Just imagine that you are an oligarch. You are filthy rich. Your power is enormous. Your patron is the authoritarian leader of a vast country, with wide, opaque power to reward his friends—and kill his enemies.
The country is Russia. The leader is Vladimir Putin. He demands your loyalty, and, I am guessing, a healthy kickback for favored status. Your wealth is off the charts. You run state-sponsored industries. You are a capitalist in a Communist system.
Your life of late has been rocky. Due to severe sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union countries, you have seen your toys, such as mega yachts, planes and enormous homes confiscated.
It doesn’t seem fair. Though your patron Putin sought the conquest of Ukraine, you simply did nothing wrong but accumulate other-worldly wealth in a rigged, uncompetitive system. You were just an opportunist. What’s wrong with that?
Just this: you have been enabling a crooked leader to invade a neighboring country because he wants to restore the greatness of the former Soviet Union. He covets respect. He will use all means to achieve his goal.
You the oligarch must suffer too. You support a corrupt, ruthless leader. Every relationship has consequences. That is true in every country. You benefit, and then you suffer.
Are there oligarchs in the United States? Yes, though this term is normally not used.
Have they retained their wealth through favorable treatment by the American government? Yes, primarily through advantageous tax laws.
Do they have ready access to political leaders to whom they have given large sums of money for expensive campaigns? Indeed, they do, using that leverage at times to block government actions harmful to their personal and professional interests.
Is another form of American oligarchy the awarding of prestigious ambassadorships to large donors? Yes, of course. Political patronage typically favors a few, who then have access to a mayor, county executive, governor and president,
My naïveté kicks in at this point, I suspect. The American version of oligarch differs greatly from the Russian model. In most cases, people such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Sheryl Sandberg, Robert Johnson and Warren Buffett have generated incredible fortunes valued at billions and billions of dollars through their own entrepreneurial skills and networking.
However, the process was clear and fair. They received no government favors, at least initially, that differed markedly from any other entrepreneur. In fact, as their net worth mushroomed, regulatory scrutiny grew more intense. Now they must spend millions and millions of dollars to ward off government interference and oversight.
While it is true that Gates, Buffett, Sandburg, Johnson and Bezos, among many others, have ready access to political leaders, even socializing with them at times and contributing to campaigns through powerful political action committees (PACs), their status does not compare with Russian oligarchs whose success came solely with the blessing of Putin. The American success came about in a competitive arena.
Many American plutocrats hate politics. Just ask them. They do not trust the wily practitioners of politics. They consider them a necessary evil. Yet they are smart and rich enough to hire lobbyists and lawyers to protect their interests in Washington, DC and state capitals. This is entirely legal, though unseemly under the media microscope.
Will increasingly stiff sanctions prompt Russian oligarchs to rise up in opposition to Putin? I doubt it. Putin responds to opposition through deadly means and prison sentences.
The expression, “you live by the sword, you die by the sword” applies here. Oligarchs mined their relations with the inscrutable Putin to gain riches unavailable to others. Now they are suffering from sanctions on their funds and material assets.
Being a prized member of an elite club of hugely wealthy persons is intoxicating. The invasion by Russia of Ukraine has placed an ominous cloud over the oligarch’s lifestyles. Friendship with Putin comes with a high price.
I would much rather be ridiculously rich in the United States than ride the gravy train in Russia.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.