Backlash of the Billionaires

January 31st, 2019 by Phil Mattera

Most of those who have thrown their hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential race have been met with varying mixtures of enthusiasm and indifference. Howard Schultz is another story. The former Starbucks CEO has engendered a wave of hostility based on concern that his plan to run as an independent would split the anti-Trump vote and usher in another term for the current occupant of the White House.

Schultz is making himself even more unpopular by unleashing a string of attacks on some of the key policy proposals being discussed by progressive Democrats, denouncing Medicare for All and taxes on the wealthy as un-American and ill-informed.

This could simply be an appeal to what remains of the right flank of the Democrats, but it also seems to be part of an emerging backlash among the super-wealthy and corporate elites to a progressive agenda that would affect them directly. Schultz is not the only billionaire complaining at the prospect of having to pay more to Uncle Sam. Michael Bloomberg, another potential presidential contender, has been mouthing off against Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax idea and defending U.S.-style capitalism.

We may soon see large corporations speaking out as well. Foxconn did not explicitly link its decision to abandon plans to create 13,000 manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin to the election of progressive Tony Evers as governor, but Republican leaders in the state legislature are making the connection.

Big business has had the best of both worlds during the past two years. While a few corporations such as Foxconn have directly aligned themselves with Trump, most large companies have dissociated themselves from the president’s odious positions on immigration and nationalism. Some business figures such as Larry Fink of BlackRock have been promoting the idea that they are the true paradigms of civic virtue.

At the same time, these executives and their corporations have been making out like bandits from the tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks—including those eroding worker protections–promoted by the faux-populist Trump Administration and its Republican allies in Congress.

The time may soon be coming when large corporations and billionaires have to choose between pretending they are part of the resistance and giving up some of their economic privileges. Or maybe they will lose both.

After all, the idea that large corporations are a force for good is already a dubious notion. Take the case of Starbucks, which has cultivated an image of being a progressive employer but has had to pay more than $46 million to resolve collective-action lawsuits alleging wage and hour violations.

The big question is whether big business and the super wealthy will accept that they have to give back some of their advantages. We know that the likes of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will fight to their last breath. The Foxconn disinvestment decision could be a harbinger of a coming capital strike in some quarters.  

Yet it will be more interesting to see how far purported liberals like Schultz and Bloomberg are willing to go in resisting progressive reforms, and whether they will be joined by the corporate social responsibility crowd.  In the words of the old union song, they will have to decide which side they are on.

Comments are closed.