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With ‘Stealth Politics,’ Billionaires Make Sure Their Money Talks

The four billionaires who served as case studies — Warren Buffett, John Menard Jr., Carl Icahn and David Koch — were selected to capture a range of political philosophies. The authors found that Buffett, for example, a moderately liberal or center-left billionaire and the most politically vocal of the four, had said “friendly things about estate taxes,” as Page puts it, but then provided no financial or other support for the cause. “Among the billionaires that we studied, the 100 wealthiest, none of them are actually working to make taxes more progressive” — and some even worked silently against the estate tax. Yet liberal billionaires have the same outsize access to politicians as their conservative peers do; they could push their own agendas. “A lot of really wealthy Americans probably can pick up the phone and talk to somebody on a high-level position in Washington pretty much anytime,” Page says.

David Koch invested heavily in conservative causes for decades before his death in 2019. He and his brother Charles recognized the importance of exercising influence in state legislatures and city councils. “That’s where voting rules are established,” Lacombe says. “That’s where congressional districts are drawn. So, a lot of the sort of rules of the game are established on those levels.” Menard, who made his fortune by founding the Menards chain of home-improvement stores, was randomly selected from the 70 or so billionaires who never made public comments about taxes or economic issues during the period under study. The researchers found that he flexed his political power by encouraging employees to take part in training exercises whose focuses included conservative positions on things like government debt and wages. (Menards banned merit-pay increases to employees involved in unionization efforts; at one point, store managers were required to sign a contract that included a clause cutting their salary by 60 percent if their branch of the store ever unionized.) Menard also donated substantially to the Koch brothers’ political causes.

Icahn, an activist investor, deviated the sharpest from the pattern found in the book. He said very little about policy, and he was also fairly inactive in politics. Then, in 2015, he endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, and he later established a $150 million super PAC dedicated to corporate tax reform.

When “Billionaires and Stealth Politics” came out in 2018, Page says, multimillionaires who made political contributions gave on average around $4,500 annually; for billionaires, the amount was $500,000. And, he emphasizes, that was just reported contributions, which means it didn’t include any so-called dark money, the political giving by undisclosed donors that was blessed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. Page adds that 21 percent of the multimillionaires in their study bundled political donations from other people. “Twenty-one percent is a lot,” he says. “But then, among the billionaires, it was 36 percent.” Among Americans overall, roughly 18 percent make political donations, usually in amounts between $25 and $100. Forty percent of all political donations come from the top 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, was elected president shortly before the book was finished, so it had to acknowledge his rise to power. “When millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump, many believed his claims of personal wealth would free him from wealthy donors and allow him to drain the swamp,” Lacombe says. “But then Trump appointed several billionaires” — including Icahn — “to high-level positions and pursued billionaire-friendly policies, such as cutting corporate income tax.” He thinks that whether or not Trump is an actual billionaire is less relevant than what he campaigned on. “The sort of populist discontent that contributed to Trump’s election spoke to what we found in interesting and even frustrating ways, in that our findings might lead you to believe that a populist could do well in elections, but there was a certain irony to that populist being a billionaire,” Lacombe says. “It’s a tragic irony. It suggested to me that our general belief that most Americans misunderstand and misperceive what billionaires say and do about politics was right.”

In 2009, Page wrote a paper with Jeffrey Winters titled “Oligarchy in the United States?” The question mark was Page’s, to allow for the possibility that democracy was still the defining feature of the American political system. To say the country was ruled by a few seemed excessive. Today — in a moment when the Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned the spotlight on Russian oligarchs — he says: “The evidence has piled up in such a way that it’s maybe not unreasonable to call some of America’s wealthiest people oligarchs. I think that’s the way I’d put it.” He pauses. “Lots of evidence.”

What makes American oligarchy different from its Russian counterpart is that it operates at significantly greater arm’s length, driven by lobbying and campaign contributions rather than outright corruption. “Russian oligarchs who are close to Putin — that’s a very special kind of thing,” Page says. “They make a ton of money in pretty direct relation to the government. A lot of them make it from government-owned or -controlled or -regulated companies. That’s substantially less true of the United States.” Page acknowledges that American oligarchy is different — it is embedded in the political system.

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