We Can Have Either Billionaires or Democracy. Not Both.

As we count down toward the 2024 general election, we should expect to hear from media pundits about candidates and their viability, swing states and the electoral college, likely voters and poll results, and much more. Occasionally we may hear about some issues of importance. Most likely, we will hear little about the urgent need for wealth redistribution in the United States. Extreme inequality remains an invisible scourge underlying so much of what ails society and, even when discussed, is touted as an unavoidable and inevitable outcome of our economy.

However, there is abundant evidence that wealth inequality is the product of intentional design and the idea that what is good for billionaires is good for society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Switzerland-based global bank UBS just released its 2023 Billionaire Ambitions report and concluded, “For the first time in nine editions of the report, billionaires have accumulated more wealth through inheritance than entrepreneurship.” Benjamin Cavalli, Head of Strategic Clients at UBS Global Wealth Management said, “This is a theme we expect to see more of over the next 20 years, as more than 1,000 billionaires pass an estimated [$5.2 trillion] to their children.”

That’s more than the economy of the entire United Kingdom. It’s more than the economies of Canada and Mexico combined.

The UBS report was not a critical one and hardly blinked an eye about the obscenity of wealth being hoarded in dynasties. About half of all billionaires around the world use UBS’s banking services, so the bank merely analyzed the investment habits of its most important clients. It did so candidly, referring to “the great wealth transfer” from one generation to the next, avoiding mention of the wealth transfer from the majority of the public to an elite minority.

The report also declared with pride that intent on “continuing the current family legacy, 60% of heirs want to enable future generations to benefit from their wealth.” Of course, they meant future generations of their own families, not in general.

But this wealth transfer is directly the result of tax codes written to benefit the uber-rich. ProPublica’s 2021 analysis of the tax returns of the richest Americans found that they paid an average of 3.4% in taxes, employing armies of lawyers to exploit every loophole carved out to offer special advantages to wealthy elites. Meanwhile, middle-class and working-class Americans pay double-digit tax rates. What this amounts to is collective theft from government revenues.

It’s time to reverse this trend by resorting to a concerted project of wealth redistribution. It’s time to wrest billions, if not trillions, out of the hands of billionaires and their heirs and pour it back where it belongs: to the rest of us.

Call it socialism—which is what the pro-rich rightwing GOP does—or call it progressive taxation, or economic justice. It doesn’t matter; the nation’s fiscal conservatives will demonize any ideas of wealth redistribution and will attempt to instill baseless fears of creeping communism, no matter what specific language we use around fairness. So, we might as well start spelling it out instead of trying to appease the right. After all, there’s a reason why conservatives and wealthy elites want the public to be afraid of socialism: they’re terrified that Americans might be thrilled to embrace policies such as wealth redistribution through taxation.

And if we need any more reasons to put a bullseye on billionaire wealth, it turns out they are vicious, dangerous fascists, whose children are an even more callous lot than their parents.

Billionaires don’t need the protections that democracy offers: earned benefits like Social Security or Medicare, access to free or affordable health care including abortion, labor and wage protections, and due process (they can buy the best legal help when they get in trouble).

In fact, democracy is a threat to their wealth hoarding, which is why they are backing the most dangerous demagogue to have ever occupied the White House: Donald Trump. Economic analyst and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich lists the numerous billionaires backing Trump for a second term and cites Trump’s promise to wealthy elites, that he plans to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” Wealthy elites helped bring us Trump’s first term, and they’re itching for a second.

Why wouldn’t billionaires back fascism? It benefits them in ways democracy doesn’t. Indeed, billionaires exist as a design flaw in democracy. The greater the number of billionaires and the greater the wealth they hoard, the weaker the democracy that binds them.

Legislation like Senator Ron Wyden’s Billionaire Income Tax is what they fear if democracy trumps fascism. Wyden’s bill is so modest that it doesn’t target wealth, only income, and would affect fewer than 1,000 Americans, trimming off tiny slivers of their unprecedented hoardings, leaving them as fabulously wealthy as before. After all, is there a real difference between being worth $10 billion versus $9.9 billion?

As to the children of billionaires being worse than their parents, there is a small mention in the UBS report of how heirs of billionaires are far less philanthropic than first-generation billionaires: “while more than two-thirds of first-generation billionaires stated that following their philanthropic goals and making an impact on the world was a main objective of their legacy, less than a third (32%) of the inheriting generations did so.” One could conclude that empathy among children of the ultra-wealthy drops by half each generation. This could be a generation even more determined to fund and fuel fascism in order to protect their riches compared to their parents.

The wealthy are so secure in the protections they have from democratic curbs on their financial power that their biggest worries, as per the UBS report, include “geopolitical tensions,” inflation, recession, and higher interest rates. Fears around a “tight jobs market” and “stricter sustainability rules,” fall low on their list. In other words, they feel secure against threats of wage rebellions and government regulations.

And so, as we hurtle toward authoritarian aristocracy, we must normalize the idea of wealth redistribution. There is no good reason against it, not a single one. We can have either billionaires or democracy, not both.

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