More lies we live by: How exactly did America come to love billionaires so much?

Our fawning attitude toward the super-rich would once have been anti-American. Now it's the essence of our nation

Published April 4, 2021 8:01AM (EDT)

Rich man wearing smoking jacket raising glass, portrait (Getty Images)
Rich man wearing smoking jacket raising glass, portrait (Getty Images)

This article is the second in a two-part series, beginning with "'Big Government' and other lies we live by."

The idea of having an obligation toward others as fellow citizens — let alone fellow human beings — which is scorned or condemned when used as an argument for reducing inequality, becomes sacrosanct when deployed to protect inequality and, of course, war. It's "dog eat dog" or "every man for himself" except when it's "United we stand" in the "War on Terror," or "Support our troops," or "One Nation under God" or, in the face of a pandemic, "We're all in this together." But there is no contradiction here. There is an obligation toward society, but it's one that mostly extends upward, toward our "betters" and the great nation of which they are seen as the supreme embodiment.  

Given our conditioning, we readily imagine the have-nots envying and coveting the bounty of the haves and consider that to be evil, shameful, a sin of sins. "Thou shalt not covet." But we don't judge the insatiability of the haves, their drive to grab everything they can for themselves. We may even admire or envy them for it, as many do Donald Trump. He and his cronies were so wonderfully shameless, the very image of history's elite barbarians, as Nietzsche describes them. 

In a fascinating article "How Billionaires See Themselves," Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs examines the memoirs of a slew of billionaires. To a man, they deny that money was their primary motivation. It was just a happy byproduct of their success in benefiting society. However, their careers, by their own accounts, say otherwise. What good they did, if any, was the byproduct. What they knew — in some cases, all they knew — was how to take advantage of situations and the work of other people to benefit themselves. What sets them all apart from the herd, their special "gift," is a single-minded devotion to making money. We might say they have the Midas touch or honor them artists of the almighty dollar. A Walt Whitman would find a more poetic way of referring to them as an item in his catalog of democracy.  

As Robinson understates it, "A rich person is not necessarily rich because they created value. They might simply, as Marx suggested, have found ways to extract value from the labor of others. … When we analyze what these men actually do, their social function begins to seem far more questionable."

So what, say you: They create jobs and bring other benefits, including philanthropic contributions. So what, say I: Better economic policies could achieve as much or more with fewer harmful side effects. The Sackler family, once known, if at all, for its benefactions, became notorious as purveyors of opioids. 

The issue of billionaires came up during the 2020 Democratic primary debates because of tax and antitrust proposals made by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Were billionaires as indifferent to money as they claim to be, would those proposals have alarmed them so much? Some big Democratic donors threw a fit, threatening to support Trump if either of those reprobates became the nominee. The arrogance of Michael Bloomberg buying his way into the race as it threatened to turn dangerous — and the cravenness of the Democratic Party in immediately allowing him a place in the debates — were enough to shock some of us. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media sprang to the defense of the billionaire class, as if it were a sin to criticize them. 

We would be better off not beholden to them, which is worse for us morally than any so-called dependence on government. (I have great respect for anonymous donors. How I wish the late David H. Koch had been among them, instead of being allowed to plaster his name on the former New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.) Our attitude toward our "betters" is too often one of fawning. "Identify up!" sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff is said to have counseled his students — gratuitously, in my view. It is a lesson Barack Obama seems to have taken to heart early. How alike Obama, Clinton and Reagan — products of modest backgrounds — were in their self-identification with the haves. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher likewise. The fascination with celebrities, nurtured assiduously, is ubiquitous. 

Needless to say, identifying up, however slavish it may be, is not at all what is meant by "slave morality," as described and stigmatized by Nietzsche. In life if not in his philosophy, the ressentiment of those nursing a grievance is often directed downward, from those who have little to those who have less. Nietzsche's own petty bourgeois resentment of the people, which was the basis of his rejection of the modern state — it allows people to vote and to form unions, compounding the error of Christianity, which allows everyone a soul of equal value to God — is a case in point. "Identify up" has a corollary: "Pass judgment down." Think of the mind- and morality-killing subservience to authority — presumed authority, in that case — of the fast-food restaurant manager in the 2012 film "Compliance." 

When those in question are ordinary people, like the homeowners victimized in the 2008 housing collapse, the political rhetoric is of personal responsibility and the necessity of paying for one's mistakes. When the people are those who hold power, like the perpetrators and facilitators of the housing bubble, the rhetoric is of human fallibility — we all make mistakes, and who could possibly have known? — and our duty to forgive and forget. Besides, one should never presume to question one's "betters." It is right that they have their losses made good immediately while ordinary people pay the price, and go on paying it. Another example of "small" or "limited" government in action.   

In effect we accept the dictum that whatever issues from a sense of power (or can be so construed) is life-affirming and life-enhancing, however cruel or destructive, whereas whatever issues from a sense of weakness (or can be so construed) is fatally compromised. In short, inequality is good; efforts to alleviate it are bad, or at least counterproductive. Our attitude toward political violence is similarly skewed: We judge violence from below, against authority, far more harshly than violence from above, if we judge the latter unfavorably at all.

Our political language manifests the outlook and objectives of those at the top. Thus, worker-disempowering laws have been allowed to pass for generations as "right-to-work" laws. A law that bribes workers, in effect, not to join unions and that leaves them, under ordinary circumstances, at the mercy of their employers is sold as liberating. The worker is flattered as a proud, free individual capable of fighting her own battles. Except that she doesn't have to. Thanks to "right-to-work" laws, she can reap the rewards of union membership — temporarily, at least — without having to pay dues. Who says there's no "free lunch"?

Think of the fun that both Democratic and Republican politicians and their patrons have had in recent decades with the once constructive words "reform" or "modernization" on anti-regulatory or anti-welfare legislation when "gutting" or "demolition" would be more like it. "Reform" has become America-speak for reversing reforms that serve the public interest in favor of catering to the wealthy. "Welfare reform" in 1996 ended welfare as we had known it for 60 years, namely the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program. How satisfying it must have been for reformed and modernized Democrat Bill Clinton to kill off that crucial piece of his party's New Deal heritage! And he went on to kill Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Exchange Act of 1936, replacing the latter with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated over-the-counter derivatives. Think of what more he might have "accomplished" — Social Security was in his sights — but for Monica Lewinsky! 

"School reform," in progress for some 25 years, has meant shortchanging public education while funding private, unaccountable charter schools generously. "Entitlement reform," an ongoing battle of even longer standing, has meant undermining other social programs, especially Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in order to pave the way for handing the funds over to Wall Street. As a parting gift, the Trump administration bequeathed an experiment to privatize Medicare — presented as an improved version — as Diane Archer told RJ Eskow of the Zero Hour podcast and YouTube program. Going under the innocuous title of the "Geographic Direct Contracting Model," the experiment is set to start next January. Talk about black humor! 

Consider "entitlement." The very word calls up visions of spoiled, demanding children, but what are we to make of those who begrudge the less-favored their modest "entitlements"? They feel entitled to demand first dibs on every penny paid out by government.

"Entitlement" in the pejorative sense is a descendant of "coddling," a Victorian term reserved for measures benefiting the working class. Current use of the term refers exclusively to programs for the population at large, not to the entitlements reserved for government's largest beneficiaries and the supremely corrupting sense of entitlement that goes with them.    

"Entitlements" are charged with "breeding dependency" or of being "demoralizing," but as I argued in a previous article, the real trouble is that they encourage not idleness but uppityness or insubordination — hardly the attitude a warfare state like ours seeks to encourage. Citizens owe absolute, unquestioning fealty to this mightiest of nations, but are provided with the straw man of "government" on which to expend any spillover hostility.

"Entitlements" encourage us to make demands — demands of the sort that government exists to answer — instead of leaving it to our "betters" to decide what's best for us after meeting their own needs, as so-called limited government calls for. Is it any wonder that seniors, with their Social Security and their Medicare, have gotten so high and mighty, so far above themselves? Daring to speak up on behalf of these programs, they have made themselves targets in a campaign to stir up intergenerational hostility as a means of helping the most entitled strengthen their grip on the economy. It speaks volumes that encouraging such hostility is hailed as "fiscally responsible," whereas calling attention to the elite's self-interest in "entitlement reform" is "divisive" and "class warfare."

People who actually need Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, like those receiving government assistance of any kind, are obviously inferior and have no right to expect, much less demand, anything. The fact that they earned their benefits through taxes on their wages means nothing. Having worked for them is not enough. They should have amassed enough wealth to do without those "entitlements." 

Their failure to do so marks them out as morally inferior, unworthy of the country they are privileged to live in. (The poor are just plain un-American.) How dare they give the lie to America the Land of Opportunity! Welfare or charity — alms, as we used to call them — is all they deserve. At least then they would have to face up to their inferiority, though some enterprising and public-spirited folks propose to fund people's retirements by risking the tax dollars that now go toward Social Security in the stock market.

The unceasing bipartisan campaign against Social Security and Medicare points up another objectionable feature of "entitlements." They tend to unite the population, something (absent a pandemic) to be reserved for shopping, entertainment, sports, supporting our troops and voting Republican or Democratic. Shouldn't those anodyne diversions be enough? What more do people want? "Entitlements" are objectionable for the same reason labor unions are: They empower people by virtue of mere numbers rather than wealth and income. He who pays the piper ought to call the tune. Or, as the Supreme Court says, money talks. 

The more our government caters to the wealthy and powerful, the greater their sense of entitlement grows. What they do not want, and will no longer tolerate, is backtalk from the general public. The latter must be cowed, not coddled, re-educated — through austerity measures, for example — to expect little from government beyond the compensatory satisfaction (which is not to be underestimated) of identifying with the mightiest nation on earth. Its government properly exists for, and rightfully belongs to, the wealthy and powerful.

More than half a century ago, historian William Appleman Williams called on us to choose between democracy and empire. In those Cold War days, the idea of America as an empire was inadmissible. Our Soviet enemy was an empire. Today, we shoulder the burden of empire proudly. As Republican strategist Karl Rove said in 2004 when we were wreaking havoc in Iraq, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Ditto our own morality.  The fruits of empire, among which Williams in the 1960s could count an increasingly widely shared prosperity — which he saw as inextricably linked to imperial capitalism, and thus profoundly flawed — made it easy to blind ourselves to our bargain with the devil.

Since then, the distribution of income and wealth has been redirected upward — "reformed" or "modernized," as it were. Not, let us note, "redistributed." "Redistribution" is a bad word, reeking of ressentiment, only to be applied to measures that would benefit the lower three-quarters of the population. Indeed, current thinking justifies gross economic and political inequality, though some concede that ours may have gone a bit far. Now that many of our fellow citizens are less secure and hopeful economically, — are in effect no longer being bought off, and beginning to feel the yoke of empire — are they any more ready to question the supposedly benign nature of American power? Or will they continue to hug their greatness-of-America illusions and look anywhere else for the source of their problems?

The trouble with the D.H. Lawrence poem I began these two articles with, as I see now, is that it takes the onus off the polluters of language. People are too willing to swallow official lies, but that does not excuse those who benefit from our deception. We should be spared official lies in the first place. Power should speak truth to us and refuse the dodge of "national security," its security blanket. Until it does so, democracy, which we all claim to revere, will continue to be subverted, and war and inequality will thrive.

On the other hand, there's another Lawrence poem whose sentiment I have always liked, though it's not a great poem. One of his "Pansies" (a play on the philosopher Pascal's Pensées), the poem implores the "God of Justice" to spare "the people" any more saviors, but teach us to save ourselves instead.  

By Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

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