Like most of his fellow billionaires, Sturgis Halpin Smith had nothing more than 17 Swiss bank accounts and a highly paid team of tax lawyers when he decided to try to make a difference.
“I was never someone who thought that one person could affect change — until I made my second billion,” he said. “Now I realize that a person with enough determination and an enormous net worth really has the power to make this a better place for the next generation of multibillionaires.”
Mr. Smith is part of a small but dedicated group of obscenely moneyed activists who are trying to improve the working conditions and wealth-collecting prospects for the nation’s ultra affluent class.
Working out of a modest 10,000-square-foot penthouse suite that cuts across the Manhattan skyline, the group of low profile but dogged billionaires has spent the last year drumming up support among the financially untrodden and the politically powerful, calling in favors, tossing out threats, and — as Mr. Smith likes to say — giving voice to their credo that “these zeroes add up.”
Mr. Smith said the group’s motivation is simple.
“We are worried about what we see in this great land of ours and we want to make sure as much of it as possible remains in the hands of our billionaire children and their billionaire children after that,” said Mr. Smith.
That populist message first grabbed Mr. Smith’s attention almost four years ago, shortly after his net worth had shrunk by almost 25 percent and his lifestyle was threatened by calls for a surtax on the wealthy. And it has become his daily companion as he makes the case for fighting to preserve the billionaire class at caviar tasting events across the county.
“What I tell people is that the only way this will become a better place for billionaires is if the billionaires decide to do something to make it so,” he said.
Previewing a theme that is sure to dominate his State of the Wealthy address next week, Mr. Smith unveiled a package of immodest initiatives intended to help billionaire families pay for child care, save for a retirement island purchase, pay off yacht loans, win a tax holiday for repatriating billions from overseas profits, and to “reverse the overall erosion in billionaire class security.”
“None of these steps alone will solve all of the problems facing the immeasurably rich,” Mr. Smith said, relaxing at his New York office that is decorated with life-size cutouts of John D. Rockefeller, Jay Cooke, Jay Gould and other so-called “Robber Barons” of the 19th century whose wealth-collecting, he said, serves as inspiration for his quest to maintain income inequality. “But hopefully some of these steps will re-establish the security that has slipped away in recent years. Because in the end, that’s how John and Jay and Jay and I measure progress — not how the markets are doing, but how the billionaires are doing.”
Page 2 of 2 - Mr. Smith said the billionaire class has been “under assault for a long time.” Too many of them, he said, have experienced their own painful recessions that were far more dramatic and costly than anything anyone in the middleclass is going through at the moment.
The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will deliver an economic address to the billionaires on Friday, at which he is expected to share stories about his car elevator and declare that his will be a “failed presidency” if he is unable to deliver exactly what the billionaires want.
President Barack Obama will have his own turn with the billionaires on Monday. Mr. Obama will meet in Washington next week with the group members to talk about steps to ensure that their economic recovery lasts and to signal to them that he shares their concerns about income equality and preserving the billionaire class, the White House said on Thursday.
“Our motto with Mr. Romney and President Obama is to trust but verify,” Mr. Smith said.
To help keep the two presidential candidates and the rest of the hoi polloi in their place, Mr. Smith and his colleagues have devised a new online tool called Gimme Twelve, which constantly updates the numerous threats to the unfair advantages shared by the nation’s billionaire class over the rest of society.
“We — and the country itself — are finally learning,” Mr. Smith noted, “that the price of extreme wealth is our constant vigilance.”
Philip Maddocks is a political satire columnist for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.