PREACH EP 8: Villainaires – Can billionaires save us?

March 17, 2020

This is the Preach to the Choir podcast where we explore how culture affects the racial wealth divide and vice versa recorded live at Greenhouse Studios with your hosts Deidrick Asante Muhammad Chief of race, wealth, community at NCRC, Pamela Capalad CFP and owner of Brunch and Budget, and Dyalekt Director of Pedagogy at Pockets Change.

Music Featured in This Episode:

(I Don’t Want to Be a) Billionaire from Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe by Theo Katzman

Pam: Can billionaires save us? Can they save you? We’ll find out. We wanted to talk about this in particular because we already talked about the presidential candidates and what their stance was on the racial wealth divide. Now we have Bloomberg and Steyer both on the ticket two billionaires and they are spending a ton of ad money trying to appeal to the black and Latinx community in particular.

Dyalekt: If you were in New York you may remember Michael Bloomberg from such hits as being mayor for way too long.

Pam: Yeah, he was so rich that he bought a third term and then bought the ability for no one else to be able to have a third term.

Deidrick: That’s a real billionaire next level stuff. Not just to buy you an office but to by an extra term and close it. At least he is comprehensive in what he does.

Pam: So ,we’re talking about billionaires today. We did want to start with our victim or villain segment so we’re gonna talk about superhero billionaires and supervillionaires.

Deidrick: So I guess it’s quite clear our victim and villain is billionaires. Lets touch on this idea.

Dyalekt: Well a lot of folks say that and you know, I see a lot of people feeling the need to defend billionaires, so there are a planet plenty of folks who think the billionaires are victimized

Deidrick: One of the defenses of the idea that billionaires are victims is we’re acting like by critiquing billionaires we’re saying that individually they’re bad people. Most of the people that are doing critiques on billionaires it’s not that the individual person is good or bad. Its more so this idea that that amount of money or wealth concentrated into one person is bad. So, I don’t think we’re saying individually they’re good or bad people but more so this idea that obviously if you have a billionaire that’s a lot of concentration of wealth and resources.

Dyalekt. Although there are a couple of studies that are coming out where people are talking about how the more money you make and the more isolated as a consequence you become from society how that does change things in your brain and what you do.

Dyalekt: There’s so many comic book characters that are billionaires even from like way back in the day who decided that their mission was to fight crime and stop stuff, you know, Batman’s a billionaire, Ironman is a billionaire, Green Arrow’s a billionaire, Black Panther is at least a billionaire.

Deidrick: And again, I think this idea of millionaire/billionaires in comics, you know relate to the dominant myths we have to about will billionaires save us. Why we are willing to buy into this idea that months into the campaign all of a sudden two billionaires can appear on stage and that’s okay at the democratic primary. Like at least Trump had the decency to start his campaign with everybody else.

Dedrick: Just bought the ads they needed to know get them the recognition and kinda bought their way into the race. It’s fascinating, the whole mythology that for some reason we should make exceptions because billionaires provide something that really will save us all.

Dedrick: That’s the strongest third-party candidates we’ve had I think in my lifetime is Ross Perot. We’ve been moving toward this right like it is new to have two billionaires in the Democratic primary. But then last election a self-reported billionaire, some people question if Donald Trump is really a billionaire, but at most millionaire at least. and then even 20 years back we have billionaires buying their way into the general election.

Pam: So what can we learn from these superhero billionaires or these super villain billionaires?

Dyalekt: Well the first thing that I would say that I think is really fascinating is different time periods had different types of superheroes that were popular with people. The reason why you find so many billionaire superheroes in DC comics is a lot of the DC characters that are still popular are ones that came out of the 1940s. We had just come out of the Great Depression. The story that everyone was being told and these paternal figures who were our caretakers were the ones with the most money and then that changed in the 60s we’re going to be.

Dedrick: Yeah, you know what’s so interesting is just how much of an effect Donald Trump has had on pop culture. I mean the idea that one of the kind of most famous, prolific bad guys, Lex Luther was redesigned to meet a Donald Trump idea which show how big Donald Trump was in the 80s and it’s crazy that today he’s President.

Dyalekt: I think that’s also an interesting thing to think about with billionaires and mega rich people is that he was somebody who unlike a lot of other people who were inherited super billionaires and were like recluses who stayed to themselves, he spent a lot of money on making sure people knew who he was yeah.

Dyalekt: I guess if negative public perception yeah, they’re technically victimized there.

Dedrick: I’m coming to the new understanding that I think that you know, the true victims are us. We’re victims of the billionaire mythology and we’re victims of the superhero mythology. They’re both this idea that if you concentrate power in one person or small group of people, that’s the real way to make the best change instead of the idea that we’re gonna empower the masses and then the masses will make change.

Pam: I feel like a lot of people we know say that like well if I had the money I would do all of this stuff with it and I think we’re kind of going back into that space of like we know that one person can’t save the world but do we also think that maybe we’re the one person who can save the world and where did that concept come from? That’s where this idealization of billionaires I feel like the has been going. Well, if I had that money, I would know exactly what to do with it. When the reality is if we’re really talking about a democratic society not one person knows how to help every single person.

Dedrick: It’s this idealization of concentrated power and wealth right? And it’s weird because we’re kind of fighting against concentrations of wealth and power but we’re kind of looking for those with concentrated wealth and power to save us some concentration of wealth and power.

Dedrick: Can billionaires address the racial wealth divide? That’s kind of what you were talking about before that if you have the right billionaire would they be able to do what hasn’t really seen much progress on in the last 30 years or you could say 400 years depending on you want time line you want to use.

Dedrick: They had some stat about like the top five richest billionaires in United States have more wealth than all of the African-Americans and I think you could add half Latinos combined something like that, it was something crazy like that.

Pam: When we’re asking the question can billionaires solve the racial wealth divide is you know, it’s become a buzz word when Bloomberg decided to put it in his latest commercials. What does that mean? Like what is he really committing to?

Dedrick: The Greenwood initiative this is Bloomberg’s plan. It’s says Greenwood initiative economic justice for Black America and the Greenwood initiative goes back to the Greenwood community that was kind of destroyed during the Tulsa riots. Which relate to the newest series of the watchmen where they started off their whole series with that race ride against the black people. There are let’s see, I guess three or four major components of Bloomberg’s plan.

Dedrick: His economic justice plan is that he’s gonna create one million new black homeowners. He’s going to create a hundred thousand new black entrepreneurs and seventy billion dollars investing in for neighborhoods and then addressing systemic discrimination by reinvigorating the civil rights division. Just a real quick critique of these things one, it’s not mentioned in the major talking points, but in the small talking points you see that all of these things are over ten years.

Dedrick: A million new black homeowners over ten years that sounds impressive and that might get people excited but when I was doing some quick back of the napkin number crunching like we’re on the path now of having nine hundred thousand new black homeowners in ten years without changing anything. Again, black home ownership is only at 42-43% are homeowners while whites are like 71-72% homeowners so that’s really not closing the home ownership divide if we have a million new black homeowners in ten years. We would have to have much more radical plans.

Dedrick: I think there’s about 2.5 million new homeowners every year, so over 10 years that would be 25 million new homeowners  and so then if blacks are one million of that, you know blacks aren’t even what is that two percent of that number or whatever the numbers break out to be so it’s yeah to put it in context.

Dedrick: African Americans are more likely to start a business than most other groups it just the problem is not starting a small business it’s developing it, growing it, having enough capital for it to make it actually profitable. I think in the Bloomberg plan it’s impressive media consulting strategy to put out some big numbers, but it’s really not adding up to much if you look at it and analyze it. Also, we could just look at did he bridge the racial economic divide while he was mayor of New York 12 years??

Dedrick: He was not just a mayor of New York. He was a billionaire mayor of New York that was giving money all across the country and I’m not really familiar with Bloomberg money really being invested into reports ff wealth and equality projects to bridge racial economic inequality so I think you bring up an interesting point.

Dedrick: Tom Steyer actually created a bank that’s designed to try to serve the needs of working-class people and he wanted some analysis on racial wealth inequality. So do have a little bit of a relationship there. I was kind of impressed again about looked at it very briefly that he had one of the longest most detailed African-American justice plans, he has you know, clearly Latino Asian-American. He has a reparation section of his plan that you know talks about having African-American committee that would investigate figure out ways to actually do investments to repair. This isn’t in any way an endorsement of Tom Steyer, but he does seem to have one of the more detailed plans. I do think him trying to buy his way into the election solely never holding office most people heard about him for the first time is going to make his run have minimal impact overall.

Dyalekt: Didn’t they all by their way into the election? One thing I’ve heard people say is that at least with billionaires they didn’t buy their way into the election with my money.

Dedrick: Its one thing to buy your way into an election with small donors from all across the country. But if the idea is that you don’t have to have any constituency, you can just have yourself and all of a sudden you’re on stage as a now legitimate leader talking about these issues, no to me that is problematic and undemocratic. Would I like a more fully funded, government funded, less privately influence democratic system? Yeah, but I do think there’s a difference between getting a hundred million dollars from 10 million people who are giving $10 each than you just spending pocket change of $100 million.

Dyalekt: What you’re talking about is having a voice and having $10 meaning that you can back a candidate and that matters, rather than your $10 and your small amount of money doesn’t mean anything and you don’t have a voice that is really, really important.

Pam: I think you brought up something up even more radical than that. This idea of why is the cost of a campaign funded by private citizens and not something that the government also subsidizes for it to truly be a democratic process right?

Dedrick: I think most people don’t really believe that these individual billionaires by themselves aren’t going to bridge the racial wealth divide, I think a more common argument is that well if we had more black billionaires that would obviously solve the racial wealth divide.

Dedrick: When I talk about the median wealth that’s looking at fifty percent of African Americans have less than $3500, fifty percent have more. But if you did the mean its much higher. The reason I don’t use the mean is that mean allows for an influence of the millionaires or the three or four black billionaires. So you do the mean for African Americans, you know, you probably get something like $17- 20,000 as the average wealth.

Pam: Yeah, we need as many black elites and white elites and not really questioning the system of whether or not having an elite class is good for everyone. We just need to be equal to what the white supremacy system has right now.

Dedrick: Even with billionaires, the individual wealth of a billionaire is not adequate to the task of the restructuring and mass investment needed to turn against the hundreds of years of policy that have created the racial economic divide. It wasn’t billionaires and millionaires that created the white American middle class. It was massive government investment in programs in the 40s and 50s.

Pam: I want to go back to Dedrick, what you said about how the white middle class wasn’t created by millionaires and billionaires but was created by a bunch of government sanctioned subsidies. What’s interesting is we have the actual policy that happened and we have the narrative that sits on top of it, right? The policy that happened was, government was the thing that was able to elevate a lot of people from working class to middle class, but the story of the American dream and the story of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps and this idea of like being self-made and accumulating wealth and things like that, if you just work hard enough, is the story that was told at the time that still pervades today. There’s this interesting thing of people who are like small government is the answer, like government getting involved ruins us and all of this stuff that story is not the actual reality of what’s happening. That story is I feel like what has led to this racial wealth gap growing wider and wider.

Pam: The crazy thing is it really does take one generation to forget that that’s what it took to get there and then they’re like, oh it’s just my effort, it’s my self-made effort, the end.

Dyalekt: Getting away from the what we have individually and what we build individually is probably the least we can. The least that we can do is start talking about the help that we had, start talking about the people who build us up, talk about the community that we have and I think that that’s something that can be very powerful.

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