(image by Wikipedia)
So, when a billionaire engages in charity, we should maintain the same unmoved skepticism Jesus did in citing a poor widow's far greater comparative charity, since she alone faces any risk of want. But what's far more pertinent, we should probably smell a rat. Anyone corrupt enough to become a billionaire in the first place is very likely unable to give with any purity, without the vile self-interest that created the usurpation of unjust wealth sneaking in and performing its insidious dirty work. Such are the suspicions I harbor toward Pierre Omidyar and his new, supposedly independent, journalistic enterprise.
The only thing that makes me hesitate to condemn it outright is the quality and integrity of the journalists he's enlisted--the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. Doubtless, in an age of corporate media monopoly and corporate-will-enforcing government censorship, Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill pragmatically sense the need to fight fire with fire, to pit public-spirited billionaire megabucks against the mountainous pile of democracy- and planet-destroying ones. And I, who have suggested that in our desperate political plight, the Green Party should pragmatically abandon its scruples (until Citizens United is overturned and campaign contributions radically reformed) and solicit contributions from well-heeled renewable-energy donors, have no right to complain of their pragmatism. It saddens me--when it doesn't make me boil with rage--that my own plutocrat-hostile opinion pieces are confined to the ghetto of alternative progressive media. So I, as an opinionated amateur, can only imagine the sentiments of deeply skilled investigative journalists who appear to cherish the common good.
I would never even consider the potential corruption of such fine, public-spirited journalists, if I didn't find billionaires so morally repulsive. Of course, there's the sheer callousness of feeling oneself entitled to so much, when so many fellow human beings live on so little. But my loathing for the excessively rich goes far beyond that, and stems, I believe, from my deep love for democracy--and ultimately, hatred of bullying.
See, I recall reading in C.S. Lewis an analysis supporting Jesus' low regard for the very rich and their dismal prospects of attaining heaven. Lewis, thinking in terms of the British currency of his day, toted up the annual income needed to acquire virtually every creature comfort one could possibly enjoy at roughly 10,000 British pounds. Now, we could certainly adjust that for inflation, and perhaps also for the limited luxury imagination of a contented scholar like Lewis. But the important take-home lesson from Lewis is that there's a point--a point long ago overshot by any billionaire--where one's extra income isn't buying a personally pleasurable ounce of extra luxury or comfort. Even Bill Gates has acknowledged as much, and the greater marginal utility of an extra dollar to a poor consumer than to a rich one has long been a staple of economics.
So the question inevitably becomes, Just what of any value to rich individuals is their excessive wealth buying? And if we give this question due scrutiny, I believe the motives revealed are none-too-reputable. For example, Warren Buffett--reputed one of the "good" billionaires--has spoken of money as a way of keeping score. Now granted, few of us, especially few raised in a competitive society like ours, are immune to the ego gratification of coming out on top. But come on, in a world where so many needlessly live in misery, anxiety, and life-threatening danger due to poverty, you're going to hoard wealth so your ego can keep score! Hardly free of ego myself, I can't begin to admire anyone this shallow. As my wise friend Joe astutely said, "If they want to prove they're so friggin' intellectually superior, why can't they just play chess?" For me, the sheer shallowness of keeping score at life-threatening cost to others trumps any notion of intellectual superiority. If you're so God-damn rich, why ain't you smart?
Tragically, even in Buffett's case, I suspect the shallowness of "keeping score," while real, barely scratches the motivation surface; something far deeper--far more deeply evil--is at play. For ultimately, what excess wealth buys is control--even tyranny--over other people's lives. Perhaps this is even the real meaning of keeping score: not the shallow boast of topping the Forbes wealthiest list, but the godlike ability to make other human beings dance to one's will. And if this ability is "godlike," it's certainly not in fashion of the loving God of Christianity, but of the spoiled, vindictive, arbitrary, egotistical bullies of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Simply put, money spells might, and might makes right.
While I buy, to a limited extent, the notion of wealth as a reward for socially beneficial economic effort, the wealth of billionaires is anything but. If we stick simply to economics, I believe that excessive wealth is best analyzed as a negative externality--an undesired and undesirable effect of letting the market (which, importantly, never exists in pure form, but only under the rules society decides on) do its own thing. And if these are bad rules, the "free" action of the market will be a bad thing.
Before returning to Omidyar and Greenwald, I wish to show by example why I consider billionaire wealth a negative externality. Now, in a society that supposedly treasures democracy, and in nation where checks and balances against unaccountable power were supposedly put in place, vast unelected and unaccountable power is presumably a very bad thing. Yet, this is quite clearly the side effect of the market, as it now functions in the United States. Consumers who buy, for example, the Koch brothers' oil and gas, never elected the Koch brothers; in many cases, they never even heard of the Koch brothers. Yet because they sell massive quantities of a product on which every industrial society depends, inevitably--unless society places limits on their acquisition of wealth--they acquire a level of wealth that gives them godlike power over other lives. Not, mind you, because voters noted their wisdom and chose to give them that control, but because the Kochs and folks like them used their excessive wealth to exert undue power on the political process and media to slant society's rules to their benefit. And, given that the Kochs' fossil fuel product now plays the central role in destroying our climate and human civilization along with it, this unaccountable, unelected power violates the common good. It's hard to imagine a worse externality--the unchosen, catastrophic effect of "free" consumer decisions under perverse economic rules. The market--not voters--has elected genocidal tyrants king.
While the Kochs' case is a particularly vile and perverse one, it forcefully illustrates the sheer folly of giving any individual such unelected, accountable power over other people's lives. Any billionaire has such unelected, unaccountable power over other lives, and I personally cannot think well of any individual who thinks he or she deserves it. I see, rather, a sinister, arrogant desire to impose one's will--often with life-or-death effect--on other lives.
Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill, due precisely to the bad rules governing our markets that give billionaires such influence, have made the understandable strategic decision to work for one such unaccountable billionaire, precisely because he claims to be different and will resist the others. Given the unjust usurpation of power in merely being a billionaire, that claim must be treated with the utmost skepticism. Greenwald, with the highest profile and clearly a man of conscience, has already bristled at the suggestion that he has sold out. Where the accusation comes from pro-spying lackeys, I find Greenwald's raised hackles totally justified. But Mammon's documented power is notorious. Only by our keeping relentless pressure on Greenwald and his colleagues to report the truth contrary to plutocrat interests can Omidyar's enterprise have even a prayer of fulfilling its muckraking, democracy-serving promise.