Part of what must intrigue billionaires to run for office is the chance to take their expertise in private business and apply it to shaping national public policy. Unfortunately, new research shows we know almost nothing about what the richest Americans actually believe about major policy issues, raising serious doubts about the value of billionaire candidates for office.
Former Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz recent 60 Minutes appearance suggests he’s duly drawn to running for the presidency in 2020 — yet, we learned almost nothing from the interview about his substantive views on major policy issues.
Although he shared that he lived in public housing as a child in Brooklyn, he did not express a view on whether more or less public housing would address today’s poverty problems. He vaguely endorsed the idea that health care is a right — yet, he did not reveal what health policy he would support if elected. And on race and justice, though he adopted a much talked about policy at Starbucks to encourage baristas to “talk about racial justice,” he shared no specific views on policing, affirmative action or anti-discrimination policy. The best Schultz could muster was that he would ask people to “bring me your ideas” and that he would encourage “a creative debate” on complex problems.
These abstruse policy views make Schultz like nearly all other American billionaires. In a new book “Billionaires and Stealth Politics,” Benjamin I Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J Lacombe analyze a decade of data on the wealthiest 100 Americans, everyone from Adelson to Bloomberg to Bezos. They show that most billionaires rarely express views on policy in public or with the media, while routinely contributing vast sums of money to candidates for office and political groups. This is “stealth politics.”
For example, despite the policy’s massive size, 97 percent of these billionaires have never spoken about their views on Social Security. Just one in four have shared their views on tax policy, but fewer than one in 10 have said anything about capital gains or the estate tax. On social issues, such as marriage equality or abortion, most billionaires have been similarly cagey.
These findings raise the same questions as Schultz’s stealthy interview. Billionaires seek influence through their contributions and forays into presidential politic, but we can only guess at their views on public policy. Voters have almost no way to evaluate whether Schultz would make a good or bad president, because he has never explained clearly his specific policy views on education, retirement, immigration or health care. This lack of transparency weakens the democracy by starving electoral debates of substance while permitting money to secretly influence policy outcome.
For Howard Schultz — and the next billionaire considering running — they should put their policy views first, and their money second.
Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy at City University of New York. Brown is the author of “Pay-to-Play Politics” published in 2016.