Hollywood taught us that Henry Potter of Bedford Falls and Gordon "greed is good"Gecko of Wall Street were villains. Middle school history class taught us that Gilded Age millionaires like Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller - ruthless and unethical - were called "robber barons." And Christian Sunday School taught us that Jesus commanded us to "renounce all that you have to be my disciple," and that the Kingdom of God belonged to the blessed poor.
My how things change in one generation.
Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller are our role models now. Potter and Gecko are smart, clever, and rich heroes. And Christ? Well, the "old" understanding of Jesus is for suckers, but we can rehabilitate His image and glorify his power and authority, (after We seize control of the narrative.)
The new Masters of the Universe have risen up from nothing and used their guile, their wits, and their strong, bare hands to build fantastic wealth. (So say the myths.) Our MOTUs command intense loyalty, and there is no squabbling over meaning and message and what draws our worship. It's simple: Wealth, no matter where it came from or how it was acquired. We worship wealth. If we are sufficiently faithful to these new masters, pious in our devotion to them, and disciplined in following their lead - somehow our reverence will bring great rewards.
But in fact, our society has rigged a system to favor the wealthy class - the top 1%. They build their fortunes, often at the expense of the middle and lower classes. This isn't news, of course, and this piece will not dissect the myriad of ways our society favors wealthy families and increases their net worth. But as a quick reminder, here are a few key reasons that "the rich get richer."
• Our education system favors wealthy neighborhoods or allows families with resources to choose private education.
• Our universities (even public ones) cost ten times what they used to, even after adjusting for inflation.
• Loans for education are often predatory.
• The cost of housing is also increasing, far outpacing inflation. Housing is being snatched up by venture capital and institutional investors which can dominate a market and affect rental rates for entire cities.
• Access to capital is much easier when you have capital. (Or good credit, or collateral.)
• Access to the legal system is available to those who can hire expensive lawyers. That goes for civil and criminal matters. (The very rich can often afford to use the legal system as a weapon.)
• True progressive taxation has been reduced dramatically. Billionaire Warren Buffet famously noted that his secretary has a greater tax burden (as a percent of income) than he does.
• And finally, we have almost entirely removed any type of estate tax. The affluent pass down riches to their heirs, creating powerful, dynastic wealth.
In earlier times, a tycoon, a movie star, or a clever entrepreneur, might own a mansion or two, a yacht, or be able to show off a personal island. A very, very few could command an industry, even a monopoly. During FDR's New Deal, most monopolies were broken up... Vanderbilt's railroads, Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co., etc. Progressive taxation kept runaway wealth in check. (This period, say, the 20th century) was also noteworthy as unions became stronger and were able to demand fair pay and better working conditions.)
Today, there are over 700 billionaires in the U.S. With a net worth of over 38 trillion dollars, the nation's top 1% control more wealth than the entire middle class. Only thirty years ago, the middle class commanded twice as much wealth as the upper 1%. An analysis by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute shows that wages of the top 1% grew by 206% (after adjusting for inflation.) But wages for the bottom 90% grew by only 29%. Do you see why a lot of angry people are wearing red MAGA hats and expressing rage at bankers who won't make them affordable loans, CEOs who set low wages where they work, and bureaucracies and forces that control farm (and often consumer) prices?
Besides those 700+ billionaires, there are thousands of millionaires in that 1%. That's a lot of mansions, and we're running out of islands for sale. But it's not ownership of super-yachts that are the big problem. It's the influence that these moguls have. It's the dominance over our daily lives. It's the return to monopolistic behavior by their companies.
Worst of all, society sees these aristocrats as ultimate role models. There's nothing new about the human desire to be rich, but that was always tempered somewhat by religion or community order that (at least superficially) depended on social cooperation. (Yes, this is a gross generalization, but our most productive years as a country, and the period that built the middle class depended on labor unions, CEO pay that was only a couple grades above workers, and various social or religious organizations that emphasized community values.)
Segments of society worship this wealth and conflate it with genius, hard work, and/or unparalleled leadership. Some or all of this can be true or partially true. More often though, these powerful billionaires suffer the foibles, failings, and frailties that we all have. They have character flaws, blind spots, personality deficits... you know, they're human. Celebrity, wealth, and power can easily magnify these shortcomings and shield them from criticism and consequences. Lucky for them, unlucky for the rest of us, a high net worth tends to buy a lot of forgiveness, or at least a lot of good lawyers.
Wealth and power are intertwined. (Duh!) And the outsized power that these tycoons have is absurd. After "Citizen's United" became the law of the land, buying a politician (or dozens) can be done on the open market. And our nation is worse and worse for this alone.
Mr. "X" pretty much proves every point listed above. Born into a wealthy family in S. Africa, he followed his mom to Canada to escape his abusive father and would later get to the USA and attend the Univ. of Pennsylvania, earning a Bachelor of Arts in physics, and a degree in economics from the university's Wharton School. He was accepted to a PhD program at Stanford but dropped out after a couple of days so that he could jump into the internet boom of the '90s. With a couple of internships in Silicon Valley under his belt, he and his brother put together a detailed city-guide website that would eventually be bought by Compaq Computer for over $300 million, with his take at around $22 million. He invested this in an early online financial services company. This would evolve into PayPal, which would eventually be sold to eBay for $1.5 billion worth of stock. Musk owned almost 12% of that stock, worth $175 million. Interestingly, through the various stages of development and mergers, Musk would serve as CEO of the root companies. However, due to lack of experience, board distrust, and conflict over operations, he was usually demoted in favor of other leadership. Fellow billionaire and political mover/shaker Peter Thiel would lead PayPal to their grand payday.
There is no question that Musk is a technological genius. From his PayPal windfall, he would develop SpaceX (to produce reusable rockets to deliver space payloads like satellites and personnel to the space station.) This led to Starlink (a massive constellation of low-orbit satellites to deliver wireless internet service.) And then there was Tesla, (the battery-powered roadster.) He also has a company that produces tunnel-digging equipment, (The Boring Co.,) Neurolink, (a neurotechnology company,) and of course, he bought a controlling interest in Twitter (now renamed "X") a couple of years ago. He is worth around a quarter of a trillion dollars. That's "trillion."
In all of his companies, Musk has had a varying degree of participation. But he is said to micromanage each enterprise. His style of management is mercurial, to put it kindly. He expects his employees to work 60-80 hour weeks when necessary. He sees himself as magnanimous and open to new ideas, even criticism. In reality, he can be petty, vindictive, and unpredictable. When he bought Twitter, he claimed that he did so because he thought that they were throttling free speech, and he was a free speech absolutist. Until of course, he was insulted and criticised on the platform. He then took steps to block or cancel user accounts that displeased him.
This last week, Musk has demanded from the Tesla board a full 25% stake in the company, a 12% increase from his current holdings. The board reportedly feels that this is blackmail since he SOLD nearly 23 BILLION dollars in Tesla stock to fund his Twitter acquisition. He wants that money back... because??? Because he's Elon Musk. One investor told CNBC, "Where in the world does paying a CEO $30 billion make any logical sense in the modern world, who already has a $150 billion stake in the company?" The real blackmail comes from the fact that Musk has threatened to pull out some AI and other tech projects (such as advanced, self-driving, robotic cars) being developed within Tesla and take them to his own private companies. Pretty neat trick, huh?
But you know, rich genius. Give him what he wants.
He takes credit for others' work and is known for making wild promises concerning product delivery, cost, and features. When he bought Twitter, he laid off 6,000 employees - about 80% of the workforce. He has overpromised Tesla vehicle delivery schedules from the beginning, and the company is still backlogged. He promises price points and features that seem implausible and usually are. The rear-wheel drive version of the electric "Cybertruck" will start at $60,990 — up from the original stated price of $39,900 in 2019 — and will get 250 miles of range on a full charge. A few production models have been delivered. Beefier/Beastier designs of the truck may come out this year. But, who knows?
In one of the Muskiest moments of all time, during one early prototype "demonstration," Elon had an employee toss a steel ball at the CyberTruck's "armor" glass window. In something right out of a sitcom, the ball smashed through the window like a little leaguer smashing mom's kitchen window.
Musk has disdain for any government regulation and fancies himself some sort of libertarian. Yet several of his companies depend on subsidies and huge contracts from the federal government. SpaceX, which was built utilizing decades of NASA's research, succeeded in building an affordable, reusable rocket. After a couple of catastrophic, fiery failures (or as his company characterized them, "rapid unscheduled disassemblies"), the company was almost bankrupt. When they finally achieved a successful launch of its Falcon rocket, Musk received a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract from NASA for 12 flights of its rocket and Dragon spacecraft for travel to the International Space Station. Yeah, down with big gub'mint.
What kind of power does that all that money translate into? From SpaceX, he begat Starlink, his wildly successful global internet satellite network. When the Ukraine war broke out, Musk donated thousands of Starlink terminals to Ukraine's military and gave them free access. Oddly enough, as a "free speech absolutist," Musk allowed Russia's state media to have access also. And for whatever reason, when Ukrainian military units were in Russian-contested areas, Musk cut off Ukraine's access to the service. This prevented Ukrainian units from operating drone aircraft, using advanced weaponry, and limited their communications. The Pentagon and the State Dept. have arranged to pay for the service, and in the future will exercise control of operations.
What a notion - a private business owner having arbitrary control over the use and operation of an entire weapon support system while in use on an allied nation's battlefield. The richest man in the world... now commanding armies at will!
Bezos' story in many ways is very similar to Musk's. After his mother remarried when Bezos was very young, they had a comfortable lifestyle and Bezos would attend Princeton. His early work would be at tech startups, a bank, and a hedge fund. He and his then-wife recognized the insane growth of the internet, and wrote up a business plan to open an online bookstore, though he had plans from the beginning for it to be more than that. He added music and video to the site, and very quickly other consumer goods. Bezos kept doubling down, buying competitors, and expanding and improving warehouse automation to facilitate growth. The company took years to earn a profit, but when they did, it made Bezos the richest man in the world for a while. It took Amazon 18 years as a public company to catch Walmart in market cap, but only two more years to double it.
Retailers and producers use Amazon to sell their own wares - Amazon handles all transactions (and takes a cut) and will also handle order fulfillment (for another cut) if the vendor wishes. (Amazon is also known for producing their own goods, usually ones that they identify as best sellers on the platform. They will brand the same product as their own, or 'partner' with a seller and take over their product line and give the original seller a small commission.) Their delivery systems are unmatched, and their IT infrastructure to handle distribution is massive. In fact, a large part of their income is now offering wholesale server space and other cloud computing services.
Like Musk, Bezos gets consistently abysmal marks for how he treats his workforce. He was named the "World's Worst Boss" by the International Trade Union Confederation. After having been named the best-performing CEO for 4 years in a row (2014-2018) by Harvard Business Review, in 2019 he wasn't even in the top 100, due to employee working conditions coming to light, as well as his monopolistic tendencies, etc. Drivers and warehouse workers complain that their schedules did not allow them time for bathroom breaks... they were peeing in bottles.
Bezos has interests in several other companies, often businesses that have technology that would benefit Amazon. He also acquired The Washington Post, and has worked hard to grow WaPo's digital product line. Reporters and editors have complained about hundreds of forced (early) buyouts, low wages, and poor working conditions.
Also like Musk, Bezos has an intense interest in Space. He established his own rocket company, "Blue Origin," to "preserve the natural resources of Earth by making the human species multi-planetary." He would, very simply, like to colonize the solar system. Blue Origin has built six space vehicles. He has already launched several flights into low orbit with human passengers. William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame was one of his first passengers. He hopes to make commercial space flight commonplace as he further develops an infrastructure to support life on other planets.
His money flows into politics, but not in the amounts seen by other megadonors. He's worth nearly $200 billion. Again, it's a wealth too big to comprehend. One YouTuber notes that if you worked for $8,000 dollars an hour since the birth of Christ, you still wouldn't equal Bezos' fortune. But his wealth has been gained on the backs of hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and computer coders. State and local governments give him enormous tax breaks to open distribution centers or office complexes in their districts. Those guys and gals packing cartons in those warehouses and trying to hold their urine while driving Prime Delivery trucks are barely making a livable wage. In 2018, one in ten Amazon workers in Ohio was discovered to be on food stamps. When the local governments give away their tax breaks, they end up having to go to the public to make up the difference - you know, that same public that is barely able to feed itself on Amazon wages. School systems rely on local property taxes for funding, taxes which were given away. Low-wage workers simply can't replenish that tax base. Amazon is notorious for union busting, spending millions to keep them away from their labor force.
So all those people who lost their union jobs when heavy manufacturing was automated or moved overseas, are stuck loading trucks at an Amazon distribution center, making a fraction of their previous wage with almost no benefits. And we don't have time here to analyze the local economic picture when Amazon finishes off small local retailers - the hardware store, the boutique, the booksellers. What storefronts weren't boarded up when Walmart hit town, are finished off when the Prime Truck pulls up. And Bezos takes a cut.
Genius. Let's hope he moves here. Oh, right, Blue Origin launches its vehicles near Van Horn, TX.
The Donald, The Trump
Oh, I'm not going to bother you with what you already know. Born rich. Using connections, he attends Wharton. Becomes a real estate developer in NY. Is known to be a slumlord. Is sued repeatedly by contractors, vendors, shareholders, tenants... you name it. He falsified his net worth and also his various real estate valuations to leverage his holdings to secure loans to purchase more property. He built casinos (many went bankrupt,) golf courses and his beloved Mar-a-Lago. He started a fraudulent University, as well as a fraudulent foundation. And then he was elected president. Blah, blah blah... you know the rest.
Trump is the epitome of our worship of wealth over substance. Many have said that Trump is a poor person's idea of a rich person. There's his personal (branded) jet, his name-branded real-estate holdings, and his golden toilet seats. Like all of the phony prosperity preachers, you just need to stick with him and riches will roll down to you. And it's no longer uncommon for Trump to be compared to, or to be declared, The Messiah.
This isn't just about a former (and maybe future) president and a couple high profile tech bros. We've allowed the 1% enough wealth to influence and often control every segment of our society.
The Quiet Ones
• Terry Pegula is a 71-year-old fracking tycoon worth $8 billion who owns the Buffalo Bills and the Sabres NHL franchise with his wife, Kim. "They bought the Bills for a then-NFL record $1.4bn in 2014, outbidding Donald Trump (!) and Jon Bon Jovi. The team is now valued at $3.4bn by Forbes." They wanted a new stadium and wanted public dollars to pay for it.
After negotiations, local and state taxpayers agreed to fund $850 million. Many in the county are blue-collar - not wealthy fracking tycoons. Buffalo residents are known to be die-hard Bills fans, so politicians were afraid that Pegula would pull his teams out of the area if he didn't get a deal to build a stadium. But now fans are worried that ticket prices might price them out of attending games - "seat licenses" (a high-priced version of season tickets) will be sold to help cover the stadium cost.
The ultimate catch? The same year that the state agreed to kick in $850 mil for a billionaire's stadium, the Governor and New York legislators cut $800 million in children and family services from the state budget. And the promise of the stadium being an economic "engine" for the area? A couple of sports financial analysts called it “one of the worst stadium deals in recent memory."
• Jeff Yass, a gambler and options trader worth 28 billion, is Gov. Abbott's new best friend. Yass, known for his tax avoidance schemes as well as his ultraconservative politics, recently gave Abbott $6 million, the single largest donation in Texas political history. Abbott promises to use it in retribution against his political rivals - almost all Republicans who fought him over school vouchers. All of those conservative, rural Republicans who voted for their constituents' view that public education should be prioritized over government-subsidized private schools are now going to face hundreds of thousands of dollars that will fund opposition - from their own party! (Yass doled out $18 million to his favored candidates in Pennsylvania’s 2022 primary. $18 million!)
• Dan and Farris Wilks, and Tim Dunn. I'm lumping these three together, they are birds of a feather. The Wilks bros are a couple of wealthy frackers who actually started from humble beginnings (their father was a bricklayer.) Dunn was also initially a self-made Oil and Gas producer. It is safe to say that these three right-wing activists (and their billions) exert more control over the Republican Party in Texas (and therefore, Texas) than any other individual or group.
Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks have long supported the most right wing, anti-public education candidates. Dunn serves on the ultraconservative "Texas Public Policy Foundation" board and chairs the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility board. Wilks is the largest donor to Texas Right to Life. Both men finance Empower Texans, a political action committee considered the right’s enforcers.
"Over the past 20 years, Dunn and the Wilks brothers have sunk nearly $100 million into a sprawling mix of nonprofits, political campaigns, think tanks, fundraising committees and websites to advance their far-right religious, economic and anti-LGBTQ+ views." -Texas Tribune
Recently retired Texas Republican Senator Kel Seliger said, “It is a Russian-style oligarchy, pure and simple. Really, really wealthy people who are willing to spend a lot of money to get policy made the way they want it - and they get it.” The Wilks boys came after Kel when he defended public education in rural Texas and voted against the state financing of religious and private schools.
Quit thinking that it can't get any worse. The Wilks bros and Dunn are corrupt Attorney General Ken Paxton's biggest supporters. Republicans that voted to impeach Paxton were moved to the top of their list to be primaried out of office. And unsurprisingly, it was their PAC, Defend Texas Liberty that gave $3 million to Dan Patrick as he sat as the presiding officer (judge) of Paxton's impeachment trial.
It is also no surprise that they are all extreme fundamentalists. The Wilks have even formed their own, unique evangelical religion. If you still think that reports of these influential megadonors wanting to turn the country into a theocracy are hyperbole, you need to start paying attention.
“They hide behind their money and a pious front in order to create chaos and division in the Republican party,” Rogers (R-Graford) wrote on Facebook. “Get ready for a barrage of misrepresentations, deceit, and outright lies financed by these ‘fine Christian gentlemen.’”
So that's the model:
• Be born into wealth if possible. Being white, and male is always a big plus.
• Get a good if not great education with plenty of support along the way.
• Using connections, get internships or initial experience in highly successful businesses, making industry and financial connections.
• Use those family and friend connections to finance and support your business idea. Do your best to crush or acquire competitors.
• Always, Always keep unions away. Pay employees the least amount that you can. Figure into your business plans ways to automate the business and eliminate human labor entirely.
• Demand tax relief in every facet of your business. (You're providing JOBS! You're rich and can make others rich!) Demand infrastructure support, property tax abatement, and free land or rent. Refuse to accept wage minimums demanded by local governments in return for tax concessions. Threaten to go elsewhere if needed.
• Start more businesses with profits. Rinse, repeat.
• Pay for politicians, lobby groups, and PACS to support you, your businesses, and your tax protections. Feel free to pay those same entities for pet projects and personal political goals. You can be a real player when it comes to issues such as tax policy, abortion, public education, and court stacking. Go for it!
• It never hurts to build a life-boat and head for another planet!
So many of our Masters of the Universe want to escape earth. They want to transport mankind to other planets and begin again, This is an effort to leave behind climate change, resource depletion, over population, and other inconvenient problems. Blue Origin's mission statement reads, "“In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space." Musk claims that SpaceX is designing a huge rocket to begin colonization of Mars.
I've always wondered, if these guys are so smart... smart enough to plot interstellar real estate development, why aren't they smart enough to solve a few problems here, at home? Heck, we have oxygen, water, and Netflix. It's a great head start. Seems a lot easier than taking a 9 month trip in a tin can only to land on a planet with average midday temperatures of -82° F. And nary a Whataburger in sight.
We glorify these aristocrats, allowing their wealth to blind us to their faults, shortcomings, and personal failings. "Hey, he poops on a golden toilet, he must be smart! And an incredible leader!"
In Adam McKay's recent dark comedy "Don't Look Up," a comet is headed toward Earth, almost guaranteeing the planet's destruction. Scientists try to sound the alarm, but politicians deny that it will happen, losing the small window of time they have to save the Earth. The public stays badly informed by an inept media. A quirky, billionaire entrepreneur convinces the president to delay an immediate response... he suggests that they can blow the comet up when it gets close and then collect rare and expensive elements from the resulting rock fragments. This fails, and the billionaire and his elite friends board escape rockets that will allow them to sleep cryogenically as their spaceship uses AI to search the universe for another Earth-like planet. Over 20,000 years go by, and the spaceships land as the passengers wake up. Some of the spaceships have crashed and several of the sleep pods have failed, but a little over half of the passengers arrive on a planet that resembles a lush Garden of Eden.
As the naked passengers leave the rocketships and walk out in amazement, they marvel at their new surroundings. The waterfall, the foliage, and the exotic, giant birds that walk out from the brush... and begin to eat them.
McKay filmed an unseen, alternate ending. He told Variety:
"The original ending was, ‘Oh, let’s start building our houses.’ And then someone says, ‘Oh, the pod carrying all the workers blew up.’ And then it was Mark Rylance going, ‘I’ll give anyone who builds me a house a billion dollars.’ And then the guy next to him was like, ‘I’ll give $2 billion.’ And then you realize they’re all billionaires.
“They’re going, ‘I’ll give $5 billion! $10 billion!’ And we just <zoomed> out on that.”
So our Masters of the Universe want to leave the planet. No doubt we'll all have equal access to those escape pods, if we want to go. Either way, they know best. They poop on golden toilets.