How rich is Michael Bloomberg?
We can measure it in numerical terms: He is worth an estimated $64 billion. That is 64 single billions, 64,000 millions, or 64,000,000 thousands. We can measure it in comparative terms: He is worth half as much as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and 20 times as much as Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump, though who really knows. Bloomberg has as much net worth as 700,000 average American households, and more money than every poor household in the United States combined. Round up the 125 million poorest Americans, and Bloomberg is still worth more.
This kind of wealth is sublime, almost difficult to convey. Imagine Yankee Stadium filled with individuals worth $1 million each; Bloomberg is richer than all of them combined. He has enough money to buy every single residential property in Wyoming; after doing so, he would still be a billionaire. He has enough money to write every American a $150 check; after doing so, he would still be a billionaire.
If you deposited $85,000 in a bank account every day starting on January 1 in the year zero, you still would not have accumulated Bloomberg’s wealth today, ignoring the effects of inflation and interest. If you took Bloomberg’s money, parked it in the stock market, and forgot about it, historical returns suggest that you would become a trillionaire in 40 years, perhaps less.
This kind of wealth is not just mass, matter, divisible, and redistributable. It is gravity, an attractive force that affects everything around it. Money draws money to it, as any rich person knows. Billionaires get richer by being billionaires in the first place, their net worth accreting like stars pulling in space dust. Bloomberg owns Bloomberg L.P.; Bloomberg L.P. has estimated annual revenues of $9 billion and a profit margin of 40 percent; Bloomberg the man gets billions to put into real estate, stocks, bonds, and other investments.
And to spend however he sees fit. In recent years, Bloomberg has passed out billions of dollars, buying goodwill, silencing criticism, and shaping policy in Democratic circles, creating an empire of moneyed influence. His presidential campaign has poured more than $400 million into advertisements already, ignoring the early states and flooding cash into the Super Tuesday contest. No other candidate has the ability to run that strategy, including the lesser billionaires Trump and still-running Tom Steyer; and nobody but a self-financing multibillionaire could run that strategy. As he soaks up aides and consultants, he has changed how everybody is running for president, as with Elizabeth Warren’s decision to step closer to Big Money.
This kind of campaign spending has no limits because Bloomberg is lavishing money on himself: Were he throwing his weight behind Bernie Sanders or Trump or Warren, he would likely do so through a political-action committee barred from coordinating with the campaign. “It underscores how much Supreme Court doctrine in this area is dependent on the idea of the corruption of the candidate, rather than any notion of equality or the idea that the electorate could be corrupted,” says Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on campaign finance. “The dominant position is that spending is not a problem, even high levels of spending or unequal levels of spending.”
Yet such spending does affect and corrupt the system, common sense insists and social science demonstrates. Already, Democratic and Republican presidents fill their Cabinet with the moneyed; average members of Congress are far wealthier than average Americans; and policy makers show extreme sensitivity to the interests of the rich. Business lobbies and the wealthy “have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence,” a study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page showed. We want the system to be pluralistic and democratic, with people mattering more than money. We have a system that is plutocratic and elitist. If Bloomberg follows Trump, what would we be but an oligarchy?
A meritocracy, if an imperfect one, some would argue. Bloomberg and Trump are both successful. Compelling. Politically magnetic. Were Bloomberg to win, it would not be just because of his cash-star and bought-and-paid-for solar system; many self-financed candidates don’t do terribly well in elections, as a general point. “Bloomberg’s money may help him inform Democratic-primary voters of his candidacy and boost his name recognition, but he’s competing against other well-known candidates who have done the hard work of building a coalition,” Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University who has studied self-financed campaigns, told me in an email. “Money alone won’t win the race for him. But he has enough political mileage behind him that money isn’t the only thing he’s got.”
But it is the main thing he’s got, the big thing, the thing nobody else has, at least not in the same way. His gravity is warping the primary, just as billionaires’ gravity is warping the economy, and as elites’ gravity is warping the political system.