Warren Buffett invites to Maui a group of his fellow elderly super rich, including Ted Turner, George Soros, Bill Gates Senior (father of the Microsoft billionaire), Bill Cosby, Barry Diller, and Yoko Ono. They decide to launch a movement using their money and connections to clean up America – not least by masterminding a campaign to vote out all the corrupt incumbent politicians in Washington DC.
At first, this is a stealth effort – starting with what seem to be isolated acts by wealthy individuals, such as Turner’s new campaign, “Billionaires Against Bullshit”. But on July 4th, the group goes public, as they launch their initiative to undo the negative influence of corporate money in America’s capital through a sort of “reverse Gresham’s law” in which good money drives out bad.
This story is told in the new book by veteran American activist and sometime presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. He describes “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us” not as a novel but rather, an exercise in “practical Utopianism” in the tradition of English politician and philosopher, Sir Thomas More.
This is not, as Nader’s leftwing credentials might lead you to expect, a satire. He is serious, believing that the biggest obstacle to the political change he has sought throughout his career is money, of which a group of super rich people old enough to be focused on their legacy might be the perfect source. Nader has been able to make this case in person, as he has called all his leading characters to tell them he has written fictional versions of them. Most, he says, seemed happy enough, including Buffett, who he met for breakfast in Omaha a few weeks ago.
There are many similarities between Nader’s book and ours, as Matthew discussed with him the other day on stage at New York’s 92nd Street Y. We also include our own piece of practical Utopianism in our concluding chapter, by describing the junior Bill Gates celebrating his 70th birthday on October 25th 2025 aboard Richard Branson’s luxurious eco-friendly space mansion. After Paul Hewson, the secretary general of the United Nations formerly known as Bono, sings, Gates announces the eradication of malaria from the earth.
To be honest, we believe our Utopia is far likelier to be achieved than Nader’s. But we do share a belief that the super rich and their money can be a powerful force for good – and that currently they are not making the most of that opportunity, not least because of a reluctance to get too deeply into the political process (with the notable exceptions of Soros, who likes to describe himself as a “political philanthropist”, and Michael Bloomberg, who is about to buy himself a third term as mayor of New York and still aspires to occupy the White House). As we have argued many times, changing government policy is a crucial way in which philanthrocapitalists can leverage their relatively small amounts of money, as Gates is starting to discover, although, as he is also discovering, this can be controversial.
Our strongest point of disagreement is over the role of companies. Nader believes that companies are the primary source of corruption in the political process, capturing Washington to serve their interests rather than those of the people. We actually see signs of change at the top of a growing number of leading companies as bosses realise that being a good corporate citizen is crucial to their long-term success.
Both Nader and we use Wal-Mart, the huge retailer, as the focus of our argument – and in this respect, perhaps Nader is more open to the possibility of change than his rhetoric suggests. In his book, Wal-Mart is persuaded to abandon its lifelong opposition to trade unions. In our book, we tell the true story of how Wal-Mart converted to the cause of fighting climate change.
We have many differences with Nader on the specifics of what the super rich could (and should try to) achieve. We aren’t convinced, for example, that electing Warren Beatty as governor would be the answer to California’s many problems (though, in this idea, as in the roles he gives to Yoko Ono and Bill Cosby, Nader shares our belief in the power of celanthropy). But it is striking that someone who has spent a lifetime campaigning for social change – sometimes to great effect (as in making cars safer) – has come, through hard-earned practical experience, to share our belief that super rich “hyperagents” are essential partners for activists in building a better world.