The trouble with 'populist' billionaires is they serve the same old corporate interests

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We toss around the word "billionaire" pretty freely these days, as if it's just another word for a rich guy.

And yet, try this little quiz: you are given a dollar every second, 24 hours a day. At that rate, it takes 12 days for you to become a millionaire. But how long does it take for you to become a billionaire?

Answer: 32 years.

Being a billionaire isn't just about being rich; it's about being mind-bogglingly rich -- rich beyond most people's comprehension.

And yet the mega-fortunes being amassed these days by the newly emergent class of billionaires -- and the enormous influence and control this gives them over our economy and politics -- barely registers as a political issue.

What makes this particularly odd is that we're told we live in a time of popular revolt against the "elites" and that Donald Trump just won the U.S. presidency because of his "populism."

Of course, billionaire Trump, with his Wall Street cabinet and his sweetheart tax cut for billionaires, has turned "populism" into just another fake news concept.

Still, his surprise election has alerted us to the depth of dissatisfaction with the status quo -- a revelation that promises to shake up the political firmament.

The real question is whether Trump and his crowd get to define and shape that anti-status quo sentiment, moulding it into a hateful juggernaut to be used against immigrants, women needing health care, and people saying "Happy Holidays" when they should be saying "Merry Christmas."

Another possibility is that progressives will tap into that vein of popular dissatisfaction with a more broadly appealing message -- one that truly challenges the elite, including the billionaires in Trump's cabinet.

In recent years, progressive political parties -- the Democrats in the U.S., and the NDP in Canada -- have shifted their focus onto fighting for gender and racial equality, scoring important gains in these areas. But they've largely abandoned the fight for greater economic equality, which helps explain the huge losses on this front, as the distribution of income and wealth in both countries has become more radically skewed to the top.

What's needed -- and what Bernie Sanders' upstart campaign in the Democratic primaries revealed to be popular -- is a revitalized progressive movement that openly challenges the set of pro-market economic policies that have enabled corporate interests to suppress labour and redirect wealth to themselves in recent decades.

A revival of economic populism would likely reverberate here as well. Back in the early 1970s, NDP leader David Lewis stirred up Canadians with a fiery campaign against "corporate welfare bums," capturing the balance of power and wielding real influence in the minority Liberal parliament.

Over the years, the idea of challenging corporate power has remained popular among the NDP grassroots but the party leadership, succumbing to the dominant corporate mindset, drifted towards the centre -- an approach that hasn't worked out well.

This allowed a sham-progressive like Justin Trudeau to claim vast swaths of the centre-left, but his allure is fading as he disappoints progressives on electoral reform and pipelines, while cozying up to the rich and powerful.

The NDP should appeal to disaffected workers by reclaiming populist ground: demanding higher taxes on the rich, opposing trade deals that simply enhance corporate power, and pushing for green versions of deals like the Auto Pact, which used to ensure manufacturing jobs were located in Canada.

The NDP should also throw the spotlight on the growing gap between rich and poor -- a trend that riles a lot of Canadians yet gets little attention.

A new Oxfam report shows how far the rich have pulled ahead of everyone else, noting that the two richest men in Canada -- David Thomson and Galen Weston -- now have as much wealth as the bottom 30 per cent of Canadians (11 million people).

Another way to grasp the size of these fortunes is to imagine how long it would take our richest man, David Thomson, head of the Thomson media empire, to count his $27 billion. If he counted it at the same rapid rate mentioned above -- one dollar every second -- and he counted non-stop day and night, he'd have it all tallied up in 864 years.

Or another way to look at it: if David Thomson had started counting his fortune at that rate back in 1153 AD -- around the time the Egyptian sultan Saladin was putting giant hooks on the side of his castle to impale those who fell over its walls -- he'd just be finishing up the counting now.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr

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