction in Florida for one of our modern-day barons, boasting 11 kitchens, five swimming pools, and a 30-car garage.
A monument to garish greed.
Worse, the billionaire class is asserting its sense of plutocratic privilege by weaponizing their huge fortunes to get more for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. They've been spending massively (and often secretly) to build a culture of inequality across our land, using such ploys as the Republicans' deplorable trillion-dollar tax giveaway to the rich. To their dismay, however, America's workaday majority is rebelling, with newly elected democratic populists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposing a top tax rate of 70 percent on incomes above $10 million. "Oh, the horror!" shrieked billionaires like computer magnate Michael Dell: "Name a country where that's worked," he demanded dismissively.
Okay, Michael: How about the United States?
Yes, between the end of World War II in 1945 and Ronald Reagan's start of coddle-the-rich government in 1981, the top tax rate never fell below 70 percent -- and that was a period of unparalleled growth and prosperity for America's middle class.
Dell, who lives in a sprawling 33,000-square-foot house with all the charm of a shopping mall, confuses value with money and has no grasp of the essential richness of American egalitarianism. We should not be listening to people like him (much less be governed by them) just because they are rich.
Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes "The Hightower Lowdown," a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America's ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.