Some things don't quite add up about hedge fund manager Seth Klarman's interview with the New York Times in which he discloses that he will spend between $18 million and $20 million this election cycle on helping Democrats "because I think democracy is at stake."
For one, part of the idea of "democracy" is that every person gets a more or less equal voice in electing our leaders. One person, one vote. Yet here Klarman, because he's rich, is proposing to use his money to sway the outcome of the election. When the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson do this to elect Republicans, Democrats denounce it as profoundly undemocratic. One might argue that the end of electing Democrats justify doing so by undemocratic means. But in the Times article, there's a whole paragraph in which Klarman rejects ends-justify-means thinking when it comes to President Trump:
He is dismissive of the notion, voiced by many conservatives, that Mr. Trump — whom he describes in his most recent investor letter as displaying "ill temper, chronic impulsivity, limited attention span, ignorance of history and flawed judgment" — has instituted some good policies. "I don't care what good things are happening because I am drawn to focus on the democratic norms that are being eroded," he said. "It doesn't matter what the ends are. The means disqualify the ends."
Then there's the strange claim that Klarman is out there on his own:
There are many people who are similarly situated to Seth Klarman — wealthy, hawkish, socially liberal, fiscally conservative types who felt politically homeless long before Mr. Trump came onto the scene. Many of them, like Mr. Klarman, were alarmed by Mr. Trump's rise. Many of them, like Mr. Klarman, spoke out forcefully during the campaign.
But these days, thanks to Mr. Trump's tax cuts, his Supreme Court picks and the roaring economy, they are far more inclined to dump on the president over crudo with their friends than to say anything publicly, let alone change their giving. After all, is life not better for them under this president?
Mr. Klarman is mystified by this behavior.
The Times and Klarman don't mention Michael Bloomberg, who is spending a reported $80 million to flip control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. They don't mention Leslie Wexner, the Victoria's Secret billionaire and longtime Republican donor who quit the party last week after a visit from President Obama.
Klarman portrays his political involvement as selfless:
Winning is the thing that matters to Mr. Klarman more than anything. Including his business. "Me giving this interview could conceivably upset a few of my clients," he told me. "I love all my clients. I want them to stay as clients. But it's more important that I do what my conscience requires by speaking out."
"There are things more important than making money."
I agree with Klarman that there are things more important than making money. However, if Klarman's political talk annoys some clients, it may attract others. Plenty of left-leaning unions, state and city pension funds, and universities invest pension money in funds like the one Klarman runs. Klarman may also figure that long-run, a non-democratic America is bad for his business. Or he may figure that a newly Democratic House that he helped get elected may treat him and his interests better than one that he did not help elect. So his financial interests and his "conscience" may not actually be in conflict, at least if he is correct about where the country is headed under Trump (a big "if").
Anyway, I've long opposed McCain-Feingold-style campaign finance "reform." But even for someone like me who supports political speech rights, the idea of Michael Bloomberg and Seth Klarman, in the name of "democracy," together spending $100 million so that the House of Representatives tilts toward their urban centrist values rather than the values of Trump Republicans who might otherwise get elected is something to behold. There's enough time between now and November for the Republicans to field some television or direct mail in rural districts about how billionaires like Bloomberg and Klarman are trying to buy the election.
One final point: If I had that kind of money and was going to spend it on politics, my approach would be to spend the money, win the election, and then only afterward grant interviews taking credit for the victory. The public talk about it before the election suggests a certain confidence in the outcome that may or may not be warranted by the eventual results.