It hardly counts as news anymore when some put-upon billionaire starts fulminating about Barack Obama. The likes of the Koch brothers, Stephen Schwarzman, and Leon Cooperman have already called the president all sorts of terrible things, Schwarzman even comparing his tax policies to the Nazis’ (he later apologized). What’s startling, then, about a new ad on cable television suggesting Obama is a socialist is that it’s not angry at all—it’s actually sort of a tear-jerker.
The unusual ad, “Freedom to Succeed,” is the handiwork of Thomas Peterffy, 68, an emigre from socialist Hungary who founded Interactive Brokers, the world’s largest online broker, and built a fortune of $7.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Peterffy, who is ruddy and thickset, narrates and appears in the ad, which intersperses shots of him as a young boy with scenes from the aftermath of Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution. “I grew up in a socialist country and I know what that does to people,” he says solemnly, as images of poverty and suffering flash by. “There is no hope, no freedom, no pride in achievement. The nation became poorer and poorer.”
The ad is also striking because it essentially takes up the plight of the poor, albeit from an unusual angle. Peterffy suggests that “badmouthing success” of American capitalists causes them to stop succeeding and paying the taxes that support the less fortunate. The ad, while slightly ridiculous, is deeply sincere and also quite affecting. It argues on behalf of the “47 percent,” not against them.
Curious about the man responsible, I called him up. Unlike the other political billionaires, Peterffy is almost unknown in Republican circles, and, also unlike those billionaires, seems anything but angry. When I asked what prompted him to suddenly get so involved in politics, he laughed and said, in a thick accent, “The Democratic spokespeople! Politicians have killed the entrepreneurial spirit in this country.”
It seemed to me, I told him, that there were still plenty of entrepreneurs around. Was it really so bad? “But they’re losing their mojo!” he replied. “It takes mojo to take the risk to start to grow a business. When you trash the leaders, they don’t invest. I used to be very active. I liked coming to work in the morning. But not anymore.” Oh, c’mon, I said. Was he really saying that he, a self-made billionaire, was so depressed by Obama’s policies that he had given up? Peterffy laughed. “That’s right,” he said. “I came here when I was 21. I’ve paid $1.9 billion of taxes in my lifetime. And now I’m being told that I’m not paying my fair share, that I’m playing by different rules.”
Peterffy, though, cheerfully added that he would be happy to pay a higher rate of tax. His complaint, beyond the badmouthing, is that he fears Obama and the Democrats are pushing the country toward equality in a way that will sap capitalist enterprise and lead to ruin. “If all are equal,” he said, “then why strive?” Well, OK. But isn’t Obama really pushing for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome? “Opportunity is good, but that’s not what I see.” Grim as things may look, he couldn’t really think that the U.S. was turning into socialist Hungary, could he? The government isn’t suppressing speech and throwing political opponents in jail. No, he conceded, it wasn’t. But it sure feels like that’s the path we’re on. (He’s a reader of Friedrich Hayek.)
Peterffy is convinced enough that he has maxed out his donations to Mitt Romney and will vote Republican next month. Four years ago, he voted for the Libertarian candidate: “What’s his name? I forgot.” Peterffy’s fondness for freedom extends to his political strategy. He isn’t giving to any super PAC and says he didn’t consult with the Romney campaign before cutting and airing his own ads. So far, he’s spent $2.5 million on them. “By Election Day,” he said, “I’ll spend $5 million to $10 million.”
I asked what kind of response he’s gotten, and if any of it surprised him. “Oh yes!” he said. “It’s been wonderful. Many people have written to me. And do you know what? A lot of them said they were opening accounts with Interactive Brokers. So it’s helping my business.” He laughed again. “All is not bad.”