The Foxhole: West examines lives of the super rich in 'Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust'

Everybody, as Tears for Fears once reminded us, wants to rule the world. Among those not presently entrusted with that privilege – and its attendant burdens – it is commonly assumed that such power is concentrated in the hands of the super-rich. So who are these Masters of the Universe? And how influential are they in our daily lives, really?

Such questions excite emotions but seldom receive dispassionate, statistical analysis – but they have now. In "Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust" (Brookings Institution Press, 2014), political scientist Darrell M. West examines the political activities of the world’s billionaires and ranks them according to their relative influence in the United States and abroad.

West, the vice president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings, an influential Washington think tank, determined that there are presently some 1,600 billionaires – controlling approximately $6.5 trillion in assets –  in dozens of countries around the world. While the United States is home to the largest number of these fortunate individuals – 492 of them – Beijing is playing catch-up, with 152. “China is the rising country. They are minting more billionaires than any other country,” West said during a recent visit to “The Foxhole.” He added a surprising data point: “China is minting more female billionaires than any other country around the world.”

West is the first political scientist to rank the world’s billionaires in terms of their influence, and he came up with two top ten lists: one assessing influence within the borders of the United States and another assessing influence across the globe.

These lists offer some surprises: Bill and Melinda Gates top the list for international influence, but rank only #7 domestically. Michael Bloomberg – who won three terms as mayor of New York City and on that basis is surely the most successful billionaire in American history in terms of direct engagement with the electoral process, as a candidate – only ranks #2 on the U.S. list. And Warren Buffet, perhaps the most famous billionaire in the public imagination, barely made it onto the American top ten list.

So how did West define influence? “I looked at several different things,” he said. “Some of it is direct election activity, in the sense that they’re running ads in Senate races across the country. Some of it is issue advocacy, where they’re trying to influence what happens in the states through the referenda process. Some of these have formed non-profit organizations. Some billionaires are buying media outlets. So you can become politically influential in a variety of different ways.”

West himself grew up poor, on a dairy farm in Ohio, and as a child only gradually saw the introduction into his home of such amenities as running water and an indoor bathroom. He told “The Foxhole” he sees wealth as “perfectly great” and fundamentally “American,” but that the heightened activity of billionaires on the political stage, with disclosure rules softening, raises important questions for the sustainment of the American democratic experiment.