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Will Court's Loosening of Money in Politics Make Big Difference?

Political scientists: Billionaires often hide political views but their wallets talk loudly

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April 4, 2014 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Newly released research by two Northwestern University political scientists suggests that the April 2 U.S. Supreme Court decision loosening campaign restrictions will undoubtedly increase money’s influence in U.S. elections with serious consequences. 

Using “Web-scraping” techniques, Northwestern’s Benjamin Page, the Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making, and Jason Seawright, associate professor of political science, unearthed all searchable public comments, statements and interviews by the richest of the Forbes 400 billionaires that mention any of 15 issues related to taxes or Social Security.

The research shows that while most billionaires are vague or totally silent about their political views, they often contribute large sums of money to highly specific, issue-oriented PACs that take clear stands on the issues.

“Billionaires may be reticent about publicly sharing what policies they favor or oppose, but their money talks loudly, and they work hard to get their way,” Page said. “They are heavily engaged in what we call ‘stealth politics.’”

The Supreme Court decision may encourage such stealth politics, he said. 

“The strategy permits billionaires to have a great deal of influence over who wins elections and which public policies get adopted, without having to explain to anyone why they favor or oppose the policies they are influencing,” Page added. 

The study notes that the wealthiest 23 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list, taken together, have $689 billion in net worth -- more than the gross domestic product of several entire countries.  

Only three of the 23 billionaires investigated (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg) have taken specific, public positions on a majority of the issues investigated, according to the study, “What Do U.S. Billionaires Want From Government?”

“Some billionaires, like the Mars candy heirs, simply cherish their privacy; they say virtually nothing in public about any topic at all,” Page said. “Other billionaires, associated with consumer-oriented businesses, apparently keep quiet about politics in order to avoid alienating purchasers of their goods or services.  

“But the most worrisome kind of silence is that of billionaires who hold relatively extreme, unpopular positions on the issues,” he said. “These are mostly people like Charles and David Koch, who favor policies that are much more conservative than the average American prefers, such as cutting Social Security or giving tax breaks to the very wealthy.”

Page pointed to the estate tax as a striking example of an issue about which billionaires have spoken out publicly more than any other issue. 

“Estate taxes are a very personal, hot-button issue for billionaires, who are among the very few Americans who are actually affected by the tax,” he said.

Fourteen of the 23 wealthiest billionaires have taken a stand through speech and/or action on estate taxes. Only four of them favor a substantial estate tax, while 10 want to repeal it, according to the study.  

“Yet all four of the estate tax supporters have spoken out about it in public, while only one of the 10 repeal advocates, Sheldon Adelson, has done so,” Page said.

“Judging solely by words uttered in public, a citizen might reasonably think that most billionaires support the estate tax,” he said. “But in fact many more of them are quietly working to repeal it.”

To see a copy of “What Do U.S. Billionaires Want From Government?” go to: http://dradis.ur.northwestern.edu/multimedia/pdf/page.pdf
Topics: Research