Enron billionaire John Arnold assures us he can tell us what we should do about worker pensions because he has no investment in it.
In his response to Pando’s investigative reporting, Arnold is asserting that his status as a billionaire with “no financial interest” in the debate should make him more credible and beyond reproach. But would it?
One school of thought says yes it would, because he would have nothing personally to gain or lose in the debate. The idea is that the concerns and arguments of public-sector workers and retirees should be dismissed, or downplayed, because their economic survival depends on the public pension debate’s outcome. At the same time, the idea is that the oligarch is uniquely able to be objective because his wealth means he doesn’t really have a personal stake in whether to fulfill pension obligations or to renege on those obligations and throw untold numbers of retirees into poverty.
This is the self-serving notion typically forwarded by plutocrats to try to appropriate even more privilege than their billions afford them — and there is at least some logic undergirding it.
Yes, it is true: John Arnold got so amazingly rich by speculating in the energy markets, and his riches were so expanded by preferential tax treatment for the speculator class, that he doesn’t have to worry about losing a $19,000-a-year subsistence pension. Yes, it is also true: Arnold doesn’t have to worry about preserving solid retirement benefits that help attract good job applicants to become police officers, firefighters and public school teachers. Why doesn’t he have to worry about these things? Because he has enough money to hire his own personal full-time police force and firefighting team, and to send whole future generations of his entire family to elite private schools.
Where the logic goes wrong is its assumption that this plutocratic status makes a billionaire uniquely or more credible than those for whom budget debates do actually have personal consequences.
Such an assumption seems backwards. Precisely because a billionaire like Arnold doesn’t have to worry about subsistence income and access to basic police, firefighting and educational services, he doesn’t have to care about the real-world consequences of his pension-slashing ideology. That doesn’t make him more or uniquely credible in assessing pension policy; it probably makes him the opposite.
In being more insulated from the life-and-death ramifications of his ideology than almost everyone else, he is far less inclined to seriously weigh those ramifications. If anything, that should make him less credible in such a debate, especially considering his history at a company that famously destroyed pensions.
Of course, Arnold has every right to demand pension cuts for public workers and thanks to lax campaign finance laws, he has a right to buy politicians to assist him in punishing those workers. Additionally, as evidenced by his PBS, Brookings and Pew scandals, he has a right to deviously buy anti-pension propaganda from institutions willing to rent their brands to him in exchange for a handsome payout — unless they are publicly shamed into giving back their ill gotten gains.
He also has a right to claim his billionaire status means he has no financial stake in a pension debate that inherently involves tax policies. And, no doubt, he has a right to alternately imply that his wealth makes him more credible than the workers who are subsisting on the retirement benefits he aims to slash.
This is America, after all. Here, fat cats like John Arnold have the right to say to the proles: “Let them eat cake.” And we have the right to challenge such self-serving declarations and confront these billionaires with inconvenient facts.