Elon Musk and the Oligarch Takeover of America

If you hadn’t heard, Elon Musk – Tesla and SpaceX CEO and the single richest man in the world – is just days away from closing his deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. After a tumultuous, months-long legal drama, a judge finally gave Twitter and Musk an ultimatum: reach a settlement on your own by this Friday, October 28, or face trial in November.

With the deadline countdown ticking away, it’s looking more and more likely that the deal is going to go through and that, very soon, one of the world’s most important communications platforms will be owned by the world’s richest man. This is, to put it lightly, a big deal. 

Musk’s decision to buy Twitter will affect millions of people both here at home and around the globe. The platform has more than 450 million users, many of whom rely on it almost exclusively for news; Musk himself called it the “de facto town public square.” It’s clear that the alleged changes that the billionaire will make to the platform as its new head – most notably, lifting the account suspensions of former President Trump and other high-profile, right-wing figures – will undoubtedly have enormous global ramifications.

And therein lies the problem with the astronomical concentration of wealth in the world today. Billionaires – oligarchs really – have enough money that they can buy, well, virtually anything. Twitter is a vitally important public communications platform, and any changes to its structure or moderation policies have wide-reaching consequences for the public debate and democracy, both here in the US and abroad. And yet a single individual – Elon Musk, by virtue only of being absurdly rich – can do with it whatever he wants, the world be damned.

The fact that one single person could have so much money as to buy out a communications platform for 450 million people is incredible. It would take the median American worker, working full time at $55,640 a year, no fewer than 790,797 years to make the $44 billion that Musk used to buy Twitter. This is longer than human beings have been on planet Earth.

But while Musk’s fortune is currently the largest in the world, the power dynamics of his buyout of Twitter aren’t unique. The unchecked growth of billionaire wealth in America today has led to countless instances of billionaires using that wealth to buy power and control the ways in which we conduct our private and public lives. (We examined this with you back in April when the news first broke, but feel that the subject is so important and timely that it’s worth highlighting again.)

Musk is by no means the only billionaire using his wealth in ways that greatly impact how our society is run. Look at Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch, who own The Washington Post and Fox News, respectively. By owning these prominent media outlets, the two titans of industry essentially get to pick and choose what counts as news for all of us and what doesn’t. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, apparently did not think that the primetime January 6 hearings were “newsworthy” enough to broadcast over the summer on Fox News, a decision that left the right-wing network’s devoted viewership in the dark as to what really occurred on one of the darkest days in US history.

It’s not all social media platforms or news outlets – billionaires also use their wealth to control things as major as COVID vaccine distribution plans, like Bill Gates did, or as mundane as university housing, like Charles Munger did in 2016. Munger donated $200 million for the construction of a dorm at the University of California, Santa Barbara on the condition that he design it, resulting in a hostile, windowless floorplan that prompted widespread outrage and the resignation of an architect on the project.

Billionaires certainly use their wealth to purchase public power in these ways, but critically, they also use it to purchase political power. Which is why we really should stop saying “billionaire” and start saying “oligarch.” Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, billionaires have come to dominate the campaign finance scene in America. Between 2009 and 2021, the top twelve mega-donors gave a total of $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups, which accounted for $1 for every $13 spent in federal elections during that period.

Not only that – in the 2020 election, the top 20 billionaires combined spent more than twice as much as the entire Biden campaign. And don’t forget about Barre Seid – this single billionaire oligarch donated a historic $1.6 billion to a conservative nonprofit last year (and got a hefty tax break for his trouble).

Billionaires’ political investments have certainly paid off, as public policy outcomes almost exclusively reflect the interests and preferences of wealthy Americans. We can see this in many policy areas, but especially in those related to the economy. Today, billionaires pay much lower effective tax rates than Americans who work for a living. CEO pay has skyrocketed while the minimum wage has stood frozen at $7.25 an hour. Ultra-profitable corporations join forces to create price-gouging monopolies, but working Americans are blocked from creating unions for better wages and working conditions.

(If you’d like to learn more about the ways in which billionaire money in politics has eroded our democracy and economy, click HERE to read a fantastic op-ed by our Chairman, Morris Pearl, that was published over the summer.)

Unchecked billionaire wealth and power is an existential crisis facing America today. Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen fast. We need to reform our campaign finance system to dilute the influence of big money, and we also need to safeguard our private institutions from being overwhelmed by billionaires’ voices and demands.

Even more importantly, however, we need to raise taxes on billionaires and strip them of the resources – i.e., their extreme wealth – that enable their power in the first place. President Biden’s Billionaire Minimum Income Tax and our own proposal, the OLIGARCH Act, are two major tax initiatives currently in play that would go a long way in this regard.

If billionaire oligarchs are an existential threat to our democracy and our society, there really isn’t any choice. We must tax these oligarchs in order to make them less rich.

Think about it. You likely don’t care how much money someone else has, but you very likely do care how much power someone else has. Tax Elon Musk and the other oligarchs, not to take away their money, but to take away their power.

Related Posts