Sunday, February 18, 2024

How Loud Billionaires Convert Their Wealth Into Power. (William D. Cohan, The New York Times)

To the billionaires and millionaires circulating St. Johns County like so many predators and parasites, We, the People reject your works and pomps.  The nation that your flirty lucre entitles you to own our St. Johns County Commission is, at best, emtic, unpatriotic and contrary to the genius of our Free people. From The New York Times:


How Loud Billionaires Convert Their Wealth Into Power

A cartoon of a gigantic man in an office chair, holding a bullhorn, sitting atop towers of green dollar bills. Around him small figures scurry around to avoid the laser tags that criss cross the image.
Credit...Anny Peng
A cartoon of a gigantic man in an office chair, holding a bullhorn, sitting atop towers of green dollar bills. Around him small figures scurry around to avoid the laser tags that criss cross the image.

Mr. Cohan is a founding partner of Puck, the author of “The Price of Silence” and a former Wall Street banker.

Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, is an annoying and persistent contrarian. Not content just to help oust Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, on charges of plagiarism, and for making public statements he disapproved of, he’s been using his social media presence (including his 1.2 million followers on X) to campaign for the removal of Sally Kornbluth as the president of M.I.T.

Whether you think Mr. Ackman is a billionaire blowhard or a courageous iconoclast, he is part of a paradigm shift in social media in which rich people are increasingly able to convert financial capital into social capital. He’s hardly even the first or most outrageous beneficiary of this unfortunate reality: That distinction probably belongs to his fellow billionaires Donald Trump and Elon Musk, who, like Mr. Ackman, have also discovered that unfiltered, limitless social media platforms are heaven for those with unconventional opinions and God complexes.

But why do wealthy people like Mr. Ackman make such a fuss on X, posting lengthy diatribe after lengthy diatribe? His passion for the platform, especially since Mr. Musk bought it, suggests that he wants to enlist in his battles more than just other wealthy donors to Harvard and to M.I.T. He wants to reach the public, a public that doesn’t enjoy the same freedoms on social media that he does.

Pierre Bourdieu, the great French scholar of social distinction, posited that individuals could convert money into various forms of social standing and vice versa but that the conversion would not be perfect. If you think of this conversion as an exchange rate, what’s happening today is that the rich are cashing in on one of the most favorable opportunities ever offered to turn their wealth into buzz and status on social media and then into outsize societal power and influence.

I believe this is happening for two reasons: First, I’m embracing a theory in the world of social networking known as preferential attachment: The tendency for the rich to get richer applies not only to money but also to the ability of the well connected to garner more attention. Second, I believe that vast wealth uniquely insulates the rich from the consequences of their speech. All gas, no brakes.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision — which declared that political spending is a protected form of free speech — started as a legal judgment but is slowly becoming a cultural norm as well, as an increasing number of media outlets, among them X and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, have wealthy owners, some of whom delight in taking a distinctly hands-on approach to making their own politics the politics of the platforms they own.

And the rich are also more insulated from the consequences of their speech. Self-employed billionaires like Mr. Ackman, Mr. Musk and Mr. Trump can say whatever it is they want to say on social media without fear of economic or political repercussions because their extreme wealth protects them. They can’t be fired, and even if they could, it wouldn’t matter one iota to their lifestyles.

That’s a privilege extended only to a very few Americans, despite how often our society likes to argue that we all have the same freedom of speech. That’s just not true anymore, if it ever was. A few ill-chosen words, publicly distributed, can get you fired from your job, without a whole lot of recourse, or canceled or both or worse. Just ask Harvard’s Dr. Gay or Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, who also recently resigned her post as president after being criticized for her remarks before Congress about campus antisemitism (as Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth were) and for other putative faux pas, or Yao Yue, the Twitter employee whom Mr. Musk fired for publicly criticizing his return to office order.

Mr. Ackman, an activist investor notorious on Wall Street for agitating relentlessly and publicly for his desired outcomes, acknowledges the unique position he’s in. In a Jan. 12 CNBC interview, Mr. Ackman conceded: “If you say something that offends someone, you can lose your job. You can get blackballed. You can get canceled.” He added: “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of being canceled, not afraid of losing my job, and financial independence gives me the wherewithal to speak.” He considers himself a fixer and sees no difference between his activist campaigns to “fix” a company and an activist campaign to “fix” a university. “It’s all the same,” he said. He sees no irony in the fact that Drs. Gay and Magill and Kornbluth have no similar privilege. He has stirred up another major controversy on X by defending his wife, a former professor at M.I.T., against accusations of plagiarism laid out in a series of articles by Business Insider.

When only the ultrawealthy, as a practical matter, can afford to speak freely without consequences, what does freedom of speech really mean? There is a vogue among the superrich like Mr. Ackman, Mr. Musk and Mr. Trump for misconstruing the First Amendment as permission to support their particular vision of how public speech should work. Although the amendment is a negative freedom — people and businesses can constrain speech any way they like, but the government is largely enjoined from constraining it for them — the rich like to present the First Amendment as recommending there be no constraints on people who want to speak, regardless of the content of that speech. With the guardrails increasingly coming off on what can be shared on these social media platforms, it’s no surprise that the rich are benefiting disproportionately.

This is a strategy intended to make power, not access, the main determinant of who gets to participate in free speech. On platforms such as X where an unhinged definition of free speech is wildly prevalent, the people who are harassed into silence are thought of not as a loss to the public discourse but rather as properly constrained bullies. This thinking is unacceptable.

Mr. Ackman confuses his area of expertise — activist investing — with his private opinions, such as who the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T. should be and whether his wife is fair game for accusations of plagiarism. The current climate gives him both the financial wherewithal and the freedom from any consequences to inject his private opinions into the public square. On some level, that is as it should be.

But when people without his megaphone or his wealth cannot dare to respond to him — or his kind — without fear of significant reprisal, we risk heading into a world where free speech is yet another luxury that only the wealthy can afford.

William D. Cohan is a founding partner of Puck, the author of “The Price of Silence” and a former Wall Street banker.

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A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 6, 2024, Section A, Page 18 of the New York edition with the headline: For Billionaires, Being Loud Can Turn Wealth Into PowerOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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