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Yvonne Abraham

We’re a nation that’s in love with our billionaires

Bill Gates spoke during the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria conference in Lyon, France, on Oct. 10.AFP via Getty Images

We’ve turned billionaires into little gods in this country.

We don’t just tolerate extreme wealth: We venerate it. A large chunk of Americans believe the very rich got that way because they are smarter, harder-working, even more virtuous. If you buy the fiction that America is a meritocracy, billionaires are the best of us all.

And so we elect one to run the country who is not just ignorant and irrational and objectively bad at business, but can’t even be trusted to run a charity without plundering it. And we hang upon the words of others in this gilded fellowship as if they were dispatches from the very heavens.


Quiet everyone, a billionaire is talking!

On Wednesday, the billionaire in question was Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who, like others before him, sounded the alarm on the tax proposals of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who is doing pretty well in the race for the Democratic nomination, wants to impose a tax of 2 percent on every dollar over $50 million, and 3 percent on net worth over $1 billion. Now, Gates is one of those rich blokes who believes his kind should pay more in taxes.

But not too much more. In an interview on Wednesday, he trotted out the spurious argument the very rich — and those who love them — have been spouting since Ronald Reagan rode in on his white horse to slash their taxes (and our government) 40 years ago: that demanding a lot more in taxes from the rich will hurt the economy for everyone.

“I do think if you tax too much you do risk the capital formation, innovation, US as the desirable place to do innovative companies,” Gates said.

America innovated just fine when the rich paid their fair share of taxes, before their champions used trickle-down trickery to spread the fiction that wealthier plutocrats will lift all boats. But we seem to have lost sight of that fact. So we’re left with inequality to rival the Gilded Age, a country where social mobility is increasingly elusive and where America’s 400 richest families pay a lower effective tax rate than its working class.


You’d never know that from listening to our sainted billionaires, though, some of whom sound not nearly as measured and reasonable as Gates. For example, investor Leon Cooperman accused Warren of undermining the American Dream in such vulgar and profane terms they cannot be printed here.

And former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has derided her tax proposal as socialism, raising the specter of Venezuela-level chaos if it comes to pass.

He is of course right, for he is a billionaire. That also makes him a viable presidential candidate, apparently. That, and being a man. On Thursday, it emerged that Bloomberg, who ruled out a run for the Democratic nomination back in March, is now considering entering the race, because he’s worried only a moderate can beat the incumbent, and that the nomination is slipping away from former Vice President Joe Biden. Naturally, Cooperman agrees.

Never mind the fact that there is no shortage of moderates in the race, or that past polls put Bloomberg in single digits. Or the fact that the former mayor’s admirable efforts for gun control, and against sugary soda, will free the GOP to deride him, too, as a socialist.


Step aside, everyone. Let another New York billionaire save us.

Maybe it’s unfair to single out Gates and Bloomberg. For insanely rich people, they’re pretty decent citizens, turning their fortunes to worthy causes. They’re not like the Koch brothers and their cronies, who spent decades using their lucre to poison the environment, and our political process.

But, decent or no, why should their words carry more weight than those of the majority of Americans who favor a proposal like Warren’s? The generosity of billionaires devoted to causes of their choosing is no substitute for a properly funded government devoted to the greater good of all. If only we could knock these guys off the pedestals we helped build, we might actually make it happen.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.