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“The Billionaire Election”: Anand Giridharadas on How 2020 Is a Referendum on Wealth Inequality

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The 10th Democratic presidential debate took place Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina, and two billionaires were at either end of the stage: Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Front-runner Bernie Sanders, who has made attacking the power of the “billionaire class” a central theme of his campaign, stood in the middle. It was a visual representation of the split within the Democratic Party, in which a growing number of people are “rising up against plutocracy,” says Anand Giridharadas, editor-at-large at Time magazine and author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” His recent piece for The New York Times is titled “The Billionaire Election: Does the world belong to them or to us?

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two out of seven. That’s the number of Democratic candidates in last night’s debate who are billionaires. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were at either end of the debate stage in Charleston, South Carolina, with front-runner Bernie Sanders front and center, facing a barrage of criticism from his challengers. He was flanked by former Vice President Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who all tried to appeal to African-American and moderate voters in a battleground state. This is moderator Norah O’Donnell questioning Bernie Sanders during the debate, which was sponsored by CBS and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

NORAH O’DONNELL: Senator Sanders, we haven’t had a national unemployment rate this low for this long in 50 years. Here in South Carolina, the unemployment rate is even lower. How will you convince voters that a democratic socialist can do better than President Trump with the economy?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, you’re right. The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires. In the last three years, last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth. But you know what? For the ordinary American, things are not so good. Last year, real wage increases for the average worker were less than 1%. Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. Eighty-seven million Americans have no health insurance or are underinsured. Forty-five million people are struggling with student debt. Five hundred thousand people tonight are sleeping out on the street, including 30,000 veterans. That is not an economy that’s working for the American people. That’s an economy working for the 1%.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he’s president. I do not think so. Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. And that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you’ll lose to him.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Oh, Mr. Bloomberg. Let me tell Mr. Putin, OK, I’m not a good friend of President Xi of China. I think President Xi is an authoritarian leader. And let me tell Mr. Putin, who interfered in the 2016 election, tried to bring Americans against Americans: Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was the final debate before Saturday’s primary in South Carolina and Super Tuesday, when 14 states will vote. South Carolina TV station WCSC reported the Charleston County Democratic Party offered tickets to people who sponsored the debate at a cost of $1,750 to $3,200 per sponsorship, calling it the, quote, “only guaranteed way to get a ticket” to last night’s debate.

In a few minutes, we’ll go to South Carolina to get reaction there, but first we’re joined here in New York by Anand Giridharadas, editor-at-large of Time magazine. His book is called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. On Sunday, he had a cover story of The New York Times Week in Review titled “The Billionaire Election: Does the world belong to them or to us?”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Anand.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s pretty astounding. Two of the seven Democratic candidates, considered so often the Republican — the people’s party, are billionaires. What does this say to you? Who were on the stage last night.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Running to replace a self-described billionaire, who actually probably isn’t one. You know, let’s just stick with the physical scene that you just showed those shots of, because I think it’s a metaphor for what I have called the “billionaire election,” or the billionaire referendum that 2020 is. So, you’ve got these seven people on stage. On two ends are actual billionaires. The two candidates in the middle, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are candidates who have risen to prominence precisely on the platform of running against billionaires and the idea that billionaire power is excessive and is suffocating the American dream for people. Then you have the $1,700 to $3,200 tickets, which captures the way in which the Democratic Party is an ostrich, not understanding that we live in an age in which people are actually rising up against plutocracy, and this is the kind of, you know, foot fault that you don’t want to make. And then you have, you know, CBS, this big corporation, hosting the debate. Twitter is collaborating. That’s owned by a billionaire. Billionaires are the stewards, the captains of an economy that has generated so much of the rage this year that is being — that is presenting itself in the election.

And so, this is an election in which you have to have a stand. You have to know where you stand on the question of billionaires in order to vote in this primary and in this general election. If you don’t have a perspective on billionaires, you can’t actually make this choice meaningfully, because for very long in this country, the story that we have told about billionaires is they are like helium balloons. They’re just people who happened to have drifted up from among the rest of us. That’s been the story. And yes, they had more, and maybe the gap was a little too high, but they were just people who drifted up, and maybe if we could get more people a little helium and drift them up, then we’d be better off.

A new story is emerging, a truer story, which is that a lot of those folks, and certainly that class of people, is up there because they are standing on other people’s backs. And they stand on people’s backs by using and abusing tax havens like Bermuda — hello, Bloomberg. They stand on people’s backs by profiting from an economy, like the financial sector that has destroyed the American dream for so many people — hello, Michael Bloomberg. They stand on people’s backs by lobbying for bottle-service public policy that is of private benefit to them but detrimental to the public. And I think Americans are actually waking up to the fact that we have been living in this, what I call this winners-take-all America, in which the country is not being run for Americans. It is being run for money.

I actually have gotten tired of the language of inequality, even though I wrote an entire book about it — multiple books about it, because I think people don’t — it doesn’t click with people, what we’re actually talking about. So, if you are someone listening to this who’s not — I mean, you’re probably not, because you’re watching Democracy Now! — but someone who’s not so excited about the inequality issue, think about it this way. In every year, in this country and in all countries, a certain amount of future rains on all of us. A certain amount of progress rains on all of us. A certain amount of innovation rains on all of us. Right? “Innovation,” the Latin word for new stuff. And the question then becomes: When that new stuff, the future, progress, rains on us, who gets it? Who harvests the rainwater?

And what has actually happened is the future has become a thing that is privately gated and enjoyed and monopolized by very few people, which means that you can be living in an age where extraordinary things are being invented, the internet is being invented, medical advances are happening, but if you are not in the gated community that enjoys the fruits of the future, you are stuck in 1979. And that’s true as a matter of wages for many people. It’s true as a matter of health access for many people. It’s true as a matter of information access for many people, who are listening to media that is distorting their minds. And I think what’s at stake in 2020 is we wake up to the idea that either we are going to resign ourselves to living in a country that billionaires rule, or we’re going to actually muster the gumption to remind billionaires that they are living in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go not to last night’s debate, but the Las Vegas debate, the time when Mike Bloomberg, you might have called him the piñata in Nevada. And this is the exchange between Senator Sanders and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. This was moderated by MSNBC.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What we need to do to deal with this grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is make sure that those people who are working — you know what, Mr. Bloomberg? It wasn’t you who made all that money; maybe your workers played some role in that, as well. And it is important that those workers are able to share the benefits also. When we have so many people who go to work every day and they feel not good about their jobs, they feel like cogs in a machine. I want workers to be able to sit on corporate boards, as well, so they can have some say over what happens to their lives.

HALLIE JACKSON: Mayor Bloomberg, you own a large company. Would you support what Senator Sanders is proposing?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Absolutely not. I can’t think of a ways that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can respond to that, Anand Giridharadas? And also talk about when Mike Bloomberg said, “I worked hard for that money.”

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I mean, first of all, just, you know, it’s so interesting, given that this is — you know, it’s an election. It’s a contest about actually connecting with people. It’s so interesting to me that being that rich, as Michael Bloomberg is, makes there be no one in your life who actually tells you how you come across to people. I mean, he has the charisma of like a large piece of cheese that ate a robot. You know? It’s hard to even make up how unable he is to connect to people. But he’s probably just surrounded by people who are like, “Oh my god, sir, you are connecting!” Which is part of the problem of being a billionaire.

That exchange was so telling. And what happens in Vegas absolutely must not stay in Vegas, because what he is arguing is the — he’s not just a guy who happens to be rich running in a progressive primary. He is running as a rich guy with all the rich guy intuitions, which is, “I am worth $60 billion because I earned that, and nobody else had any part in that.” And that is an ideology that just frankly does not belong in the Democratic Party. And it’s just — it’s a kind of 20th century — it’s just — it’s old, to be honest. It’s just old. I mean, I know, through my reporting, a number of billionaires, who just absolutely don’t think that anymore. Right? That’s not even cutting-edge thinking within the circle of billionaires. Right? I’ve had billionaires text me, being like, “What’s this guy doing?” Right? Like, this guy — like, let’s be just clear for a second. Michael Bloomberg is making billionaires uncomfortable with his defense of billionaires. This is a true fact, that I can attest from my iMessages.

So, I think we’ve got to think about this notion that he’s articulating. It’s a notion in which his wealth is somehow independent of all the extraordinary things in society that we’ve all paid into, from public schools to public roads to the financial regulators who allow him to build that kind of business. You know, Michael Bloomberg — look, anybody watching this should feel grateful to America. But Michael Bloomberg should feel 60 billion times more grateful than anybody watching this. Right? Like, all of your lives, watching this, are sort of dependent, pretty dependent, on America being a functioning society with nice common things. But his life is really, really dependent on those common things, because, more than anybody watching this, he really depends on Wall Street regulators doing their job. He really depends on the United States court system doing its job well. Nothing he does is possible without that. He really depends, when you’re hiring that many people, on there being a widely educated, well-educated workforce. And so, it feels particularly churlish, when you have an obligation to be 60 billion times more grateful than the average person for public systems, to denigrate them and claim that everything you made is your private prerogative that you could have done in any context in the world, without any of these shared systems.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Michael Bloomberg, but this is last night in South Carolina, talking about the influence his money had on the 2018 midterm election.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: All of the new Democrats that came in, put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this president, I bought — I got them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. He said, “Look how I used my money.”

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: You know, it’s so interesting. I was thinking about this. I wish I was prescient enough to write this book because I knew Michael Bloomberg was going to run for president. I didn’t. But I wrote it precisely out of a curiosity of people like him. Right?

And so, a few years ago, the phenomenon I noticed about America, that led to the book, was the Bloombergs of the world have two sides to them. If you look at Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic activities, which rhyme with the activities of many, many people like him — we can’t deny that. A lot of money being given away, maybe more than in history. Not a lot — not a big percentage for a lot of people, but more money is flowing, $400-some billion are given away in America every year. A lot of money. And I looked at people like him giving money away, doing these ends, changing the world, giving back, making a difference — Africa, Africa, Africa. They love Africa. All this talk about these activities. But then, inconveniently, I looked at a second thing, which is also true about people like Michael Bloomberg, which is that if you looked at the actual economic data, they were monopolizing, as I said earlier, the fruits of the future. They were monopolizing progress. So, on the one hand, they were doing all these nice things, which Michael Bloomberg absolutely does, and, on the other hand, they were actually increasing, not decreasing, their share of the pie every year.

So, it started to make me wonder: What’s the relationship between all these nice activities and the bad activities, the hoarding, the generosity and the injustice? And the conclusion I came to in the book is that the kind of giving that folks like Michael Bloomberg do is the wingman of their taking. The kind of generosity they engage in is the wingman of the injustice they uphold. And the making a difference that they talk about is the wingman of their making a killing. And you see in Bloomberg how, because he is using his wealth to attempt to purchase the presidency. That’s certainly a way in which, you know, having that money and using the reputation glow of philanthropy can help you. Second, a lot of people who have endorsed him are people who have benefited from his charitable largesse. Right? So you use this making a difference to actually increase, not decrease, your power. In an age of plutocracy, which we are in, the central issue in this country is whether you’re going to find a way to break the stranglehold on wealth and power of a few people at the top. And if you do not have a plan to do that, you, by default, have a plan to perpetuate that.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that the billionaires election, talking about it that way, is sort of a coded way, a coded critique of capitalism? And now, when you have Michael Bloomberg coming into the race — he won’t be in South Carolina so much as Super Tuesday — his pouring millions into taking on Bernie Sanders and trying to make this an issue about socialism, redbaiting him as much as possible, trying to pose it as “You either have me, or you have Cuba.”

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: This is such an American talking point that Michael Bloomberg is engaged in, that we all need to educate — first of all, you know, I think — look, I think there are some people who had a great life in the 20th century, who should have considered remaining in it. Right? Like, if your framework — like, if you are still running nuclear drills in your mind — right? — you may not belong in the 21st century. Like, a lot of the — and I see it on TV all the time. Like, there are people who clearly have Cold War trauma, and I feel for them, but we’re not actually in the Cold War anymore. Right? We’re in just a completely different era. Right? And just as it would have been unhelpful in the Cold War to be like talking about what we need to do in the trenches of World War I — it’s just not a helpful framework for the Cold War, because it’s just not now — it’s not particularly helpful now, in 2020, to be reliving your own Cold War trauma as guidance for the United States.

Michael Bloomberg is trying to present this old American talking point, that you’ve got two choices, people: We can either be a Goldman Sachs country, or we can be Maduro’s Venezuela. Those are your choices. Those are your — that’s the whole choice. We have come to a place in America, which I find fascinating, where our understanding of gender is more fluid than our understanding of capitalism, socialism and democracy. It’s remarkable. I never would have expected that. We’ve made tremendous progress in understanding that it’s not like men, women, nothing in between; it’s complicated. People fall all kinds of places on that distribution. But capitalism and socialism? No, no, no, it’s one or the other.

The reality is, for any person who’s actually traveled or read a book, every country in the world, with maybe a couple of exceptions, has some mix of capitalism and socialism. When you’re on the highway, the thing beneath you, socialism; the things on the highway, capitalism — the cars and the trucks carrying stuff. When you are on Wall Street, the banks, capitalism; the regulators that make sure that brokers are not stealing their money, socialism. Right? When you work for 40 years at IBM, capitalism; when you retire and have Social Security and Medicare take care of you, socialism. Right? It’s early in the morning. I have, already in the course of this day, by eating certain things, engaged in capitalism. By taking a car here, engaged in capitalism. But I have also benefited profoundly, just by 8 a.m., from socialism, from the fact that people — you know, there were roads. It was nice to have roads on the way here. It made it a much faster commute. You know, all the ways in which capitalism and socialism are actually part of every hour of our lives, let’s end this ridiculous binary and have some understanding of economic fluidity.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Giridharadas, thank you so much for being with us, Time magazine editor-at-large, his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. And we’ll link to his New York Times cover story of the Week in Review called “The Billionaire Election: Does the world belong to them or to us?”

When we come back, we go to Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. Stay with us.

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