The nation’s political system just doesn’t have enough influence from the billionaire class. That was apparently the sentiment, absurd as it may sound, behind billionaire Carl Icahn’s recent decision to launch a super PAC with $150 million of his reported $21 billion fortune.
What does Icahn hope to accomplish with this venture? Lower taxes for himself and his friends, of course. Icahn has targeted corporate tax reform and specifically the provisions that enable companies to defer the taxes owed on their overseas profits. Unsurprisingly, he’d prefer to enable tax dodging companies with funds in offshore tax shelters to bring the money home at a significantly reduced tax rate.
Icahn, who ranks number 22 on the Forbes list of American billionaires, is a major shareholder of Apple, a company that holds a reported $181 billion in offshore tax shelters and stands to benefit tremendously from the changes Icahn seeks.
While Icahn’s audacious actions should certainly turn heads, he is simply the latest billionaire to make news for trying to buy influence in our broken electoral system. The New York Times recently reported that just 158 families provided half of the early contributions to presidential candidates this cycle. In fact, as an older, white, self-made, urban, Republican financier, Icahn fits in the most common demographic of this group.
All told, less than one quarter of one percent of the American population contribute more than $200 to political campaigns, parties, or PACs. Only four hundredths of one percent give more than $2,600 in an election cycle. That’s just two out of every five thousand people! And that money’s well spent, too. A major study from Princeton published last year showed that economic elites and business groups have substantial power over U.S. government policy making while the vast majority of Americans do not.
Former President Jimmy Carter recently made headlines calling the United States “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.” He went on to say, “we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to the major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Given the Times reporting and Icahn’s recent actions, along with the countless other examples of legal bribery by the billionaire class in recent years, Carter’s statement is far from unfounded. What is remarkable is that a former U.S. President is speaking so plainly about the condition of our modern electoral system and that a billionaire is so brazen in his efforts to subvert the legislative process to his benefit.
Efforts to fix our broken campaign finance system are underway from groups like Represent.us and Move to Amend as well as by the quixotic Presidential candidate Larry Lessig. These efforts are pushing back against innumerable odds, but are building support for a widespread grassroots movement. This movement might be the only thing able to counter the immense influence of the billionaire class.