10 Billionaires' Dirty Tricks to Rig the System
Being a billionaire is kind of like being a rock star.
Our money-obsessed society tends to celebrate great wealth as evidence of exceptional talent, innovation or accomplishment. In reality, spectacular fortunes are more likely the result of luck, ruthlessness, cheating, or being in the right place at the right time to exploit an opportunity made possible by the insights and efforts of others who paved the way.
Certainly there's no evidence that members of today's elite are any more talented, creative or hardworking than the elite of a generation ago, who received a fraction of the rewards.
If today's rich have shown unusual talent, it's mostly been a talent for rigging the rules in their own favor.
So let's take a quick look at 10 billionaires and some things they probably don't want you to know about them:
Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks are the authors of Billionaires' Ball: Glutton and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality [Beacon, $26.95].
1. John Paulson
In 2006, hedge fund manager John Paulson realized millions of Americans had signed up for mortgages they couldn't afford and would soon start defaulting on their payments, causing the housing bubble to burst. So he took out "insurance" on stocks made up of bundled-together mortgages, which had been sold to investors. Paulson even teamed up with Goldman Sachs to create new stocks — in which he helped select the mortgages, ensuring there'd be lots of faulty ones – and then took out "insurance" on them. This was like taking out insurance on someone else's car, after arranging with the car manufacturer to put in faulty brakes. When the housing market collapsed, triggering the Wall Street meltdown, Paulson collected $3.7 billion, giving him the all-time record for profiting from the misery of others.
2. Larry Ellison
Software billionaire Larry Ellison is one of the richest men in America. By 2010, he had accumulated a net worth of $27 billion – enough to allow him to spend about $51 million a week or $303,000 an hour — without even digging into his principal. Nevertheless, in 2008, he contested the tax bill on his 23-acre California estate, and was awarded a $3 million refund, which had to be paid by school boards and municipalities. The Portola Valley School District in northern California repaid him some $250,000, the cost of hiring three or four new teachers. The refund was yet more pocket money for Ellison – enough to increase his spending that week from $303,000 to $321,000 per hour.
Wall Street titan Steve Schwarzman has fought bitterly to hold onto a tax loophole that benefits private equity managers like himself. Schwarzman even characterized attempts by President Obama to close the loophole as "war – it's like when Hitler invaded Poland." Schwarzman, who has a net worth of $4.7 billion, had a better idea for deficit reduction – collecting income tax from millions of Americans who don't pay income tax because they are too poor. Although these poor Americans do pay plenty of payroll and sales taxes, Schwarzman complained that exempting them from income tax amounted to giving them "special deals." In Schwarzman's view, then, removing favored tax treatment from the rich is Hitlerian, while removing favored tax deals from the poor is just sound policy.
4. Mark Zuckerberg
As the inventor of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg seems like a worthy sort of billionaire. But does he really deserve $17.5 billion (with billions more to come, as Facebook goes public)? Zuckerberg's contribution was actually quite marginal. He simply adapted the technological breakthroughs that had led to the Internet, and before that the personal computer, and before that the mainframe computer… all the way back to the wheel. An estimated 90 percent of all wealth generated today is due to this "knowledge inheritance" of the past. So shouldn't society get a bigger share of the benefits through the tax system? Would that have discouraged Zuckerberg? As he scrambled to develop Facebook, it's unlikely he worried about the taxes he'd pay if he became incomprehensibly rich. Besides, if he'd abandoned his quest, his competitors would have happily completed the job.
Former Wall Street mogul Sandy Weill thinks highly of himself and others who made big fortunes in recent years: "We didn't rely on somebody else to build what we built." True, Weill was instrumental in creating his own mega-wealth – by spearheading a 1990s lobbying effort that dismantled sensible financial regulations in place since the 1930s. That paved the way for Wall Street mergers like the one that created banking colossus Citigroup (headed by Weill). Weill also didn't rely on anybody else in turning his bank into a major peddler of toxic stocks based on sub-prime mortgages. That led to massive losses. Since Citigroup was deemed "too big to fail," it got $345 billion in government assistance. So could you say Weill finally relied on the help of others? Not exactly. By then, he'd retired, after receiving $953 million in compensation over the previous decade.
6. J.P. Morgan
7. Charles Wyly
The late Texas billionaire Charles Wyly prided himself in his generous support for "community causes." The Wyly family website notes that, from his Boy Scout days, Charles did a good turn every day, and always considered himself "a cheerful giver" (a theatre he funded is pictured above). One community cause he didn't contribute to cheerfully was the public treasury. A six-year investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) found that Charles and his brother Sam set up an "elaborate sham" involving 58 trusts and shell corporations to hide $750 million in offshore tax havens. Attempts by the SEC to recover $550 million have been blocked by an army of lawyers. When Charles died in 2011, the media remembered him not for his elaborate tax avoidance scheme but for his large business empire and his extensive charitable giving.
8. Christy Walton
Self-made billionaires grab a lot of attention. But the Walton heirs remind us that much wealth is still inherited – in their case from Sam Walton, who built the Walmart chain (with its notorious anti-labor practices). With $24.7 billion, Christy Walton is the 11th richest person in the world. Altogether, the family fortune totals more than $66 billion. Obviously, the U.S. estate tax has not placed much of a burden on the inheritance of "swollen fortunes" – as Republican president Theodore Roosevelt once argued that it should. In recent years, the tax has been heavily gutted, and America's wealthy have contributed more than $500 million to a campaign to repeal it entirely. If they succeed, Christy and family won't have to worry that any of their "swollen fortune" will trickle down to other Americans.
With the sudden emergence of the Tea Party in February 2009, it seemed like a new force had burst spontaneously onto the American political scene. In fact, David Koch and his brother Charles (net worth $34.2 billion each) played pivotal behind-the-scenes roles bankrolling rightwing activist groups that helped organize the movement. Indeed, the Kochs have been the key funders of the "conservative revolution" since the 1970s when they set out to reverse the trend towards greater economic equality that marked the early postwar decades in America. Heirs of the Olin, Coors and Mellon fortunes also contributed heavily to this counter-revolution. But none have matched the Koch brothers, whose extensive lobbying network on behalf of America's wealthy was decades ago dubbed the Kochtopus.
Among billionaires, here's a diamond in the rough. Not only has billionaire investor Warren Buffett vigorously championed higher taxes on the rich – refuting arguments that higher taxes destroy the incentive to invest – but he's mocked the notion that the rich deserve their wealth. Instead, Buffett argues that the rich are mostly just lucky winners in the "ovarian lottery," privileged by the circumstances of their birth. He's pointed out that his own particular talent – allocating capital – would have been a useless skill had he been born in many other eras or geographical locations. Indeed, with his poor eyesight and lack of tree-climbing skills, Buffett notes that, in an earlier age, he might well have ended up as some other animal's lunch.