By David Brin
Mention George Soros anywhere on the far-right and you’ll get fulminations. To Republicans, Soros is an aristocratic mastermind who swore to “spend whatever it takes” to end the Bush-Neocons’ grip on political power in America… a vile plutocrat, striving to trample the will of plain-folks, along with the populist GOP that protects them.
Glenn Beck railed to his audience, calling Soros the “Great Oligarch” and a master manipulator “who toppled eight foreign governments.” (The one thing Beck never mentioned, and that – tellingly and symptomatically – not one member of Beck’s vast following ever asked, was “which eight foreign governments did George Soros help to topple?” Tune in at the very end for the amazing answer.)
Okay, after wiping away tears of ironic laughter, one is left wondering. If George Soros – and other rich liberals – are so potent and determined, why have they accomplished so little?
On the right, you see plenty of men and women who have proved ruthlessly effective at translating money into power, directing vast resources toward politically effective ends. There’s Rupert Murdoch, controlling — along with his Saudi co-owners — much of the world’s mass media, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal. His deep-pocket interests have been highly effective, funding everything from “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (remember them?), to Carl Rove’s Super-PAC empire, to the war on science.
David and Charles Koch, a pair of wealthy and politically radical brothers have leveraged millions from like-minded investors, to wrest control over most of the nation’s voting machines and funded (with several hundred million dollars) the campaign to delay, obfuscate and render impotent any determined action to mitigate global climate change. Not to mention foreign commodities moguls who have used deep fingers of influence to fare best of all, in recent years. The list goes on and on.
Now, mind you, I am less enraged by all of this than you might think, simply because I view such behavior as the most natural thing imaginable! We’ve had at least a million years in which human reproductive success was partly determined by males jockeying for status in tribal settings… followed by 6000 years in which 99% of all agricultural societies wound up being dominated by inheritance oligarchies, who strove above all to keep the masses in their place, ensuring that their sons would own other peoples’ daughters and sons. The chief outcome — suppression of competition and free-flowing criticism — resulted in the litany of horrifically awful statecraft that we call “history.” Adam Smith and the American founders decried the toxic effects of oligarchy, which has always been the chief enemy of markets, enterprise, science, truly-competitive capitalism and freedom. Populist or elected “government” – in sharp contrast – has almost no track record at actually harming those things.
Nevertheless, it is easy to see why we’re attracted to tales about kings and wizards and such, and why so many of the rich strive to re-create feudalism. Isn’t it what you’d do?
We are, indeed, all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off that trick. We carry their genes. Wanting all of that is the most natural thing in the world.
No, to me the amazing thing is what a high fraction of the new billionaires actually “get” the enlightenment… the modern civilization that gave them all of their opportunities and to which they owe absolutely everything. Maybe 50% of them — the Musk-Gates-Buffett-Bezos-Page-Brin-Soros-types — grasp the enormous goodness and clever dynamics, based upon relative-equality of opportunity, that brought them their great fortune! Half of them seem to get it; this is wonderful. It gives me hope there’ll be an ambitiously accomplished and exciting civilization for our grand-kids.
Can the Good Billionaires be as effective as the would-be lords?
I explore this on the pages of Existence, wherein you attend a gathering of rich clans in the year 2048 and view them weighing how much of their gratification to defer, in order not to kill the golden-egg-laying goose.
All right, it’s hard to envision Steven Spielberg pulling shenanigans anywhere as effective — in the short term — as the Foxite war on science. His films are designed to provoke thoughtful conversations, not reinforce bilious hatred of your neighbors. It’s a more wholesome endeavor, but those seeds take time to germinate. The Fox-approach is quicker.
Of course, the top endeavor for a rich person who wants to change the world for the better is simple. Keep getting rich by delivering excellent goods and services. And when you’ve reached a certain, sane level of satiability with wealth itself, you can either give a lot of it away (your kids will never starve) — or else start investing in new endeavors that are risky! Then riskier still.
For example, several of the tech-wave billionaires have invested heavily in the privatization of space exploration. Prime examples include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s mysterious Blue Origin project, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch System, and Sergey Brin’s Space Adventures. Recently, Peter Diamandis, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and others have teamed up to launch Planetary Resources aiming to mine resources from asteroids… a topic I happen to know a thing or two about.
Yes, that’s the top thing they can do. Innovation. Risky entrepreneurship. That and setting an example with real philanthropy, by signing the Gates Pledge. Nevertheless, given that so much of our future depends upon the political process, can we afford to leave that arena to be meddled in by just the New Feudalists?
Do Friendly Billionaires Matter in Politics?
Let’s be clear. Our present electoral divide won’t depend on the whim of a few moguls. Nor is Culture War all about “rich vs poor” – not yet. Historically, most nations were wracked by class struggle – and we may yet revert to that age-old pattern – which could become an especially dangerous schism, when the poor will be technologically empowered. (It’s an IQ test for the uber-wealthy: do you actually believe you can rebuild lordship in the coming era, when the prols will have smart drones and desktop bio labs and all that stuff? Really?)
But such times may be averted. Indeed, many of today’s affluent are loyal to the mobile, competitive, egalitarian and rather-flat society our parents made, after World War II. One that rewarded innovative commerce, without entrenching permanent castes.
So, let’s suppose there are a lot of wealthy, frustrated enlightenment fans out there. With so much hanging in the balance, what’s a rich dude to do?
Heck, one great option would be to start a competing company to, say, make honest voting machines. Surely you can get that ready in time to win some contracts for 2016? Or else, organizations that perform poll watching and electoral process-checking could absorb large donations, in time to do a lot of good. Though these groups are officially neutral, we know who would benefit, if elections proceed transparently and fair.
Likewise, the political caste will never rouse itself to do anything about gerrymandering. But a privately funded campaign against that foul practice, even as little as 20 million dollars, could start an avalanche of public anger over this blatant crime. In the short term, this would help both parties to back away from radicalization and elect more rational pragmatists. Kill gerrymandering and you will be well-remembered as a dragon-slayer.
But it’s my role to look in directions that are more, well, unconventional. So let me bring up one idea, from a general compilation of Concepts for Billionaires: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy, that’s been in circulation for some time.
A Henchman’s Prize
I’ve long wondered why some billionaire who is worried about our open society doesn’t pony-up and offer truly substantial whistleblower rewards. One action that could be especially well-targeted, during the next month or so — while having immense publicity value — would be to announce a great big prize for proof of massive cheating or dirty tricks, in time for the evidence to matter, before the next round of elections.
For best effectiveness, one would couch the idea in nonpartisan terms. Offer a million dollars to any conspirator who turns coat and steps forward with – say – solid evidence that either party has engaged in a systematic effort to deny the vote to a thousand or more people in any political constituency. Plus five million if the evidence leads to rapid, public plea bargains or convictions.
Yes, five million dollars is a lot of money. But note that the larger sum is paid upon conviction, in which case it’s a small amout to buy a scandal-tumult of huge proportions. Perhaps big enough to transform politics in America.
Sure, people will see through couching it in nonpartisan terms. (Though a Republican co-sponsor could be found.) But even that implication would be useful, highlighting what everybody knows — where that kind of cheating is coming from.
Why emphasize “conspirator”?
This is where the word henchman comes in. Those most likely to have the goods — real evidence — will be people already deep inside.
Ironically, a henchman is probably venal and psychologically primed to jump ship, if offered the right combination of inducements — both cash and introduction to people who can offer some immunity. (Rep. Henry Waxman has been responsible for recent strengthening of whistleblower protections, for example.)
This qualifier also keeps out a flood of mere rumor-mongers, who have other places to go.
There are many other possible whistleblower prizes.
But there’s a catch. Any such program must be carefully phrased. A billionaire will have to fight past his or her own attorneys, in order to do something like this. One doesn’t want to be held liable for enticing unproved or false allegations, or slander. (There might be a discreet application process and a committee to vet claims, while police and prosecutors are given their full due.)
Still this sort of thing has one advantage — it could be set up and unleashed quickly. And it appeals to the avaricious spirit that has driven so many dirty tricks operatives, ever since the days of Nixon and Donald Segretti. Remember, tempting rats to betray each other ought to be easy, if you use the right cheese.
And all it might take is just one.
FOLLOWUP: Have you guessed yet (or looked up) the eight foreign governments that master-mogul-manipulator George Soros “toppled”? How telling that (to my knowledge) none of Glenn Beck’s viewers or listeners even roused themselves with God’s greatest gift – curiosity – to ask which governments those were. But you know, by now, what those toppled governments were, right? They were…
… the communist dictatorship of Poland … the communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia … the communist dictatorship of Soros’s birthplace Hungary … the communist dictatorship of Lithuania … the communist dictatorship of Estonia … the communist dictatorship of Latvia … the communist dictatorship of Romania … the communist dictatorship of Bulgaria…
… and that’s erring on the low side. Some credit Soros with having major effects in Yugoslavia, Belarus, Ukraine…. Yep. It is pretty clear why Glenn Beck never likes to get specific. Facts kind of interfere with the narrative.
(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin; this is a heavily revised version of a posting from roughly 2004. Soros caricature via Wonkette.)