The radical billionaire: How corporate money has subverted climate politics

Oxford University
May 23 · 4 min read

As one of the wealthiest people in America, Tom Steyer is uniquely qualified to comment on the impact of big money on American democracy. “The system we have today,” says Steyer, “is built to advantage a small group of wealthy elites — to ensure that prosperity and opportunity winds up overwhelmingly in their hands. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Inspired to make the changes he wanted to see in America, he stepped down as head of his investment firm in 2012 to dedicate his time to philanthropy and political action. Tom and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, were among the first to sign the Giving Pledge — a commitment to give away the bulk of their personal fortune, estimated to be around $1.6 billion, during their lifetimes.

“I felt an urgency,” explains Steyer. “I saw that our democracy was failing in regard to our preservation of the natural world. Specifically, I was worried that we were not moving fast enough to overcome the challenge of climate change.” However, his work campaigning for environmental protections revealed more fundamental issues.

“The longer that I’ve spent working on these issues, the more I’ve come to see this failure [on the environment] as a symptom of a larger issue, which is that our corporate money has subverted our political system. It is no longer reflecting the broad will of the people. And to overcome any of the challenges we face as a society, we have to return to a place where the system responds to the people, and puts the people first.”

Steyer and his wife have founded a variety of grassroots campaign organisations in pursuit of addressing this challenge, such as NextGen America, a non-profit group that combats climate change, promotes social justice and enlarges participation in democracy. They have put their money behind a variety of projects, including a successful California campaign to protect the state’s landmark clean-air laws, an initiative that closed corporate tax loopholes (generating at least $1.7 billion for public schools), and the effort to force tobacco companies to pay their fair share of healthcare costs. Steyer was also rumoured to be a 2020 presidential candidate, though he announced in January that he would not be running for office after all.

“My goal has been, broadly, to push grassroots organising,” says Steyer. “Right now, there’s a small handful of elites that has a far larger, more influential voice in the most important conversations. Everything we’ve done has had a consistent focus on restoring the balance. Our current narrative is that society is a zero-sum game, where all communities have to compete with and gain traction over each other. We have to change this narrative if we want to change course.”

Though wealth inequality is a major issue in America and the UK, it is unusual to hear a billionaire recognising the problems that it has caused to our political systems and society. Steyer believes that the existence of the super-rich is an indication that society is on the decline. “Massive income inequality is a sign of a decaying society — one that’s no longer succeeding,” he says. “Left alone, it’s going to make everyone worse off in the long term. That’s partly because it is incompatible with democracy. Inequality in wealth has led to inequality in political power.”

While Steyer and his family are committed to the Giving Pledge and ensuring that their personal fortune is put towards a good cause, he doesn’t see philanthropy as the solution to society’s ills. “The Giving Pledge is great, but I don’t believe that noblesse oblige of the richest people is enough. This method of making as much money as you can, however you can, and then maybe giving some of it away later, is not going to move us forward. Rather, I think the way to fix inequality is to change the rules governing our society and economy. It was a choice to get here, and we can choose to change course, to address the inequality in both political and economic power, by fixing the systemic rules.”

Steyer sees a key role for universities for resolving these global challenges. “The first role [of universities] is to do research and explore issues of scientific and humanistic interest to help society move forward; the second function is a pedagogical one, which is to teach as many young people as possible, and give them the tools to become a productive citizen,” says Steyer. “The third role is to provide a place where people have some degree of protection from the political and emotional current of the moment, and to act as the moral voice from within the country. This role comes with a challenge — you can’t become detached or removed from human suffering. And the question for the great universities is, can you do that, or have you fallen down on the third leg of the stool?”

Tom Steyer will be delivering a lecture, entitled ‘The Climate Crisis & the Corporate Takeover of American Democracy’, at the Sheldonian Theatre on Monday 3 June, 17:30. Register to attend now.

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