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How much influence should Bloomberg’s Bucks have on the election?

I’m going to take a wild guess, and say that during his candidacy, you probably saw an ad for Mike Bloomberg. They seemed to follow you, appearing randomly as Youtube ads or in your Instagram feed. It was a game in my family: you won by counting the highest number of Bloomberg ads in a single episode of any television show (bonus points if you got both Tom Steyer and Bloomberg. Triple points if they’re back to back; but that’s for another article). 

Recently, however, I noticed another area of concentrated ads for Bloomberg: CPS’ neighborhood. The 94618 zipcode still has Bloomberg ads sprinkled around, and in higher concentration than I’ve seen almost anywhere else. 

This didn’t surprise me at first. The average household income in 94618 is $207,973, more than twice the average household income in Oakland. If you want another number, the median home value in 94618 is $1,545,091, which, again, is more than twice the median home value in Oakland. My somewhat stereotypical assumption was, simply, that it makes sense for a wealthy person to vote for a wealthy candidate. If you are rich, want to avoid Democratic Socialism and wealth taxes, and can’t turn a corner without seeing an ad reminding you that “Mike Will Get It Done,” you might think, “Okay, Bloomberg it is.”

In fact, my hunch seemed to hold up in the primaries, as Bloomberg took impressive wins in wealthy areas in California like Marin, Atherton, and Palo Alto.

I don’t want to devote this article entirely to an analysis of our school’s neighborhood’s Bloomberg support (I just think it’s interesting), but I bring it up in order to raise an important question: ethically, how far should wealth get someone in an election?

To begin, I want to point out that the 78-year-old former mayor or New York City is not just “rich.” He’s certainly not “I live in 94618” rich. He is, to quote Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, “richy-rich-rich.” His financial services, software, and mass media company, Bloomberg L.P, has made him the ninth richest man in the world, worth $65.2 billion. Just for fun, I’m going to give you a few different ways to think about this incomprehensible figure.

-It’s more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans have (which Sanders calls “immoral”)

-It’s 20 times greater than estimates of President Donald Trump’s net worth.

-It could support 7.2 million welfare payments.

-It could buy you around 42,000 houses in the 94618 zip code

-It could buy you CPS tuition for over 1.4 million lucky students. 

-And, for fun, it could buy over 5 billion Top Ramen Chicken Flavor Ramen Noodle Soups.

The amount that Bloomberg spent on ads during the course of his campaign came out to over a  whopping $500 million (that’s more than 10,000 CPS tuitions). Google and Facebook alone ran 2 billion Bloomberg ads, or 30,000 ads a minute. His minute-long Superbowl ad alone cost him $11 million. Even $500,000,000 (I wanted you to see it with all those zeros) is a sum that would barely ruffle Bloomberg, since it’s less than 1% of his net worth. He had over 1,000 staffers across 33 states, and it felt like his face and his message was everywhere.

But was it? Did massive spending on ads really help Bloomberg gain traction in the election? 

From the polls, it looks like the answer is… a little, but not to the extent he’d hoped. For example, in

Texas he spent $4.3 million on ads and dominated the airwaves–this is a chart of the candidates’ spending published in the New York Times in February. While his media monopoly didn’t earn him the top two spots, it did put him in third, with 14.4% of the votes. Additionally, in San Diego and Los Angeles alone he spent a combined $31 million on television ads. While he was again, predictably, still behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, he did come in fourth in Los Angeles County with 11.3%, and third in San Diego, getting 15% of the vote. 

To be honest, however, I think it’d be challenging to quantifiably connect his various media ads to his results in the polls. Instead, I want to shed some light on an incredibly disturbing article in the New York Times that showed a more concrete connection between Bloomberg’s massive wealth and his political performance.

Bloomberg is undoubtedly philanthropic: In 2018 alone, he gave $2.3 billion to charities across 102 cities, and he increased that number by another billion in 2019, the year he announced his campaign. The Times article argues, however, that “it is not simply good will that Mr. Bloomberg has built. His political and philanthropic spending has also secured the allegiance or cooperation of powerful institutions and leaders within the Democratic Party who might take issue with parts of his record were they not so reliant on his largess.” Some of the organizations he donates to might hold back in criticizing his 2020 bid, since it could jeopardize financial support they might receive from him.

Let me summarize one of the examples the article gives. In 2015, the Center for American Progress issued a report on US anti-Muslim bias, that included a chapter on police surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City. The report mentioned Bloomberg 8 times. When it was published later, that chapter and other mentions of Bloomberg were gone. Although the organization argued there were viable reasons for removing the section, the Times article notes that “three people with direct knowledge of the situation said that Mr. Bloomberg was a factor” in the censorship.

And by “factor,” they likely mean financial factor: Bloomberg gave the organization “three grants worth nearly $1.5 million, and in 2017 he contributed $400,000 more.” It’s nearly impossible to ignore the effect this sum of money had on the organization.

The article points out that Bloomberg’s philanthropy is often linked to his political agenda, “tying him closely to powerful progressive interest groups and amassing reservoirs of gratitude, admiration and influence across the country.” For a long time, he’s approached causes he’s passionate about—climate change, gun control, etc—by supporting political leaders and organizations with portions of his massive wealth.

The fact of the matter is that not everyone has the ability to dole out cash like Bloomberg, which begs the question: would his philanthropic spending have resulted in receiving the Democratic nomination for President? The answer, very likely, is no, but I think it brings to light a larger societal question: what really is a “donation?” What responsibility does an organization that has received a donation have to the donor, if any? And, most importantly, what role does wealth have in politics?

I don’t have the answers for you, and I doubt anyone does. I do, however, want to encourage you to look deeply at how money has allowed powerful, influential people become so powerful and influential–and question whether your own moral compass decides that letting money dictate who is pulling the larger societal strings—both directly and indirectly–is acceptable. 

But while you’re contemplating, chew on this real tweet from Bloomberg’s Campaign’s twitter account, on the day of this year’s Democratic presidential primary debate:

And remember, every time a bell rings, another million-dollar Mike Bloomberg appeal like this one has been released into someone’s nightmares. 

featured image credit.


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