Some books are years ahead of their time, while others are stale before they are printed. The Trouble with Billionaires, which was published last September, was almost perfectly timed, hitting the bookshelves just as we became aware of the increasing influence of a handful of billionaires on the political system in the United States. Although the authors are Canadian (McQuaig a journalist, and Brooks one of the top tax academics in the world), they perfectly captured the current political moment in the U.S. The super-wealthy now truly run the show, and they are less shy than ever about doing so.
Given the time delays in publishing, the substantive work on this book was completed months before it had become clear that the Koch brothers, the billionaire brothers who made their fortune with bare-knuckled tactics in the coal industry, had engaged in a full-on effort – successful, as it turned out – to buy the U.S. mid-term elections. Indeed, even though the book is based on careful research about political influence by billionaires, the Kochs’ names do not even appear in the book’s index. The book’s title, in retrospect, could have been: The Trouble With Billionaires is That Too Many of Them Act Like the Koch Brothers.
Other than being eerily prescient, however, what is so new about a book that deplores concentrations of wealth? Is it not standard fare on the political left (and even toward the center) to lament the increasing stratification of incomes in the U.S. and elsewhere? Actually, there is quite a bit of disagreement, even among American liberals, about these issues. As McQuaig and Brooks point out, some top American academics who identify as liberal/left have taken the position that the central issue in distributive justice is not actually distribution across the income spectrum, but only the eradication of poverty at the bottom of the heap. These thinkers argue that it is both unnecessary and unwise to expend political effort trying to rein in upper incomes, because our energies would be better spent trying to help the neediest among us.
This is a defensible position. If there were no serious problems facing non-rich people – that is, if we were confident that no one would die because she had to choose between putting food on the table or buying medicine, and that small changes in luck could not destroy peoples’ lives in a cascade of disasters linked to being forever on the edge of insolvency – then why would anyone care whether some people are doing extraordinarily better than everyone else? In those happy circumstances, we would not need to worry about the existence of the hyper-rich, even if we believed that every single one of them had accumulated their fortunes through “the ovarian lottery” (a term coined by multibillionaire Warren Buffett) or other dumb luck. Why begrudge other peoples’ good fortunes when no one is suffering because of them?
McQuaig and Brooks have an answer to that question, one that I find completely convincing. (They do not claim to be plowing new ground, of course. Who could hope to do so, on a subject as central to modern politics as distributive justice and tax policy?) They offer a reasoned, two-prong response to the question of why it is necessary to make the hyper-rich less rich, rather than simply making the poor no longer poor and the middle class no longer so vulnerable to disaster.
The first prong is that the wealthy are not content simply to enjoy their wealth, while leaving the rest of the world alone. They are able to affect politics to their advantage, and they are eager to do so. They affect politics explicitly, as when they give money directly to politicians, think tanks, and Astroturf political organizations. More insidiously, they also affect politics simply by being known to be willing to intervene. One definition of power, after all, is being able to get one’s way without expending any effort, or even needing to ask for what one wants. The hyper-rich have made sure that politicians know that some policies are unacceptable and unthinkable to the wealthy. The political class then makes sure that those unthinkable policies – should anyone be so gauche as to articulate them – are laughed or shouted out of the room. The book’s first chapter, “Return of the Plutocrats,” sets the stage for this sustained argument. The trouble with billionaires, then, is that they get what they want, and they have the means to do so in a way that makes it seem that they are not pulling the strings at all.
While the first prong of McQuaig and Brooks’s argument is that the rich can get what they want from the political system, which might seem obvious (at least, after one sets aside the idea that we are supposed to be living in a democracy), their second prong answers the less obvious follow-up question: Why do we think that the hyper-rich want things that are bad for the rest of us? In fact, as the authors point out, it might be logical to imagine that truly wealthy people will become less selfish as they get more of what they want, so that we might one day find ourselves in a pleasant equilibrium in which the billionaires ease up on the whip and allow the political system to benefit the less fortunate. This argument is also appealing because it seems to be a first cousin to the (almost certainly true) argument that democracies become less tolerant when their economies turn bad, with everyone fighting each other for the scraps. (This is certainly an apt description of the U.S. today.)
McQuaig and Brooks respond by simply pointing to the facts. Rather than seeing evidence of less self-serving political manipulation by the wealthy as they have become ever wealthier, we always and everywhere see them becoming more grasping, more shameless, and more ruthless. Political cultures might become more humane when the entire country is experiencing broad-based prosperity, but they become more brutal when the prosperity is controlled by a few plutocrats with bottomless appetites for wealth and power.
The book concludes with a bold list of redistributive policy prescriptions, none of which are currently thinkable in the U.S. (or, apparently, in many other countries). McQuaig and Brooks’s achievement lies in making the argument that extreme wealth will do all that it can to perpetuate itself, including making taxing the rich politically toxic. The answer is not to pretend that we can ignore the power of the wealthy. The only answer is to confront it.