It has been widely reported that Stephen A. Feinberg, billionaire Chief Executive Officer of Cerberus Capital Management, has been asked by President Donald Trump to oversee a review of U.S. intelligence agencies and other aspects of the federal government. To be clear, the reporting to which I am referring is not the news of Feinberg’s possible role in the Trump administration but rather the almost ubiquitous reporting of Feinberg’s monetary success.
It is a fact that Feinberg’s net worth is a reported $1.27 billion. If it was reported just as that, a fact, it’s inclusion would not be very noteworthy beyond attention to detail. Yet instead of simple fact it is instead seemingly being utilized as a dog whistle, a signal that being a billionaire somehow disqualifies these individuals from qualification for the job.
The headline of the Chicago Tribune reads, “White House taps New York billionaire to lead review of US spy agencies”. The Week Magazine writes that “President Trump is planning on appointing his friend Stephen A. Feinberg, the billionaire co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, to lead a review of U.S. intelligence agencies”.
Leading with “billionaire” does grab attention. It is significant that Feinberg has earned a substantial portion of his money via extensive ties to the U.S. national security apparatus. It is also important to note that Feinberg donated $1.5 million of those dollars to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
But in these contexts Feinberg’s money is only significant because of how that money is tied to things which may constitute conflicts of interest to his proposed position. The fact that he is a billionaire is insignificant outside of these concerns.
Here is a quick rundown at some of President Trump’s Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominations:
In December Forbes reported that collectively Trump’s proposed Cabinet was worth $4.5 billion. Some of the nominations have changed since that time, but given only the numbers above that number seems a bit low. And it does not include individuals such as Linda McMahon, Administrator of the Small Business Administration, who’s net worth is approximately $500 million.
However, what the short list above demonstrates is that money has very little to do with qualifications. For one, every single nominee makes significantly more money than the average American. Two, while net worth most likely has an effect on the political and policy stances of these individuals, that is a partisan issue not a qualification issue.
The fact that these people are millionaires and billionaires means they have been very successful in a given area. They are experts in a given area. Many of these nominations which have garnered significant criticism, and in many cases deservedly so. But the criticism must stem from the fact that the expertise of the nominee falls outside the purview of their proposed job.
At best, signaling consumers via use of the word “billionaire” is misplaced criticism. At worst it is the media signaling populist and partisan leanings to the American public. In either case, and any case in between, it is wrong and misleading.
“Billionaire” is a descriptor, it neither qualifies nor disqualifies an individual for a job.
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