Why Billionaires Should Stay Out of Politics

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said to Ernest Hemingway, "The rich are different from you and me."

To which Hemingway even more famously replied, "Yeah, they have more money."

Let's play a parlor game: how would other famous folk respond to Fitzgerald's observation?

George W. Bush: "Yeah, they pay more taxes."

Christina Onassis: "Yeah, they chose their parents better."

Ralph Nader: "Yeah, they steal more money."

But Michael Bloomberg, the self-made billionaire who is running for Mayor of New York City, might say, "Yeah, we're better than the rest of you."

Bloomberg, who has already spent $8 million of his own money introducing himself to New Yorkers and plans to spend a whole lot more, has been quoted as saying that his self-financed campaign is a form of "charity." Thanks, Mike. I don't know about you, but I'm not crazy about accepting charity.

In Queens the other day, Mr. Bloomberg, whose computer boxes sit on the desktops of every financial whiz in the city, observed that, "We live in a society where if you make your money honestly and you spend it to do good things, generally people like you for it."

I won't even reckon with the possibility that some wealthy New Yorkers make charitable donations in order to launder their morally suspect reputations, but I will say that billionaires probably have a distorted sense of why people like them. I mean, how many people like Michael for his charming personality and not his wallet? His mother, maybe.

This idea that he's doing us all a favor by spending his own money, instead of raising it from voters and using matching funds made up from our taxes is a canard. He's doing himself a big favor, not us. Spending his own millions is his First Amendment right, but that doesn't mean we have to admire or like him for it.

At least his compatriots Corzine, Huffington, Perot, and Forbes didn't act like they were doing us a favor.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg said, "If somebody wants to go out and take their own money to try to make the world a better place, I can only tell you my hat is off to them." I'm afraid Mr. Bloomberg is making that critical politician's error: confusing his own best interest with that of mankind. (Not to mention, immodestly raising his own cap to himself.)

Thus far on the campaign trail, Mr. Bloomberg has revealed that he is deeply unversed in the art of governing, that he knows little about the city that he's seeking to run, and that he is unfamiliar with the bread-and-butter issues that face New Yorkers. He opportunistically left the Democratic party because it was too crowded — especially with able public servants like Mark Green — and plunked himself in the virtually empty Republican primary. I'm afraid Mr. Bloomberg is not seeking to make the world a better place, but to put himself in a better place.

Mike, I have news for you: Ted Turner and George Soros are billionaires who are using their money to try to make the world a better place.

From his comments, it's apparent that Mr. Bloomberg has bought into two of the central fallacies of the Reagan era. The first is that a fellow who can run a business can similarly run a government. (Based on Dick Cheney's success in private life, it seems to work the other way around: people who can run a government can certainly run a business.) And the second is that Bloomberg seems to believe at some level that people who have a lot of money are somehow better — not just better off — than those who don't.

He behaves as though his billions have given him some kind of moral seal-of-approval, an imprimatur of virtue that would somehow make us want to vote for him. This is a very American notion that goes all the way back to the Puritans, who believed that luck in money matters somehow signaled God's approval. But his invocations of charity have the aura of noblesse oblige, of him generously offering up himself for our collective benefit. After all, he's giving up his plush corporate life in order to make the world a better place for all of us. Thanks again, Mike.

Frankly, the best argument I can think of against campaign finance reform is that spending limits and caps on contributions seem to induce bland and narcissistic billionaires to run for office.