Just finished The Big Rich by Bryan Burrough. One of the things that struck me about the Texas oil-millionaires, aside from their often ostentatious and outrageous consumption, was that many, despite immense wealth freeing them from the necessity to work for a living, continued to go into the office six days a week like any other working stiff. Roy Cullen even drove a cheap Chevrolet and brown bagged his lunch. Since they were basically workaholics, why were they so concerned about “big spending liberals” taxing them to death? They could have simply paid the tax owed, say 40% or whatever it was, and still had way more than they knew what to do with. They certainly weren’t working for their salaries, struggling to meet the mortgage, pay the bills.
Unfortunately these very wealthy individuals were mostly extremist conservatives who shifted the country rightward with their undemocratic money influence. Cullen even seriously argued for the idea of one dollar one vote. They funded McCarthy, William F. Buckley, John Birch Society, KKK etc; right wing radio and newspapers and supported politicians who would do their bidding and went after those who wouldn’t with Swiftboat type campaigns, funding their opponents, and not just in Texas. They funded the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, fully buying into the hysterical religion of anti-communism. Of course not every oil millionaire fits the profile. Some became world-class partiers, some collected art and enjoyed high culture, donated to worthy causes. Cullen, again, gave away over 90% of his fortune to hospitals and universities while otherwise completely embracing the right wing stereotype.
This kind of concentrated wealth has repercussions. When workaholics are out there feeding their addiction and are willing to use their influence to grease government wheels in order to pull off deals that include harmful environmental and social costs then we all lose, enabling a dysfunctional class. Cullen’s one dollar one vote philosophy isn’t that far off as embodied in our political system where politicians must raise huge sums to finance their campaigns. As Molly Ivins, a Texan of a different stripe, used to say, “You dance with who brung ya.” If the public finances elections then it is the public who brung the politicians so it is the public, not the corporations and wealthy class, who they owe, who they represent. The health care debate, military spending, corporate tax policy, the whole range of issues would be a whole different discussion under those circumstances. That class would still own the media and thus limit if not control debate but there might be something we could do about that too.