Victimized billionaires

October 1, 2012

Why do billionaires feel victimized by Obama? Chrystia Freeland asks that question in the New Yorker this week, and comes back with answers we’ve all heard before: in short, it’s not the policies, it’s the rhetoric.

Of course, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; it never did. If the rhetoric is getting overheated on either side, it’s definitely on the side of Obama’s opponents, rather than Obama himself. Chrystia finds multiple violations of Godwin’s law, not among foaming-at-the-mouth Tea Party types, but even from cosmopolitan financiers:

Some of the harshest language of this election cycle has come from the super-rich. Comparing Hitler and Obama, as Cooperman did last year at the CNBC conference, is something of a meme. In 2010, the private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, of the Blackstone Group, compared the President’s as yet unsuccessful effort to eliminate some of the preferential tax treatment his sector receives to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. After Cooperman made his Hitler comment, he has said, his wife called him a “schmuck.” But he couldn’t resist repeating the analogy when we spoke in May of this year. “You know, the largest and greatest country in the free world put a forty-seven-year-old guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world,” Cooperman said. “Not totally different from taking Adolf Hitler in Germany and making him in charge of Germany because people were economically dissatisfied. Now, Obama’s not Hitler. I don’t even mean to say anything like that. But it is a question that the dissatisfaction of the populace was so great that they were willing to take a chance on an untested individual.”

There’s a limit to how far you can go asking people to justify their Hitler analogies, so Chrystia asks Cooperman about his “never worked a day in his life” comment. It turns out that by “working”, Cooper means that Obama “never made payroll. He’s never built anything”. In other words, this is very much the Romney version of the great-men-of-history worldview: one where a handful of visionary builders use their skills to create jobs for the masses and wealth for themselves. Recall Nick Lemann, profiling Romney in last week’s New Yorker:

He talks to voters businessman to businessman, on the assumption that everybody either runs a business or wants to start one. Romney believes that if you drop the name of someone who has built a very successful company — Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart, or Ray Kroc, of McDonald’s — it will have the same effect as mentioning a sports hero.

If you’re the billionaire principal of a business you built yourself, then you are very likely to see the world through this lens — and as a result, you’re very likely to be very supportive of Romney’s candidacy. In that sense, it’s hardly a surprise that the Romney campaign, and its affiliated Super PACs, has raised more money than the Obama campaign: Romney, more than any presidential candidate in living memory, aligns himself completely with the views and interests of the 0.01%. And given how much discretionary cash the 0.01% has lying around, getting the support of that key group can give a candidate a serious fundraising advantage.

This, I think, is one third of the answer to the question of why billionaires feel victimized by Obama. In America’s two-party system, you’re given a simple choice: this guy, or the other guy. If you find yourself in wholehearted agreement with one of the two, then the other one becomes the enemy, the obstacle standing in the path leading your guy to the White House. And under the rule of the narcissism of small differences, everything which separates your guy from the other guy becomes a monstrosity to be fought at every turn, and a grievance to be nursed and rehearsed ad nauseam. (Liberals, in truth, are even better than conservatives at this kind of thing: just remember what they thought of Reagan, whose policies were not particularly to the right of Obama.)

You can’t ascribe all of the billionaires’ grievances back to Romney — after all, they predate his candidacy. But Leon Cooperman’s letter is dated November 2011; I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that it was written just as Romney’s InTrade odds of winning the Republican nomination had surged to about 70%. So I see something else going on here — the second third of the answer. And that’s the way that after the stock market rebounded sharply in 2009, financiers switched rapidly from Fear mode to Greed mode.

During the 2008 election, Obama received significantly more Wall Street money than McCain, for one very good reason: Wall Street trusted him and his egghead technocrat advisers to do whatever was necessary to prevent their world from imploding. And that’s exactly what they did. Geithner, Bernanke, Summers, and the rest of the Obama economic team threw everything they could at the markets: they were the liquidity provider of last resort, they took that role seriously, and they did exactly what was necessary to save the US — and, for that matter, the global — financial system. McCain, by contrast, never came across as being particularly competent on that front, treating the financial crisis more as an excuse for political stunts than as a serious existential threat.

After 2009, however, Wall Street felt that the crisis was over. Yes, unemployment was still unacceptably high, growth was unacceptably low, and the real economy was still struggling. But never mind that: Wall Street profits were enormous, corporate profits were hitting record highs, and bonus season was just around the corner. America’s financiers no longer needed Washington to save them from ruin; now all they wanted was for Washington to get out of the way, and to let them prosecute their profit-making strategies as aggressively as they wanted. And they were in no mood for gentle reminders from Washington that if it wasn’t for the public sector they’d all have been wiped out.

It’s notable that all of the 0.01% moaning about Obama in Chrystia’s piece are financiers of one stripe or another. The financial sector was the first to rebound out of the crisis, and in many ways is the sector of the economy least exposed to the plight of the 47%. Hedge fund managers like Leon Cooperman don’t make their money from little people; indeed, it’s quite amazing how rich you need to be before people like Cooperman think you actually have money. For instance, Cooperman tells Chrystia, of a cardiologist friend of his who has accumulated some $10 million in savings, that “it was shocking how tight he was going to be in retirement”, especially since “he needed four hundred thousand dollars a year to live on”.

Which brings me to the final third of the answer to the question of why America’s billionaires are feeling so victimized: I think that in fact most of them simply don’t. Most billionaires are not financiers — and you don’t see Mark Zuckerberg or Mike Bloomberg or Larry Page kvetching about how Obama hates them. Neither do you see a lot of old money (the Waltons, the Mars family) pouring money into Super PACs. They might be conservative; they’ll almost certainly vote for Romney. But they’re not airing grievances in the way that Chrystia’s financiers are doing. The rhetoric that Chrystia is picking up on started I think with Jamie Dimon, and then spread around his environs; but it’s not particularly contagious outside Wall Street circles.

Financiers are among the most alpha of all billionaires, the most aggressive, the most attuned to the idea that no matter how rich you are, if you’re not making money then you’re losing. And from a purely tactical perspective it makes all the sense in the world for them to go on the offensive against Obama. After all, they might have it good now, but they’d have it even better under Romney, and at the margin the more they move public opinion in their direction — and especially the opinion of the 535 members of the public who sit in Congress — the better off they are.

So my feeling is that the sense of victimization is one part narcissism, one part greed, and one part tactical. It’s not a very pretty sight, and it’s not very easy to feel particularly righteous about. Which is one reason that people like Anthony Scaramucci — an early high-profile Romney supporter — set up echo-chamber dinners where such feelings can be stroked and reinforced. What’s depressing is that the likes of Al Gore and Antonio Villaraigosa are happy to attend those dinners, and provide little if any pushback.


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