The billionaires of global politics

As if we needed a reminder, last week Roll Call published their list of the “50 Richest Members of Congress.” If you hadn’t heard, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) again tops the list.

As rich as they are, none in this group has joined the filthy-rich category of “billionaire.” It may not make much of a difference if your representative is merely an $850 millionaire, but given the increasing focus on the issue of wealth inequality, it’s worth paying a bit more attention to how the group of billionaires behaves.

According to Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West (citing Forbes data), there are 1,645 billionaires in the world, and many are not content with life in the private sector. West has just published Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, which tracks the growing role of the super-wealthy in politics.

{mosads}In addition to ample evidence from the U.S., what is most fascinating about West’s book is his description of the increasingly prominent role played by these billionaires outside of the U.S. — in India, the Czech Republic, China and elsewhere. The billionaire lifestyle has truly become a global affair.

In China, for example, quite cozy American-style relationships have emerged between public officials and the private sector. A group of so-called “princelings” have recently traded on the family name to accumulate their billions. The sons of former Premier Wen Jiabao, former President Jiang Zemin, and former President Hu Jintao all lead major Chinese companies and work closely with government regulators.

In other parts of the world, though, it is the super-rich challenging government corruption. In the Czech Republic, for instance, agri-billionaire Andrej Babis contested parliamentary elections through a new reform party he helped established called ANO. Babis’s party won nearly 20 precent of the vote and he was then chosen as finance minister. And, owing to his fortunes earned in the energy sector, Zdenek Bakala funded the presidential candidacy of Karel Schwarzenberg, an anti-corruption reformer. Schwarzenberg ultimately lost, but reformers have made common cause with billionaires.

And in India, West reports that the billionaire cofounder of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, ran for parliament on the platform that his riches made him “incorruptible” and thus the best candidate to serve the people. Unconvinced, voters rejected Nilekani and his party lost the election.

Perhaps it should come as a relief that while billionaires are growing hungry for political influence, they don’t always get their way. Michael Bloomberg may have won three consecutive mayoral elections in New York City by spending hundreds of millions of his own money, but Meg Whitman’s $144 million ultimately couldn’t win over voters in a California gubernatorial race.

West’s book is a good read for these tidbits of the rich-and-famous, but his recommendations to curb unchecked influence in the U.S. are much needed. Greater transparency, greater clarity over regulations on political activity of social welfare organizations, and greater press freedoms are three, in particular, that may help equalize political influence, if not curb the unequal influence of the billionaire class.

Brown is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition (Routledge, 2012).

Tags Andrej Babis billionaires China Czech Republic Darrell Issa Hu Jintao India Jiang Zemin Meg Whitman Michael Bloomberg Nandan Nilekani wealth Wen Jiabao
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