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AOC’s policy adviser makes the case for abolishing billionaires

“The bigger Jeff Bezos’s and Bill Gates’s slices of the pie are, the smaller everybody else’s are going to be.”

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos (L) tells a joke with Mi
Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, the two richest men in the world worth over $200 billion combined, hanging out back in 2001.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Dan Riffle is a senior counsel and policy adviser for influential first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but his name on Twitter is “Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.”

The slogan reflects his boss’s politics. At an event in January with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ocasio-Cortez explained, “It’s not to say that ... Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are immoral people ... but I do think a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”

And because anything involving AOC provokes massive public controversy, the tagline and Ocasio-Cortez’s articulation of it almost immediately prompted dismissive commentary in the business and right-wing news media, critique on the New York Times op-ed page, defenses by left-wing writers at outlets like New York magazine, and even some polling of the American public by Huffington Post/YouGov. (Only 20 percent of Americans agreed that “every billionaire is a policy failure,” compared to 45 percent who disagreed.)

In the months since the initial blow-up, the backlash against big philanthropy from writers like Anand Giridharadas, Rob Reich, and Edgar Villanueva has continued to mount, undermining one of the main defenses of the existence of a billionaire class. As someone interested in philanthropy, and in wealth inequality, I thought it might be worthwhile to chat with Riffle and sort through what precisely he means when he declares billionaires a policy failure.

A transcript edited for length and clarity follows.

Dylan Matthews

Where did the phrase “every billionaire is a policy failure” come from?

Dan Riffle

I saw that Sean [McElwee, a political activist] had [created] #AbolishICE and that caught fire for a while and started a movement. I think the most pressing issue in the country is wealth and income inequality, and wanted to draw attention to that. I was trying to come up with a phrase to define a policy that would address that. I started with, “Tax income over $5 million at 99 percent.” That’s not exactly a succinct phrasing of the issue; it doesn’t roll off the tongue.

So I bounced around a couple of other different ideas, and then eventually, it’s “Every billionaire is a policy failure.” It still wasn’t as succinct as #AbolishICE, but it defined the problem. It wasn’t just, “Every billionaire is a greedy asshole,” which is true, but doesn’t necessarily address the role that society has in the problem and the solution to it.

Dylan Matthews

There’s some level of rhetorical flourish happening here. When I hear “every billionaire is a policy failure,” how literally should I be interpreting that? Should I be thinking, “We can’t rest until every single person has a net worth of $999 million or less?” Or do you mean it more as a general attitude we should have toward extreme wealth?

Dan Riffle

I don’t know where exactly we can draw the line. We can have all 300 and some-odd million Americans vote on it and come up with an average that everybody thinks is a reasonable amount of money. But at some point there has to be an upper bound, right? If you have $5 million, you can live off the interest of that and be a one percenter. There’s nothing in this world that anybody wants or needs to do that you can’t do with, let’s say, $10-15 million. And so at some point there has to be a line. To me, $1 billion is way, way, way, way past the line.

Dylan Matthews

Part of what’s interesting about it to me as a slogan is the idea that it’s specifically a policy failure. You could imagine an argument that it’s a personal failing of the billionaire to allow themselves to continue to exist as a billionaire, to not donate that money. I’m curious how much you think of this as a problem of personal morality versus a problem of institutions and public policy. How much of this is personal greed versus a structure that incentivizes greed?

Dan Riffle

I think that really gets to the heart of it. You know the New York Times Q and A where they asked the candidates [“Does anyone deserve to have a billion dollars?”]? Other than [Sen. Kirsten] Gillibrand, who flatly said nobody should be a billionaire, the candidates who addressed it best said something like, “My concern is not how much money Jeff Bezos has or Bill Gates has, but whether or not every American has access to affordable health care, education, housing, and basic human rights. And if those things are in place, then I don’t really care how much somebody else has.”

Well, those things are not in place, and they’re not in place because Bill Gates has $107 billion and Jeff Bezos has $120 billion. Those two things are inherently intertwined, and you cannot fix one without the other.

And it gets to this other issue that people raise all the time, that this isn’t a zero-sum ballgame. We can grow the pie, which of course is true. “Grow the pie” is my least favorite metaphor in all of economics. Of course we can grow the pie. Of course we can create wealth. Hopefully down the road we’ll have more money to spread around.

But we’re dealing with the here and now, and at any given point in time, the size of the pie is what the size of the pie is. It’s a finite amount and there are a finite number people in the country and so a finite amount to be spread around to those people in the country. I don’t think that everybody should have the exact same slice of that pie, but it’s certainly the case that the bigger Jeff Bezos’s and Bill Gates’s slices of the pie are, the smaller everybody else’s slices of the pie are going to be.

Dylan Matthews

A counterpoint that I think defenders of folks like Gates would make at this point is, “But what about charity? What about everything that Bill Gates has done on malaria?” I imagine you have a ready response to that.

Dan Riffle

To the extent that “every billionaire is a policy failure” is a concise thing, I think an even better one is, “Philanthropy is the privatization of the social safety net.” That’s Hamilton Nolan at Splinter.

The idea that Bill Gates is the one guy who should be out there curing malaria is ludicrous to me. Why should a guy who has expertise in software and taking maximum advantage of patent laws be the guy in charge of curing malaria? Why should that not be a democratized process where actual experts with actual training in the area democratically decide how to distribute the resources that we have to best fight that battle?

If people were philanthropic, if the wealthiest among us actually contributed more than half of their wealth, then we might not see these same problems, but the problems exist because those wealthy people are not contributing. Take the billionaire pledge that Gates rolled out. I think Jeff Bezos’s wife was the last one to take it. So if you’re worth $100 billion and you give $50 billion to charity, that still means that that you’re hoarding $50 billion yourself. It boggles the mind that somebody thinks that that philanthropy or charity is the way that we can best address systemic societal inequality.

Dylan Matthews

Some of the smarter defenders of big philanthropy would say it’s precisely because we have all these policy failures, precisely because we have this emaciated government, that as a second best, we need to rely on things like Gates’s giving. That it’s superior to saying, “Well, our democratic processes have arrived at a policy on foreign aid that provides an inadequate level of support for anti-malaria interventions. We should abide by that.”

While that might be more democratic, or at least less plutocratic, it might violate other humanitarian values more than using mega-philanthropy to try to correct policy failures does. What do you make of that, and to what degree do you think it’s fair to interpret the rise of mega-philanthropy as a response to shortcomings of government policy in recent decades?

Dan Riffle

You can extrapolate that argument to any number of issues. Single-payer is the hot button topic today. And you hear people all the time say, “If we’re starting from scratch today, sure, maybe we would go with a single-payer system, but this is what we have and it would be hugely disruptive and difficult to implement that now.”

I just reject that premise. I don’t understand why we can’t have a better system in place if the system that we have is failing as vastly, as significantly as obviously as the system that we have is now failing. And that’s true whether we’re talking about our health care system or the way that resources are distributed in society. It is just obviously not the case that relying on the largess of galactically wealthy people to solve the world’s problems is getting the job done.

Dylan Matthews

Gates has said he wants a higher capital gains tax on himself. Does that count for anything in your book?

Dan Riffle

I’m glad Gates has called for a higher capital gains tax. We should ditch the capital gains tax altogether and just treat it like income. Increasing taxes, and democratic control over the distribution of society’s resources, is a hell of a lot more important to fairness and equality and progress than any philanthropy pledge.

Dylan Matthews

So I know your boss has pushed for a 70 percent top marginal rate. There’s been a lot more discussion of wealth taxes recently. What are some other policies that you think would be good tools for creating that kind of distribution? Could taxation do a bulk of it? Are there pre-distributional tools?

Dan Riffle

One of the things that I’m intrigued by is what we can do about stock ownership and shareholders. Most of the galactic billionaires that we’re talking about here — it’s not like they have a checking account or a savings account with $100 billion in it. It’s valuation of stock that they have. For Jeff Bezos, it’s ownership of Amazon. For Bill Gates, it’s ownership of Microsoft. So employee-owned companies are something that we’re talking about.

There’s other ways that you can force the divestiture of an owner of a company once we hit a certain threshold. If you want to start a company, if you want to be an entrepreneur and start a business and that business succeeds, then you should be successful and you should be wealthy and you should be able to travel the globe and retire in your 30s and live in a big house with a big yard.

But the idea that you still need to hold onto all of that stock when it hits $10 million or $50 million or $100 million or $500 million or $1 billion dollars, just isn’t the case. Having more democratic control over society’s resources would be helpful, and having more democratic control over a company’s resources would be beneficial for that company as well. Nobody cares more about the wellbeing of the company than the employees of that company.

There’s other proposals that have been put out there. Matt Bruenig had an interesting article — back in his Medium days before he started the People’s Policy Project — where he talked about “nickel and dime socialism,” and the idea that companies can pay their taxes in stock and thus contribute to this sovereign wealth fund, which would finance the parts of the welfare state that are not being financed now.

Dylan Matthews

In a good bit of timing for this conversation, George Soros and Charles Koch are teaming up on foreign policy. They’re starting a new antiwar think tank. I’m curious what you think when you look at something like that, as someone who’s very critical of this class but who’s also antiwar. This is a case where the billionaire class is fighting back against the vested interests of defense contractors, of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and other lobbies that have a lot of power in DC.

How should I feel about that when I see that in the news? Should I, as someone who thinks that the government is too hawkish and that we should stop getting involved in foreign wars, be excited? Should I be fearful?

Dan Riffle

I feel the same way about it as I do whenever I see people put a dollar or two in the red barrel for the Salvation Army around Christmas time when they walk into the grocery store. Good for you. Thanks for doing your part. But again, I think relying on one or two people to solve a problem through their galactic wealth and power is just not getting it done. And that’s not to say that rich people don’t do good things obviously.

The Kochs have funded some great work around drug policy reform. So has Soros, and that’s something that I worked on previously. Soros is almost single-handedly keeping democracy hanging on by a thread in Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe. But I just refuse to believe that with more democratic control over those resources, rather than being in the hands of a concentrated few, that more good wouldn’t be done.

Even if you believe that Soros and the Kochs are great people doing great things and that they should be left alone, that’s two of a class. And the vast majority of the class of billionaires are people that you’ve never heard of, because they’re not doing this kind of work. They’re making $1 billion and they’re pocketing $1 billion and they’re not doing any of this sort of stuff that the Kochs are doing or that Soros or Gates or Zuckerberg are doing.

To their credit, we at least know about the philanthropic deeds of the six or eight people that we’ve talked about on this call. But there’s more than six or eight billionaires out there, and the vast majority of them are not doing the kind of work that even these folks are doing. And even what these folks are doing is not one-tenth of what needs to be done.

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Correction: This article originally stated that Riffle changed his handle in early 2019; he changed it in 2018, before he joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s team.