The Billionaire Ballot

February 16, 2020

by Steve Stofka

“Dad, can I get a new bike?”

“What do you think money grows on trees?”

“No. If it grew on trees, I wouldn’t ask you for a new bike. I’d ask for a ladder so I could pick my own money.” A great comeback that I never said. No new bike. I could still dream of being President someday.

My dad was born before the Great Depression, a time when money lived in the ground. In 1849, people went crazy when they learned that there was gold in the dirt of California (PBS, n.d.). It’s God’s will, some said. In 1876, eight years after the Federal government signed a treaty with the Sioux Indians, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of North Dakota. Sorry, Sioux Indians, but you’ll have to move (NPS, n.d.). 

It took labor and money to dig up money when it lived in the ground. Now it lives in the digital “cloud.” Are we inherently distrustful of money that can be created with the push of a finger on a computer terminal? Seems too easy. We are 50 years into a system that is untethered from any practical restraint. The Federal Reserve guides their monetary policy according to goals set by a law passed at the height of inflation in the 1970s. They do not have to dig up dirt to get more money. They don’t have to keep gold or silver reserves. It seems like the same magical thinking of a kid who dreams about becoming President.

Presidential candidates must work hard to generate enthusiasm and donations of time and money to fuel their campaigns. A successful candidate for the Presidency usually finds a phrase that resonates with supporters.  In 2008, former President Obama used “Yes, we can” and various combinations of “Change” (List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans, 2020). President Trump used “Make America Great Again” during his 2016 campaign. His current slogan is “Keep America Great.” I heard Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren sound out “Fighting Back” at a Virginia rally this past Thursday (C-Span, 2020). Mike Bloomberg has blanketed media with the phrase “Mike will get it done” (Mike Bloomberg, 2020).

In 2016, Marco Rubio and other Republican candidates complained that the inexperienced Donald Trump could buy the party’s nomination with his vast resources. Mr. Trump had promised to spend $100 million of his own money and spent $65 million in the final accounting (Peters & Storey, 2016). This was only half of the $121 million in inflation adjusted dollars that Ross Perot spent on his Presidential campaign in 1992 (Boaz, 2019).

Enter Mike Bloomberg. In the few months since he announced his candidacy, his campaign has spent $400 million (Burns & Kulish, 2020). His political spending is dwarfed by his charitable giving. In 2019, Mr. Bloomberg’s foundation donated more than $3 billion to charity. Unlike President Trump, Mr. Bloomberg has demonstrated his business acumen and has past political experience in the mud pit of New York City politics. He is used to the tough bargaining and political alliances that consume Washington. Mr. Trump knows only intimidation, not bargaining. He is the Twitter version of Venezuela’s former President, Hugo Chavez, who used radio to attack his political enemies.

What entices these billionaires to want a high stress job in Washington? What lies in the ground in Washington is not gold, but great power and reputation. Under FDR in 1932, the Democrats first began to consolidate political power in Washington. World War 2 and the Cold War helped grow that power base. So did the Federal programs of social support – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and countless others. Beginning in the 1960s, Congress began to grant the President more executive power to conduct war and administer the growing array of Federal agencies.

As the power of the Presidency grew, each Presidential campaign attracted more money. Through a series of campaign reform bills, Congress attempted to regulate the flow of money into politics. In the past decade, two recent Supreme Court decisions have undone many campaign regulations (Ballotpedia, n.d).

The discovery of gold in California and South Dakota attracted many prospectors who worked hard to grab the prize. Like today’s Presidential candidates, many miners did not have the resources necessary to capitalize on the opportunity. Well-funded companies like Homestake Mining proved successful. This is the era we are in now. Little Johnny or Mary can put away their dreams of being President. Is that good for the country?

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Notes:

Ballotpedia. (n.d.). Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/Bipartisan_Campaign_Reform_Act

Boaz, D. (2019, July 9). RIP Ross Perot, the Billionaire Who Ran for President. Retrieved from https://www.cato.org/blog/rip-ross-perot-billionaire-who-ran-president. Mr. Perot spent $65 million, or about $121 million in current dollars.

Burns, A., & Kulish, N. (2020, February 15). Bloomberg’s Billions: How the Candidate Built an Empire of Influence. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/15/us/politics/michael-bloomberg-spending.html

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Senator Elizabeth Warren Campaigns in Arlington, Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?469313-1/senator-elizabeth-warren-campaigns-arlington-virginia (43:08).

List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans. (2020, February 14). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._presidential_campaign_slogans

Mike Bloomberg 2020. (2020). Mike Bloomberg for President: Official 2020 Campaign Website. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from https://www.mikebloomberg.com/

Peters, J. W., & Shorey, R. (2016, December 9). Trump Spent Far Less Than Clinton, but Paid His Companies Well. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/politics/campaign-spending-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html

Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

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