Please ignore Tom Steyer
You don’t have to choose between three billionaires to run the country
Tom Steyer keeps whispering in my ear that he can “beat Donald Trump on the economy.” Unlike Trump the real estate tycoon, Steyer the hedge fund tycoon wants us all to know he earned his money and will use it for a righteous cause.
“I didn’t inherit a dime from my parents,” Steyer intones in my headphones.
Nevermind Steyer’s posh Upper East Side upbringing and his summering in Nantucket; nevermind that he attended Phillips Exeter and Yale. Nevermind that capitalists survive by extracting the surplus value of workers’ labor. Steyer, with his net worth of $1.6 billion, assures me he’s one of the good billionaires. An underdog, even.
No, I don’t have a daily chat with Steyer, but I might as well in this final week leading up to South Carolina’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary. As a South Carolinian who has voted in Democratic primaries before, I stand in the diarrheic blast radius of Steyer’s ad campaign. Every day I am bombarded by Spotify ads, radio commercials, and billboards. I can’t watch a YouTube video without seeing his grinning mug and plaid necktie. I can’t check my mailbox without finding him there, nestled among the bills, promising to make the Bad Orange Man go away.
Tom Steyer does not “live rent-free in my head,” as the saying goes. He pays an obscene amount of money to live there.
Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Charleston was an important one for Steyer, who was polling at third place in South Carolina after dumping a fraction of his own fortune into advertising here. He polls at 2% nationally and 15% in South Carolina.
Watching Steyer’s debate performance while working on some arts and crafts on my living room floor (see my final product above), I promised myself I’d calculate how much this man spent per second of speaking time.
Steyer has spent about $18.7 million on ads targeting voters in South Carolina. By CNN’s count, he got 429 seconds of speaking time during the debate. So for every second he was allowed to use a microphone, he spent $43,590 on targeted advertising to get his polling up to a viable threshold.
Of course, Steyer was the lesser-known billionaire in the debate last night. The Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg came in for his second round of merciless dunking by Elizabeth Warren, this time focusing on his long public history of misogyny. I understand why Warren and the other candidates focus their ire on Bloomberg; he’s polling better nationally and presents a more serious threat to democracy. Trump, the other billionaire in the general election, needs to be critiqued as a menace to the working class as well.
Still, I’d like to see a more united front against the third billionaire seeking to buy the presidency. His policy proposals are more benign, but his victory — however unlikely — would send the message that people like him can go on buying American elections with impunity, skipping the pretense of PACs and strolling into the Oval Office whenever it strikes their fancy.
This brings me back to Steyer’s promise in a recent campaign ad to “kick [Trump’s] ass on the economy.” (As an aside, it brings me no pleasure to report he’s adopting a bit of Beto O’Rourkean performative cussing in his repertoire). Steyer’s ability to hoard $1.6 billion, no matter how noble a cause he chooses to spend it on, is not a selling point for a candidate but a symptom of a morally rotten economic system. When people like Steyer insinuate that they somehow earned their wealth, it’s a slap in the face to American workers.
To cite one example, consider that in Charleston County, where Steyer fumbled his way through the debate Tuesday night, three-quarters of public school teachers recently reported they had to work second jobs to make ends meet. This state of affairs is directly related to the massive tax breaks and incentives doled out to corporations and their owners, at the expense of working South Carolinians.
Steyer does not have as much of a public record as Bloomberg since he has never held public office, but we know a few things about his career. We know he funneled money into private prisons and the fossil fuel industry, sins he is still trying to atone for in retirement. During this election cycle, we know one of his campaign aides tried to pay people for their endorsements in Iowa, and his South Carolina state campaign director had to resign after stealing Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign data.
Well-meaning friends have pointed out that Steyer has some worker-friendly policy positions, including his push for slavery reparations, his call for a $22 minimum wage, and his promise to declare a state of emergency on climate change. (His other signature platform issue, term limits, is a half-baked idea with terrible unintended consequences.)
Steyer presents himself as the affable billionaire next door, the earnest counterpart to Bloomberg’s mask-off cynicism. Don’t be swayed, though. Close your eyes and imagine a single person doing $1.6 billion worth of productive labor. You can’t.
Now consider whose money Tom Steyer is really spending on this campaign.
The image at the top is titled “Toms.” I made it last night using Mod Podge, an X-Acto knife, and a pile of junk mail I received from the Steyer campaign.