Recently, the hashtag #SaveWorkers trended on Twitter, drawing attention to people who have been laid off or are working in unsafe working conditions under the coronavirus pandemic. It also drew attention to millionaire Bill Pulte.
Pulte is the grandson of William J. Pulte, the billionaire chairman of PulteGroup. This Fortune 500 company is one of the largest home construction companies in the United States. It is known for disastrous working conditions, predatory lending, and homes that fall apart the moment people move in.
During the last recession, protestors from across the United States took part in a 3,300-mile “Build America So America Works” caravan. The caravan, which was made up of PulteGroup workers and those who purchased homes from PulteGroup, held demonstrations in ten cities before it arrived in Michigan. There, the protestors held their final demonstration outside PulteGroup’s headquarters.
The demonstration expressed their anger over risky mortgages, unsafe working conditions, stolen wages, and the termination of those who tried to start unions. As one worker put it, “We’re working so hard to make money for them and they don’t take care of us,” adding that some workers “don’t have benefits, holidays, or vacation time.” Since Bill Pulte was appointed to the board of directors by his grandfather in 2016, the same concerns over poorly built homes and unsafe working conditions have continued.
Against this backdrop, I was not surprised to see Bill Pulte tagged alongside the #SaveWorkers hashtag. On the brink of another recession, I assumed PulteGroup was again getting called out for putting profits over people. However, the hashtag directed at Pulte had nothing to do with worker resistance. It had everything to do with Bill Pulte’s small acts of kindness. For in his own telling, Pulte is not an enemy of poor and working-class Americans — he is, as his Twitter biography puts it, the “Inventor of Twitter Philanthropy.”
According to Fox News, Twitter philanthropy started last June. In a tweet, Pulte promised $10,000 to the person who could persuade him why they or a cause they loved needed his support. By the end of the summer, Pulte amassed over half a million followers, many of whom continued to fight for his attention. From a person who needed money for brain surgery to a centenarian about to be evicted, no shortage of poor and working-class people needed help from Pulte. In the wake of the pandemic, Pulte’s Twitter exploded. By the time I came across the #SaveWorkers hashtag in late March, Pulte had 2 million followers. Two weeks later, he had 3 million.
Pulte is part of a wave of capitalists who present themselves as people who will solve the problems that capitalism creates. To be sure, these capitalists believe that economic inequality produces some of these problems. But they also believe that economic inequality is the solution to these problems.
For example, Pulte has made clear he believes that progressive taxes interfere with the good that millionaires and billionaires do. Like Mark Zuckerberg, he believes that the rich and their followers “do many things BETTER than government.” Accordingly, the rich should have more money to do what the rich want to do. And what they want to do, according to Pulte, is help the poor. As he puts it, “The more millionaires and billionaires, THE BETTER! JOIN THE LOVE!”
George Orwell’s term doublespeak comes to mind. In the case of Pulte and other “socio-capitalists,” giving more money to wealthy people is presented as the best way to help poor people. Indeed, Pulte’s cultish rhetoric is mirrored in his cultish following. His followers regularly refer to him as “Sir.” Even homeless people have posted pictures of him as Iron Man. This cult of worship is compounded by the fact that Pulte requires poor and working-class people to follow him on Twitter. If they do not follow him, they are not eligible for his help.
At a moment when millions of people are confronted with unemployment, evictions, and unpaid bills, Pulte is especially popular. As one of his followers puts it, “he is one of the few who sees his wealth and doesn’t hoard it, using Twitter and a connection to the people of the world to spread his money where it’s needed.” Hence, the deluge of people who tweeted out their hardships to Pulte with the hashtag #SaveWorkers. Pulte, for his part, tweets out his discomfort with terms like “rich” and “poor.” He prefers terms like “humans,” obscuring the lived realities of inequality.
Here, we arrive at the fundamental contradiction of neoliberal philanthropy. On the one hand, Bill Pulte, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and other elites resist the progressive taxes needed to prepare for public-health crises. For decades, epidemiologists have forecast a pandemic. Accordingly, the United States government should have stockpiled ventilators, masks, hospital beds, and other needed resources. Likewise, it should have planned for lost jobs, closed businesses, disrupted supply chains, and reduced purchasing power. Most important, it should have planned for a reality where millions of Americans would not be able to afford the medical treatment they need.
Of course, it is difficult to make these preparations when the tax base needed to finance public spending and public programs like universal health care has been eroded by Republican and Democratic leaders for four decades. As economist Richard Wolff explains, “US capitalism failed at everything on this partial list of ‘shoulds.’” Instead of amassing critical resources and building a health care system that would mitigate the suffering of millions of Americans, politicians allowed capitalists to amass fortunes that make them look like overlords in a science fiction novel.
On the other hand, during these times of crisis, these capitalists are regarded as superheroes who will solve the economic problems they helped to create. The disjunction between the damage they do and the charitable interventions that follow is most apparent in how little of an impact these interventions have. In the face of public criticism, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently introduced a temporary wage increase of $2 for those who can’t afford to retreat from his hellish fulfillment centers. Dorsey has sent an unknown number of individuals unknown amounts of money. And the self-described “Inventor of Twitter Philanthropy” continues to send inadequate amounts of money to poor and working-class people.
For example, the $1,000 Pulte sent to a partially paralyzed man with a herniated disc falls far short of covering his roughly $4,000 hospital bill. And for the millions of Americans who do not have health insurance, who will have to pay up to $50,000 to repair a herniated disc, $1,000 is farcically inadequate. The same can be said for all the other medical procedures that catapult the insured and uninsured into financial ruin. And at a time when health care workers are wearing trash bags because their hospitals are underfunded, “healthcare workers deserve more” should mean more than a millionaire sending a single health care worker $200 for coffee.
Unfortunately, when people have real problems that remain unaddressed by federal and state governments, these millionaires and billionaires make real differences in people’s lives. As their help continues to garner media attention, it is important to remember why poor and working-class people need their help in the first place. The current crisis is not just a crisis related to coronavirus, but a crisis related to a political and economic system that dispossess the majority to benefit a minority. This is a crisis of capitalism.
We should remember who its villains are.