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Celebrate Billionaire Diversity

Darrell West, a Vice President at the Brookings Institution, has a new book coming out next week on the political influence of the very wealthy, titled Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust. West has come up with a savvy promotional idea by assembling a list of the top 20 billionaires (and billionaire couples) ranked by political influence. Bloomberg TV had him on yesterday to discuss the list and Philip Bump at The Washington Post wrote about it last week, taking issue with some of West’s choices.

The list unsurprisingly begins with Charles and David Koch at the top, lumping them together at #1. After them, though, the list diversifies very quickly. The #2 slot goes to Michael Bloomberg who, though twice elected as mayor of New York City as a Republican (and once as an Independent), spends his millions on traditionally left-of-center goals like increasing restrictions on gun ownership.  Next up is hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who West recently described as “the Koch brothers of the left.” Steyer’s big issue is global warming, and he plans to spend $100 million influencing the 2014 midterm elections. The list also includes such noted non-conservatives as George Soros, Warren Buffett, and even President Obama’s current Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker. At the very top, as least, it’s not all “right-wing” billionaires doing the influencing.

More interesting, though, is how the standard narrative about wealthy ideologues trying to influence the political process breaks down even further. Jeff Bezos, for example, spent a fair amount of money opposing the imposition of an income tax in Washington state that would have applied only to the wealthy, but also put up $2.5 million around the same time to support the Evergreen State’s recently passed marriage equality law. That’s hardly a standard left- or right-wing combination. In fact, it sounds almost…libertarian.

Even some of the billionaires who theoretically fit more snugly into a liberal/conservative dichotomy can still have an eccentric set of priorities. #4 influencer Sheldon Adelson has for years now been pushing to ban online gambling, despite (or perhaps more likely, because of) having made his own fortune in the brick-and-mortar casino industry. As CEI’s own Michelle Minton has pointed out, this effort to more heavily regulate the economy and preempt the ability of states to pass their own laws has been causing splits in the Republican party at the national level.

Despite the fact that West finds small-government billionaires far more worrisome than big-government billionaires (he cites Thomas Piketty multiple times in the initial sample chapter), the book promises to be an interesting exploration of free speech and democratic government.