One of the greatest things about a market economy is that all sorts of people can get to the top -- in contrast to, say, feudalism where the only people at the top are those who were born there. And while I spend plenty of time bemoaning the decline of upward mobility and how privilege is increasingly inherited in America, the fact remains that there are still elements of a robust meritocracy here. Just look at the far upper class, which is well-populated with people who got there thanks to their drive and creativity, as well as plain dumb luck.
One downside, though, to the porous nature of hierarchy in America is that some pretty twisted and scary people can end up at the very top of the food chain with huge resources at their disposal. Donald Sterling is a great example. Here's a guy who came from modest means, who went to public schools and then public universities, eventually getting a law degree. He chased ambulances as a personal injury lawyer and made enough money to get into real estate just as the California real estate market was soaring. Later he bought the Los Angeles Clippers for a steal, just $12.5 million, and now owns a franchise worth $775 million.
Because Sterling is rich, he became an important figure in Los Angeles in the way that rich people do: They get attention, they get courted, they get false flattery. Along his way to wealth, though, Sterling distinguished himself as being an unpleasant human being in a variety of ways, and his recent racist remarks are just the tip of a pretty big iceberg.
If Sterling lived a small and quiet life, his offensive views wouldn't much matter. But big money gives people big megaphones, and we all have to listen to what they have to say -- however offensive or extreme these people may be. Sterling is a minor case study in this regard. Right now, voters in key states where Senate seats are up for grabs have to listen to TV commercials where, in effect, the Koch brothers and their wealthy allies are speaking out against Democratic candidates.
The Koch brothers hold libertarian views that are quite outside the mainstream. And if they were just ordinary citizens, nobody would listen to them -- or have to when they turned on their TV. But, of course, they aren't and we do.
I should add the obvious point that money doesn't just empower fringe viewpoints or extreme people on the right. It empowers anyone of any stripe who is loaded and has a cause. If some billionaire decided that astrology should be required coursework in our schools, and money was no object to achieving that goal, you can bet that we'd see ballot initiatives, think tank projects, advocacy campaigns, and eventually legislation introduced to this effect.
It's bad enough to have a crazy political system where money translates into influence. It's even worse in a country with so many crazy rich people.