On the evening of May 4, a day before he was to join dozens of billionaires convened by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss how they might spend over half their wealth for “good works,” media entrepreneur, peace advocate and environmentalist, Ted Turner joined another billionaire, Peter B. Lewis (chairman of Progressive Insurance) and me at the New York Public Library to discuss a similar topic. C-SPAN covered the event.
The event was titled “Billionaires Against Bull, Going from Charity to Justice.” It was a far-ranging exchange before an audience as civically committed as some of the notables who were there, including Lewis Lapham of Lapham’s Quarterly, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Victor Navasky (Columbia Journalism School), Patti Smith (singer, poet and author), Mark Green (author of Losing Our Democracy), and Eugene Jarecki, (documentary film maker (“Why We Fight) and author of The American Way of War.
The launching point for our discourse was my work of political fiction “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” Turner and Lewis were two of seventeen real, very rich persons, led by Warren Buffett, who in fictional roles decided to put their money, contacts and facilities behind a mass mobilization of the people to effect long-overdue redirections.
What are the chances of a small number of many mega-rich putting ample resources behind basic changes that benefit people but upset vested interests? Issues such as a living wage, Medicare for all, and cracking down on corporate crime were part of the agenda for the Meliorists featured in my book. The difference between justice and charity is taking on power to benefit people.
Billionaires don’t work together, they’re used to people under them working together, said Lewis. Moreover, he added, so often no one knows how to get such things done.
Lewis spent $20 million to increase voter turnout. The results were disappointing. Lewis said: “If I had spent another $200 million, I might have gotten another seven or eight more people to vote.”
He had a point. But what if major money was used to make voting a legal duty, like jury duty, only with the full choice of voting for the candidates on the ballot, writing in a candidate or voting for binding none-of-the-above. That would remove the civil liberties problem and make obstructing people from voting a crime. Both Lewis and Turner seemed interested in that idea.
Turner, a big solar and wind energy advocate, liked the idea of a carbon tax. Lewis advanced the idea that wealthy people like to see proposals with clear objectives and detailed action plans. Too often that does not happen, which is why he funded a new group named The Management Center to help groups work more effectively.
I put forth several “projects” such as closing down the troubled Indian Point nuclear plants 26 miles from New York City, pressing for a Wall Street speculation tax, creating watchdog groups on nanotechnology and biotechnology, investor and consumer rights, diminishing the bloated military budget, breaking the grip of the two-party controlled Commission on Presidential Debates by organizing broad coalitions in numerous cities to sponsor candidate debates in 2012.
Only a few of the increasing numbers of mega-billionaires are needed to show the way to shift power from the few to the many, to take fundamental solutions to serious problems off the shelf, to give people access to justice and voice. In short, to strengthen democracy at its people base.
There is a broad consensus in our country around certain redirections, but the people need more civic infrastructure to organize and end the oligarchic gridlocks that have entrenched greed and myopia. As the best moments of our past show, institution building works. Expansion of our civil liberties and civil rights are almost synonymous with the ACLU and the NAACP, for instance.
We need to develop a new matrix for philanthropy, building new constituencies to make government honest and reflective of public sentiments. This also involves new experiments such as new approaches to permanent organizing, to motivating citizns, to opening up new strategies and new areas.
Presently, most philanthropy goes to needed charities. Some billions of dollars should go to preventing pain and deprivation in the first place. A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity. This approach has been proven again and again in the areas of public health and safety. Think seat belts and safe vaccines.
Vast frontiers of opportunities await for our political economy to serve the many and not just the few (think the CEO of Wal-Mart making $11,000 an hour while his workers make $9 or $10 an hour). Justice needs resources to spread. Give our citizens some lift, some help, some organization and media attention and let them show the way in communities around the country. Looking back, they may have stopped unconstitutional wars of aggression.
The conversation with Turner and Lewis could be the beginning of further exchanges between older billionaires, with a larger perspective on life, who respect posterity and the civic culture, which needs many smarter, systemic approaches to improve our democracy in expeditious ways.
Ralph Nader is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.