Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.
And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances, and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he could become almost pathologically self-regarding and unconcerned with others.
So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?
Modern America is a society in which a growing share of income and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, and these people have huge political influence – in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, around half the contributions came from fewer than 200 wealthy families. The usual concern about this march toward oligarchy is that the interests and policy preferences of the very rich are quite different from those of the population at large, and that is surely the biggest problem.
But it’s also true that those empowered by money-driven politics include a disproportionate number of spoiled egomaniacs. Which brings me to the current election cycle.
The most obvious illustration of the point I’ve been making is the man now leading the Republican field. Donald Trump would probably have been a blowhard and a bully whatever his social station. But his billions have insulated him from the external checks that limit most people’s ability to act out their narcissistic tendencies; nobody has ever been in a position to tell him, “You’re fired!” And the result is the face you keep seeing on your TV.
But Trump isn’t the only awesomely self-centered billionaire playing an outsized role in the 2016 campaign.
There have been some interesting news reports lately about Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas gambling magnate. Adelson has been involved in some fairly complex court proceedings, which revolve around claims of misconduct in his operations in Macau, including links to organized crime and prostitution. Given his business, this may not be all that surprising. What was surprising was his behavior in court, where he refused to answer routine questions and argued with the judge, Elizabeth Gonzales. That, as she rightly pointed out, isn’t something witnesses get to do.
Then Adelson bought Nevada’s largest newspaper. As the sale was being finalized, reporters at the paper were told to drop everything and start monitoring all activity of three judges, including Gonzales. And while the paper never published any results from that investigation, an attack on Gonzales, with what looks like a fictitious byline, did appear in a small Connecticut newspaper owned by one of Adelson’s associates.
OK, but why do we care? Because Adelson’s political spending has made him a huge player in Republican politics – so much so that reporters routinely talk about the “Adelson primary,” in which candidates trek to Las Vegas to pay obeisance.
Are there other cases? Yes indeed, even if the egomania doesn’t rise to Adelson levels. I find myself thinking, for example, of hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, another big power in the GOP, who published an investor’s letter declaring that inflation was running rampant – he could tell from the prices of Hamptons real estate and high-end art. Economists got some laughs out of the incident, but think of the self-absorption required to write something like that without realizing how it would sound to non-billionaires.
Or think of the various billionaires who, a few years ago, were declaring with straight faces, and no sign of self-awareness, that President Barack Obama was holding back the economy by suggesting that some businesspeople had misbehaved. You see, he was hurting their feelings.
Just to be clear, the biggest reason to oppose the power of money in politics is the way it lets the wealthy rig the system and distort policy priorities. And the biggest reason billionaires hate Obama is what he did to their taxes, not their feelings. The fact that some of those buying influence are also horrible people is secondary.
But it’s not trivial. Oligarchy, rule by the few, also tends to become rule by the monstrously self-centered. Narcisstocracy? Jerkigarchy? Anyway, it’s an ugly spectacle, and it’s probably going to get even uglier over the course of the year ahead.