Five powerful families? Is this about the mafia? No, for these five families, it’s not la cosa nostra, “the thing of ours.” Rather, it’s la cupidigia nostra, “the greed of ours.”
And it’s their greed that’s killing our democracy.
Six hundred billion dollars approximately equals the budget for the United States Department of Defense for an entire year — enough to pay, feed, and house over 1,000,000 active duty service personnel and 800,000 reservists, operate close to 1,000 military bases, pay 750,000 civilian personnel, and fund all military equipment purchases.
That $600 billion also equals the combined wealth now hoarded by just five American families — specifically, the Walton, Bezos, Koch, Gates, and Mars clans. The Walton family alone has a combined net worth estimated at $150 billion. The poorest of the five families, the heirs of the Mars candy fortune, hold about $90 billion.
What happens when we let just five families in a society of over 325 million hoard that much wealth? Society suffers.
Consider the outsized power that our current intense level of concentrated wealth gives to people never chosen by voters to lead. The average congressional campaign now costs just over $10 million. Sounds pricey, right? For one of our five colossally rich families, the cost of funding a congressional campaign comes to less than two days worth of earnings on the family fortune.
Wealth doesn’t just translate into power through political channels. The wealthy can wield power through philanthropy as well. Consider the Gates Foundation.
On the surface, the work of the Gates Foundation appears to reflect the simple generosity of its founders, Bill and Melinda Gates. But philanthropy reflects much more than generosity. The Gates Foundation investments in education have relentlessly pushed policies that sizeable numbers of parents and teachers oppose.
America’s super rich, notes Joanne Barkan, a leading analyst of “charitable plutocracy,” don’t particularly care that their ideas “may not be based on sound research or principles.”
These rich “know what they want,” Barkan adds, and they want to see what they want happen — and quickly. But the give-and-take of democracy can be slow, and “that turns out to be a great nuisance for plutocrats.” So they spend and spend until they get their way.