If you had $2.9 billion in the bank, would you object to being called a billionaire? If you were Howard Schultz, the answer would be yes.
In a Q&A with CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin, Schultz was asked a question about inequality from Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: "Do you agree that billionaires have too much power in American public life?"
Schultz' first response to the question was to object to the terminology. "The monicker 'billionaire' now has become the catchphrase," he said. "I would rephrase that and I would say 'people of means.'" He went on to agree that people of means, as he calls them, do indeed have too much influence over politicians of both parties, as do corporations. Then he added a plug for himself. "If I should run for president, I am not in bed with any party. I am not in bed with any special interest. All I'm trying to do is one thing, walk in the shoes of the American people."
It's easy to see why he might be sensitive to the term "billionaire" which has indeed come to be used with derision by some who object to the growing disparity between the super-wealthy and everyone else. At a recent Manhattan bookstore event for his book, a heckler shouted at Schultz: "Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite who think they know how to run the world! That's not what democracy means!"
I understand his desire not to be called "billionaire." But his rephrasing is merely an attempt to circumvent reality with language, something that Americans are all too familiar with. It's not a layoff, it's a "downsizing" or "rightsizing." It's not a used car, it's "pre-owned." At Starbucks, the company Schultz built, it's not lighter roast coffee (which most Americans think they don't like even though many of us do) it's "blonde."
Politicians (if that's what Schultz is--he hasn't officially said he's running yet) are not known for being overly realistic, of course. Schultz himself has homed in on this, complaining that those who support single payer health care are offering a "false narrative." "Doesn't someone have to speak the truth about what we can afford?" he asks.
It's an odd question, though, because in fact the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth and there are plenty of less wealthy ones--such as Canada, right on our border--that can afford single payer healthcare just fine. The difference is that they have higher taxes, especially on the very wealthy. Schultz says he will cut the deficit, reduce inequality, abolish extreme poverty, and give all Americans access to affordable healthcare at the same time--all without raising taxes, not even on those with more than $10 million in income.
While you're pondering how he plans to perform this trick, consider another question. Schultz says he's considering running as an independent candidate outside either of the major parties. That announcement was met with widespread consternation from Democrats, who believe an independent Schultz would peel off some votes from the Democratic candidate (whoever that is), thus handing the presidency to Donald Trump for a further four years. Trump himself seems to think that too--he's actually dared Schultz to run.
All this has led to a bit more non-realism from the non-billionaire with a $2.9 billion net worth. "Nobody wants to see Donald Trump removed from office more than me," he told Sorkin during the Q&A. And he promised that he would do nothing to hand the White House back to Trump for another four years.
So Sorkin posed a reasonable question: What will Schultz do if polling shows--as it almost certainly will--that his independent candidacy would split the Democratic vote and bring about a Trump victory? Schultz answered this way: "If I decide to run for president as an independent, I will believe and have the conviction and the courage to believe I can win."
In case you're wondering, the last independent to be elected president was George Washington. Having "the conviction and the courage" to think you can do something that hasn't been done in more than 200 years? That takes a particular ability to look reality in the face and refuse to see it. Kind of like believing you can "walk in the shoes of the American people" when you've got a private jet to take you wherever you want to go--a jet you bought at the same time you were closing stores and laying off employees.
Compared to that, objecting to being called "billionaire" when you're a billionaire three times over just doesn't seem like that much of a stretch.