2016: The Year of the Billionaire

AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying

This photo taken June 11, 2014 shows David Koch, the executive vice president of Wichita's Koch Industries in New York City. 


In general, it can be said that billionaires in America almost always have pretty good years, by at least one important measure: They have more than a billion dollars. They’ve made it into a club composed of 536 people, in a nation with a population of 321 million.

Over the past 40 years, their fortunes have soared, and according to new report in The New York Times, they pay precious little tax on them. That’s because they’ve bought the Congress that writes the tax code, paid the lobbyists who strong-arm the legislators, and funded the think tanks that crafted the policy strong-armed on the bought-and-paid-for legislators.

OK; that may be a bit of an oversimplification—not every member of Congress is in the pocket of the 0.01 percent—but not by much.

More and more, the billionaires’ influence is conducted out of public view, thanks to a Supreme Court with a billionaire-boosting majority, and a tax code designed by the billionaires’ lackeys to hurt the brain of any normal human who deigned to apply her intelligence to it.

Let’s sum it up this way, then. In 1992, according to the Times report by Noam Scheiber and Patricia Cohen, the wealthiest 400 families paid approximately 27 percent of their income in federal taxes; by 2012, the share of their income that went to the U.S. Treasury was down to 17 percent—about the same as a middle-class family with a modest income. And thanks to the underfunding of the Internal Revenue Service by the Republican majority in Congress, won through the efforts of billionaires Charles and David Koch, the chances that high-rolling cheaters will ever get caught diminish with each passing day.

In the meantime, the network of billionaire and millionaire donors built by the Koch brothers is supplanting the Republican Party as the apparatus relied upon by GOP candidates running for office, according to yet another stellar report by Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel.

The Koch network, unburdened by the rules governing actual political parties, funds a largely ideologically consistent constellation of think tanks, advocacy groups, and Astroturf operations (such as the voter-mobilization group, Americans for Prosperity) whose main goals are to hack away at government regulations of all kinds—rules to protect the environment and the financial system, laws to guarantee a minimum wage and safe workplaces, legislation governing health care and consumer product safety—and resist taxes on the income of the wealthy.

In both pursuits, the superwealthy have been aided by a level of secrecy available only to them. The Koch network received a mighty assist from the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, when the Court’s conservative majority essentially ruled that nonprofit organizations, exempt from taxation by the IRS and from publicly revealing the names of their donors, could be used for baldly political purposes—say, to run ads attacking a candidate in a current election campaign, or any number of other political activities.

Add together all of this, and we have a political system increasingly tipping toward oligarchy, and democratic in name only. How fitting, then, that a loudmouthed billionaire unwanted by his party’s pooh-bahs, and who has no respect for the U.S. Constitution, should be leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

On the narrow question of who wins the Republican nomination, the deal could come down to a battle of the billionaires. Will the Kochs pull out the stops to defeat Trump? (They’ve so far indicated a reluctance to involve their network in the presidential primary contests.)

But the broader question involves Democrats, too. The Times report notes that billionaire George Soros, a donor to liberal causes, exploits the same tax loopholes used by his right-wing counterparts in the billionaire class, and that among the families contesting the IRS’s pursuit of taxes the agency says are owed by them to the government is at least one headed by a donor to Democrats, James Simons.

At its root, the rot in the U.S. political system isn’t ideology; it’s greed. But a so-called conservative ideology that seeks to conserve nothing for regular people while pitting them against the less fortunate has wrapped itself around every lever of power in the political system.

So get ready for the Year of the Billionaire. Or maybe the Century.