An Open Letter to Leon Cooperman

We detect the rank smell of class warfare

s
a
l
v
o
s

Leon Cooperman
Omega Family Office, Inc.
810 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10019

 

Dear Mr. Cooperman,

It is with a great sense of agitation that I write this. But I am going to try to be reasonable with you here. You present yourself as a reasonable man, an astute observer of the global economy and the American political system. You’ve been described as a “self-made billionaire” and a “Wall Street legend.” You are known for working long hours running your hedge fund. But every once in a while you look up from your desk and ask yourself, “What is going on in this country? Why all the divisiveness? Why are so many political leaders encouraging the masses to vilify the rich?”

You detect the rank smell of class warfare.

It’s not just Bernie Sanders. He’s a socialist—what would you expect? But Elizabeth Warren, running around the country promoting a “wealth tax” and talking about a bill to “Stop Wall Street Looting.” She really seems to get under your skin, Mr. Cooperman. I noticed last October you had a brief lapse in civil goodwill when you spoke to a Politico reporter about Warren and said that, while you are not opposed to progressive income taxes, “this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on.” I was quite interested to see your open letter to the Massachusetts senator, dated October 30, 2019, in which you detail your objections to her tax policy proposals (over five pages) and close with a plea to “elevate the dialogue.”

That letter led to a fair amount of media attention. I saw you a couple of times in November on that CNBC show Halftime Report, where you are always treated with such graciousness and respect. Host Scott Wapner, like your other friends, calls you Lee.

“I think,” Wapner said, “people can not only see the emotion on your face but hear it in your voice when you talk about this, Lee. Why?”

That’s when you teared up, looked down for a moment as you tried to compose yourself, and answered, “I care.” You paused another moment. “That’s it.”

You seemed a little more steady when you returned to Wapner’s show ten days later, this time calling in by phone, reading occasionally from prepared text, and going on for nearly seventeen minutes, mostly about the dangers of Warren’s proposals. “I got emotional on one of your recent programs because I was so upset about the destructive dialogue she was pursuing,” you explained. “Her vilification of the wealthy is totally uncalled for, and her wealth tax idea is totally misguided.”

Still, it must have stung when, only a few weeks later, a columnist for the New York Times discussed biased media coverage against the wealth tax and referred obliquely (linking to coverage of your letter to Warren) to the complaints of some “obscure billionaires.”

Well, you are not an obscure billionaire to me, Mr. Cooperman.

Like I said, I want to be reasonable in writing to you, but also honest: I’ve been fuming about you for a long time. As far back as 2011, you became, for me, the exemplar of the thin-skinned plutocrat who believes the most privileged people in the world should be immunized against criticism. I’ve often muttered your name as if you were some kind of personal nemesis. Cooperman! Cooperman! You miserable malefactor of unimaginable wealth. Think of how upset you feel when you regard Elizabeth Warren and what she stands for. That’s what the name Cooperman does for me. You seem mystified that so many of us would regard America’s ultra-rich overlords with fury. I’ve been paying attention to your public statements. Not once have I seen a glimmer of understanding on your part of where this hostility might come from. Are you really so obtuse you can’t understand it?

Cooperman! Cooperman! You miserable malefactor of unimaginable wealth.

What happened in 2011 that caused me to learn about Leon Cooperman? You know very well what happened. That’s when you made a ripple in the news with an open letter to President Barack Obama. That’s when you first went public with your “honor the billionaires” schtick. “It is with a great sense of disappointment that I write this,” you began. But you saw the need to hold the president—and his “minions”—accountable for “setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterized as ‘class warfare.’” Obama’s rhetoric, you charged, “is cleaving a widening gulf” between “the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them.” You saw the president taking “an approach to governing that owes more to desperate demagoguery than your Administration should feel comfortable with.”

You spent a long paragraph, as you always do, making sure everyone would be aware of your humble roots growing up in the Bronx, the son of a plumber. You spoke, as you always do, of your generous philanthropy, and how you signed on to Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge. You testified that many of your wealthy friends are just like you: “We feel privileged to be in a position to give back, and we do.”

And then you lectured the president about his responsibility to “raise the level of discourse to one that is both more civil and more conciliatory.” It was time for the president to “throttle-down the partisan rhetoric and appeal to people’s better instincts, not their worst. Rather than assume that the wealthy are a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot who must be subjugated by the force of the state, set a tone that encourages people of good will to meet in the middle.”

Oh my god, Cooperman. I would say your letter to Obama didn’t age well, given the turn of events that put a truly malicious demagogue in the White House, a leader who specializes in appealing to peoples’ worst instincts. And yet, you recycled most of the same points, in the same self-regarding way, in your recent letter to Elizabeth Warren. You even objected to her “snarky tweets that stir her base at the expense of accuracy.” So are we to conclude that you haven’t learned a thing in the last decade? What you care about most is whether political leaders are deferential to the super-rich. Perhaps this president, or any president, could shoot an impoverished person on Fifth Avenue in New York City and not lose your support. If she took a verbal shot at a well-heeled hedge fund investor on Wall Street, though, the republic itself would be in mortal danger.

I must admit that my feelings today about your brand of political advocacy are not exactly what they were in 2011 and 2012 when I first began to read up about you. When I became aware that you had upbraided Obama for fomenting class warfare, I couldn’t even imagine what set you off. It seemed comical. Here’s a president who brought Wall Street allies into his administration from the get-go. The early days of his administration were—literally—guided by a bunch of Citigroup executives. Perhaps you know a fellow named Michael Froman. He had been a Harvard Law classmate of Obama’s and worked as chief of staff for Robert Rubin when he was Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary. Then he followed Rubin to Citigroup. Even as Citigroup was getting lined up for a massive bailout in the waning days of the Bush administration in 2008, Froman was helping the Obama transition team pick its cabinet. Federal Reserve Bank of New York chief Timothy Geithner helped structure that Citigroup rescue and, shortly thereafter, the Obama team nominated him to be the new treasury secretary. Some class war.

But that was 2008. By the fall of 2011, when so many were aware of the extraordinary public resources that went into bailing out Wall Street firms, even as those same companies continued to reward executives with bonuses—and it seemed no corporate criminals were ever going to be held accountable—there was some visible restiveness across the land. In fact, some of it was visible from the office windows of your Wall Street cronies. The Occupy Wall Street encampments in Zuccotti Park went up in mid-September. The protesters were sent packing by mid-November, and it was later that month you drafted your letter.

My first hunch was “dude got a little freaked out by some noisy anarchists.” We can see now that Occupy Wall Street was never going to put a dent in the capitalist superstructure, but it must have been scary to you at the time. And it did help popularize a way of thinking: that the world of the top 1 percent of wealth-hoarders in America is vastly different from the world of the 99 percent. That the 1 percent are not just rich but always getting richer. That the 1 percent have a death grip on the political system. It’s no doubt an offensive and “divisive” analysis to your ears, Cooperman. Yet it was explained perfectly well in March of 2011 by Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in an influential Vanity Fair essay. In the mid-1980s, the top 1 percent controlled about 33 percent of all the nation’s wealth. By 2011 it was up to 40 percent. “The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America,” Stiglitz wrote, “but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.”

Except that doesn’t quite capture you, Cooperman. Your complaint isn’t with mildly progressive taxation—you’ve stated many times that there are ways the government could and should improve tax policy, even if some taxes are increased on the wealthy. Your complaint is you don’t want people to blame anyone—or at least not anyone like you—for the current state of affairs. You don’t want people to discuss inequality in terms of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. As I looked further into what set you off during those Obama years, I discovered that your anger predated Occupy Wall Street. In fact, it seemed to ignite in the summer of 2011. As Chrystia Freeland explained it later in The New Yorker:

Although he voted for McCain in 2008, Cooperman was not compelled to enter the political debate until June, 2011, when he saw the President appear on TV during the debt-ceiling battle. Obama urged America’s “millionaires and billionaires” to pay their fair share, pointing out that they were doing well at a time when both the American middle class and the American federal treasury were under pressure. “If you are a wealthy C.E.O. or hedge-fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the nineteen-fifties,” the President said. “You can still ride on your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more.”

That’s what riled you up? It seems possible that maybe you are lying and you really don’t want any politician to advocate for any higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires at any time. Or it could be that you are so sensitive or defensive about your privilege that any little jibe about riding on “your corporate jet” seems beyond the bounds of decent discourse. I’m going to strain here for the most charitable interpretation: you felt singled out. You have a simpleton’s idea stuck in your head that recognizing that one class of Americans is pitted against another is dangerous.

This is how it always is with plutocrats: they believe the concerted efforts they make to protect their power and standing is nothing more than their rightful participation in politics. Meanwhile, anyone who points to their manipulation of the system—and wants to reverse trends toward the concentration of wealth—is accused of class warfare. Look into the ways we’ve had several decades of top-down class war, Cooperman. Ask your researcher to tally up all the money the Koch brothers have spent to support candidates who defend the wealthy, or to explain the effects of the Citizens United ruling in American politics. Today’s vast inequality isn’t a random event like the weather: certain people made it happen. You.

Just take a moment to recall your own ability to write that check for $50,000 that you gave to Mitt Romney’s campaign when he was running for president in 2012. Surely you and Romney didn’t have any taste for class war, did you? And yet, just as you had forecasted publicly that the problem in that election would be “the forty or fifty percent of the country on the dole” who would inevitably support Obama, Romney echoed your sentiments some months later in his famous “47 percent” spiel.

All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

Romney thought he was speaking only to his fellow swells at the time. The remarks became public. Yet we all know that conversations like this take place all the time, in the estates of the Hamptons, in the penthouses of the supertalls looming over Manhattan, perhaps in a hedge-fund suite near you.

It also seems possible, Cooperman, that there is sheer stupidity at work here. That above-referenced article by Freeland notes that after you heard Obama talk about the need for the wealthy to pay their fair share, you popped up at a CNBC conference in New York and compared Hitler’s rise to power with Obama’s. Freeland noted that even your wife, Toby, reacted to those comments by calling you a “schmuck.” Freeland gave you a chance to back away from the remark. But you defended it:

“You know, the largest and greatest country in the free world put a forty-seven-year-old-guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world,” Cooperman said. “Not totally different from taking Adolf Hitler in Germany and making him in charge of Germany because people were economically dissatisfied. Now, Obama’s not Hitler. I don’t even mean to say anything like that. But it is a question that the dissatisfaction of the populace was so great that they were willing to take a chance on an untested individual.”

Let us entertain, then, the possibility you are a successful man when it comes to understanding finance and that you have a knack for making money multiply but that you are a stupid man when it comes to understanding politics, history, and ideas. Why pretend otherwise? Like most people devoted to accumulation, you are a man of reaction, not reflection. There is a variety of boobus Americanus produced by the nation’s best business schools. They look a lot like you—spending most hours of the day playing the markets. They have no time in their life for literature, or for books that take ideas seriously. They have been trained to discard “normative reasoning” in business decisions as a potential violation of the shareholder’s right to a maximized bottom line. In other words, they have no capacity to incorporate questions of morality or justice into discussions of the economic system.

I saw a glimpse of that when you were grousing on CNBC in November. When Scott Wapner noted that people at the top are seeing “exponential” growth in income while people at the bottom see wage stagnation, your response was the equivalent of a shrug: “What are the causes? I don’t know. You’re raising issues that are beyond my scope.” If the problem of increasing inequality is beyond your scope, Cooperman, you are going to have a hard time understanding what makes people angry in American politics.

From what I can tell from your occasional forays into political debates, you have not had a new political thought in forty years. Here’s one I’d like to throw out there for your consideration: Billionaires are bad for the economy. Billionaires are, morally and socially, an abomination. Perhaps you have seen coverage of a new book, Capital and Ideology, by the economist Thomas Piketty, published in France last fall. He advocates a tax policy that would reduce the extremely, obscenely, shamefully wealthy to the level of the very, very comfortably wealthy instead. The multi-millionaires will always be with us, but no more billionaires. You’ll not take time to read Piketty’s book, of course. But don’t be surprised if this idea begins to spread.

This is how it always is with plutocrats: they believe the concerted efforts they make to protect their power and standing is nothing more than their rightful participation in politics.

You are said to have a net worth of $3.2 billion. Why should any one person ever be allowed to control that much wealth? Most ordinary Americans would consider it absurd, if asked to think about it, that someone can “earn” that much money. And in your case, you are rewarded vastly more than our most talented teachers, social workers, scientists, judges, nurses, or doctors—all because you supervise huge pools of money generating more money. It’s what the accountants call “unearned income,” isn’t it? But of course, one thing that protects you from scrutiny is that hardly any regular person can fathom what a billion dollars means. We ought to have more clarification on this, don’t you think, Cooperman? I noticed just the other day a report came out from Oxfam that calculated that in 2019 the world’s 2,153 billionaires had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. Still, that word billion presents a problem—people need to understand how vast the difference is between a million and a billion. I saw an explanation recently that noted a million seconds equates to about twelve days. But a billion seconds is more than thirty-two years. Maybe this is more to the point: a person at America’s median household income of $60,000 would need more than sixteen thousand years to make a billion dollars. To get to the hundred-plus-billion-dollar level of Bezos or Gates would take a hundred times longer, i.e., more than 1,600,000 years.

But let’s not single out the nation’s six-hundred-or-so billionaires. Is it beyond your scope to consider the ever-widening gap between CEO pay and employee pay? Joseph Stiglitz notes in The Price of Inequality that there was a time when the ratio of CEO salary to that of the typical worker was about thirty to one. These days the ratio is beyond two hundred to one. “It strains credulity to think that over the intervening years CEOs as a group have increased their productivity so much, relative to the average worker, that a multiple of more than 200 could be justified,” he wrote. Sometimes it’s way more than two hundred to one, of course. The median annual pay of a worker at Walmart was about $19,000 in 2017, while Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon cleared more than $22 million in that same year. So McMillon’s pay was about 1,158 times more than his average employee’s pay.

To boot, just about every day brings a story in the newspaper about corporate failure and corruption being rewarded. Timothy J. Sloan walked away from a scandal-ridden Wells Fargo in March of 2019 after he was unable to clean up the mess his predecessor John G. Stumpf made, but Sloan took along a $24-million-dollar stock package. Stumpf himself has been hit with big fines and yet emerged with what the New York Times described as “an enviable fortune.” Boeing managed to cut so many corners that some of its jets had to be grounded after two crashes took the lives of 346 people. After what the Washington Post described as “the most disastrous period in Boeing’s 103-year history,” the company’s fired chief executive Dennis Muilenburg was awarded at least $62 million on his exit.

If the problem of increasing inequality is beyond your scope, Cooperman, you are going to have a hard time understanding what makes people angry in American politics.

By now, I understand the defense mechanism you always use when you sense people are angry with the super-rich. Don’t blame me—I’m a generous philanthropist. I’m using my money to make the world a better place. As you noted in your letters to Obama and Warren, you’ve pledged to give half your fortune away while you’re here and the other half will support foundations when you’re gone.

Good for you, Cooperman. That makes you perhaps better than Stumpf and Sloan and Muilenburg. But it does not require the rest of us to genuflect to every plutocrat who gives alms to the poor. This may shock you, but many people who think about justice, fairness, and democracy would consider your philanthropy to be entirely beside the point.

You’d find some pretty challenging thinking, for example, in a recent book by Anand Giridharadas called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Don’t be frightened by the title, Cooperman, for the author is surprisingly sympathetic (gentle, even!) with well-off people who sincerely want to find market-friendly solutions for social change. And yet because he also knows how to think about democracy, he points to some essential flaws in elite-driven solutions. Philanthropic efforts are often, he writes, “an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm.”

In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. . . . [They believe] society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.

Giridharadas also notes that there is a psychological (or public relations) payoff for our ostentatious philanthropists: “Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.” It’s a nice racket you’ve got going there, Cooperman.

In closing this perhaps doomed exercise—I’m sure you will feel I have failed to “elevate the dialogue”—I want to suggest a topic for your next open letter, should you once again feel that itch to share your opinions. I’d like to see you address the question of “how Trump made me into a laughingstock.” After all, no reasonable person in this era of bottomless presidential perfidy could read your letter to Obama without guffawing all the way through. Your comment to a magazine writer that when America “put a forty-seven-year-old-guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world” was “not totally different” than putting Hitler in charge of Germany brought shame to yourself and your family.

You might want to examine the perhaps subconscious racism in your snarky (and false) “never worked a day in his life” comment—and the one about people “on the dole” voting for Obama.

I heard you timidly suggest last November that the current president can be faulted for his “deportment” and that if he is not willing to improve his behavior, he should consider not running for re-election. (Naturally, you’d prefer Bloomberg.) Yet your fear of offending him was palpable: “You’re really going to get me into a lot of hot water,” you said on CNBC, backing away from further criticism. I’ve already suggested you don’t have the political smarts or the ability to reflect on the vile Trumpism that has infected you and your plutocratic class. It would take some courage to speak out against a real demagogue, wouldn’t it, Cooperman? Anyway, why would you ever do such a thing? Trump’s on your side of the class war.

 

Sincerely,
Dave A. Denison

Dave Denison is a senior editor at The Baffler.

You Might Also Enjoy

Family Care for All

Ann Neumann

The pandemic has rendered care work not only visible but “essential,” the linchpin in our social structure.

salvos

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.