Plutocracy in America
Plutocracy literally means rule by the rich. “Rule” can have various shades of meaning: those who exercise the authority of public office are wealthy; their wealth explains why they hold that office; they exercise that authority in the interests of the rich; they have the primary influence over who holds those offices and the actions they take. These aspects of “plutocracy” are not exclusive. Government of the rich and for the rich need not berun directly by the rich. Also, in some exceptional circumstances rich individuals who hold powerful positions may govern in the interests of the many, e.g. Franklin Roosevelt.
The United States today qualifies as a plutocracy – on a number of grounds. Let’s look at some striking bits of evidence. Gross income redistribution upwards in the hierarchy has been a feature of American society for the past decades. The familiar statistics tell us that nearly 80% of the national wealth generated since 1973 has gone to the upper 2%, 65% to the upper 1 per cent. Estimates as to the rise in real income for salaried workers over the past 40 years range from 20% to 28 %. In that period, real GDP has risen by 110% – it has more than doubled. To put it somewhat differently, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the top earning 1 percent of households gained about 8X more than those in the 60 percentile after federal taxes and income transfers over a period between 1979 and 2007; 10X those in lower percentiles. In short, the overwhelming fraction of all the wealth created over two generations has gone to those at the very top of the income pyramid. That pattern has been markedly accelerated since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Between 2000 and 1012, the real net worth of 90% of Americans has declined by 25%. Theoretically, there is the possibility that this change is due to structural economic features operating nationally and internationally. That argument won’t wash, though, for three reasons. First, there is no reason to think that such a process has accelerated over the past five years during which disparities have widened at a faster rate. Second, other countries (many even more enmeshed in the world economy) have seen nothing like the drastic phenomenon occurring in the United States. Third, the readiness of the country’s political class to ignore what has been happening, and the absence of remedial action that could have been taken, in themselves are clear indicators of who shapes thinking and determines public policy. In addition, several significant governmental actions have been taken that directly favor the moneyed interests.
The latter include the dismantling of the apparatus to regulate financial activities specifically and big business generally. Runaway exploitation of the system by predatory banks was made possible by the Clinton “reforms” of the 1990s and the lax application of those rules that still prevailed. Attorney General Eric Holder just a few weeks ago went so far as to admit that the Department of Justice’s decisions on when to bring criminal charges against the biggest financial institutions will depend not on the question of legal violations alone but would include the hypothetical effects on economic stability of their prosecution. Earlier, Holder had extended blanket immunity to Bank of America and other mortgage lenders for their apparent criminality in forging, robo-signing, foreclosure documents on millions of home owners. In brief, equal protection and application of the law has been suspended. That is plutocracy.
Moreover, the extreme of a regulatory culture that, in effect, turns public officials into tame accessories to financial abuse emerged in stark relief at the Levin Committee hearings on J P Morgan Chase’s ‘London Whale” scandal. Morgan officials stated baldly that they chose not to inform the Controller of the Currency about discrepancies in trading accounts, without the slightest regard that they might be breaking the law, in the conviction that it was Morgan’s privilege not to do so. Senior regulators explained that they did not see it as their job to monitor compliance or to check whether claims made by their Morgan counterparts were correct. They also accepted abusive treatment, e.g. being called “stupid” to their face by senior Morgan executives. That’s plutocracy at work. The Senate Finance Committee hearing drew only 3 senators – yet another sign of plutocracy at work. When mega-banks make illicit profits by money laundering for drug cartels and get off with a slap on the wrist, as has HSBC and others, that too is plutocracy.
When the system of law that is meant to order the workings of society without reference to ascriptive persons is made malleable in the hands of officials to serve the preferred interests of some, it ceases to be a neutral instrument for the common good. In today’s society, it is becoming the instrument of a plutocracy.
There are myriad other examples of complicity between legislators or regulators, on the one hand, and special business interests on the other. EPA judgments that are reversed under the combined pressure of the commercial interests affected and beholden politicians is one. The government’s decision not to seek the power to bargain with pharmaceutical companies over the price of drugs paid for with public funds is another. Tolerance for the concealment of offshore profits in the tens of billions is a third. Relaxed interpretations of the tax laws by the IRS to the advantage of high income persons can be added to the list. So, too, can the give-away to sole source contractors of the tens of billions squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of such direct assists to big business and the wealthy is endless. The point is that government, at all levels, serves particular selfish interests no matter who holds high positions. While there is some difference between Republicans and Democrats on this score, it has narrowed on most major items to the point that the fundamental properties of the biased system are so entrenched as to be impervious to electoral outcomes. The most revealing experience that we have of that harsh reality is the Obama administration’s strategic decision to allow Wall Street to determine how and by whom the financial crisis would be handled.
Systemic biases are the most crucial factor is creating and maintaining plutocratic orientations of government. They are confirmed, and reinforced, by the identities and identifications of the persons who actually hold high elected office. Our leaders are nearly all rich by any reasonable standard. Most are very rich. Those who weren’t have aspired to become so and have succeeded. The Clintons are the striking case in point. That aspiration is evinced in how they conduct themselves in office. Congress, for its part, is composed of two rich men/women’s clubs. In many cases, personal wealth helped win them their offices. In many others, they knit ties with lobbies that provided the necessary funds. Whether they are “bought off” in some sense or other, they surely are often coopted. The most insidious aspect of cooptation is to see the world from the vantage point of the advantaged and special economic interests.
The devolution of the Democratic Party from being the representative of ordinary people to being just “another bunch of guys” is a telling commentary on how American politics has degenerated into a plutocracy. The party’s rolling over to accommodate the interests of the wealthy has been a theme of the past four years. From the Obama White House to the halls of Congress, party leaders (and most followers) have conceded the dominance of conservative ideas about macro-economic strategy (the austerity dogma), about retaining largely untouched the for-profit health care “non-system,” about bailing out the big financial players as the expense of everyone else and the economy’s stability, about degrading Social Security and Medicare. The last item is the most egregious – and revealing – of our plutocratic ways and means. For it entails a combination of intellectual deceit, blatant massaging of the numbers, and disregard for the human consequences in a time of growing distress for tens of millions. In other words, there is no way to conceal or spin the trade-offs made, who was being hurt and who would continue to enjoy the advantages of skewed fiscal policies.
There is another, absolutely crucial dimension to the consolidation of America’s plutocracy. It is controlling the means to shape how the populace understands public matters and, thereby, to channel thought and behavior in the desired direction. Our plutocratic guides, prophets and trainers have been enormously successful in accomplishing this. One object of their efforts has been to render the media into either conscious allies or to denature them as critics or skeptics. Their success is readily visible. Who has challenged the plutocracy serving falsehood that Social Security and Medicare are the main cause of our deficits whose imminent bankruptcy puts in jeopardy the American economy? Who even bothers to inform the public that those two programs’ trust funds draw on a separate revenue source from the rest of the budget? Answer: no one in or near the mainstream media. Who has performed the most elementary service in pointing out that of all the jobs created since 2009, small as the number has been, 60% at least have been either part-time or temporary? Answer: again, no one. Who has bothered to highlight the logical flaws in the market fundamentalist view of the world that has so deformed perceptions of what works and doesn’t work in macro-economic management? Yes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and a handful of others – although even Krugman’s colleagues writing on business and economics at the NYT seem not to have the time to read him or else lack the wit to comprehend what he is saying.
A second objective in a similar vein has been to dominate the think tank/foundation world. Today, nearly every major Washington think tank depends on corporate money. Businessmen sit on the boards and shape research programs. Peter G. Peterson, the hedge fund billionaire, took the more direct route of acquiring the International Institute of Economics, renaming it after himself. He then set about using it as in instrument to carry on the campaign against Social Security which has become his life’s work. Then there is Robert Rubin. Rubin is the distilled essence of financial malpractice, and the embodiment of the government-Wall Street nexus that brought the country to wrack and ruin. Author of Clinton’s deregulation program while Secretary of the Treasury: later super lobbyist and Chairman of CITI bank in the years before it was pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by Ben Bernanke, Paulson and Tim Geithner; and adviser to Barack Obama who stocked the new administration with Rubin protégés. He since has ensconced himself as Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of the highly prestigious, lavishly funded Hamilton Project at Brookings. By happenstance, both organizations late last year featured presentations by Jaime Dimon. The one billed as a forum for a leading global CEO to share priorities and insights before a high-level audience of CFR members. That is plutocracy in action.
The third objective has been to weaken public education. We have witnessed the assault on our public elementary school system in the name of effectiveness, efficiency and innovation. Charter schools are the watchword. Teachers are the heart of the problem. So privatization, highly profitable privitization, is sold as the solution to save America’s youth in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. Cast aside is the historical truth that our public school system is the one institution, above all others, that made American democracy. It also is a bastion of enlightened social thinking. It thereby qualifies as a target. The same for the country’s proud network of public universities. From state to state, they are starved for funding and made sacrificial lambs on the altar of the austerity cult. They, too, are stigmatized as “behind the times,” as no longer doing the job of supplying the business world with the obedient, practical skilled workers it wants. Business schools, long a dependency of the corporate world, as held up as the model for private-public partnership in higher education. Distance learning, often managed by for-profit ‘expert” consultants or “entrepreneurs”, is advertised as the wave a bright future – a future with fewer liberal-leaning professors with fuzzy ideas about the good society. Distance learning is the higher education companion to the charter school fad. Lots of promises, little delivery but well conceived to advance a plutocracy friendly agenda.
Here, too, boards of regents are led by business men or women. The abortive coup at the University of Virginia was instigated by the Rector who is a real estate developer in Virginia Beach. The Chairman of the Board of Regents at the University of Texas system where tensions are at a combustible level is a real estate developer. The Chairman at the University of California is CEO of two private equity firms – and the husband of Senator Diane Feinstein. His pet project was to have the moneys of the California teacher’s pension fund placed in the custody of private financial houses. Two former directors of the fund currently are under criminal investigation for taking very large kick-backs from other private equity firms to whom they directed monies – and which later employed them as ‘placers.’ That’s plutocracy at work.
The ultimate achievement of a plutocracy is to legitimize itself by fixing in the minds of society the idea that money is the measure of all things. It represents achievement, it is the sine qua non for giving people the material things they want. It is the gauge of an individual’s worth. It is the mark of status in a status anxious culture. That way of seeing the world describes the outlook of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It is Obama who, at the height of the financial meltdown, lauded Jaime Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein as “savvy and successful businessmen.” It is Obama who eagerly became Dimon’s golfing buddy – an Obama who twice in his career took jobs with corporate law firms. It was Bill Clinton who has been flying the world in corporate jets for the past twelve years. It is the two of them who promoted Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to press for the crippling of Social Security. That’s plutocracy pervading the leadership ranks in both parties of what used to be the American republic.
Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of the plutocracy’s financial wing has been to win acceptance from the country’s entire political class that its largely speculative activities are normal. Indeed, they are credited with being the economy’s principal engine of growth. It follows that their well-being is crucial to the well-being of the national economy and, therefore, they should be given privileged treatment.
The American version of plutocracy is noteworthy for its crassness. Subtlety, discretion and restraint are foreign to it. It has a buccaneering quality. That style has roots in the country’s history and culture. Much of the behavior is impulsive, grasping. Individuals are greedy for vivid displays that they are top dog, of what they can get away with, as well as the riches themselves. There is little interest in building anything that might endure – no ‘new order,’ no new party, no new institutions. Not even physical monuments to themselves. Why bother when the existing set-up works so well to your advantage, to that of your like-minded and like-interested associates – when you can turn ideas, policies and money in your direction with ease. And while the public is blind to how they are being deluded and abused. After all, the more things appear to stay the same, the more they can change in a country whose civic ideology imbues everyone with the firm belief that its principles and institutions embody a unique virtue. To challenge any of that would be to run the risk of raising consciousness – which is the last thing that the plutocrats want.
There are exceptions. The most stunning is Wall Street’s biggest players’ audacity in coopting a part of the NYC Police Department in setting up a semi-autonomous unit to monitor the financial district. Funded by Goldman Sachs et al, managed by private ban employees in key administrative positions, and with an explicit mandate to prevent, as well as to deal with any activity that threatens them, it operates with the latest high tech equipment out of a dedicated facility provided by its sponsors. The facility for years was kept “under the counter” so as not to tempt inquisitive parties to expose it. This is the unit that coordinated the squelching of theOccupy movement’s Manhattan demonstrations. It represents the appropriation of a public agency to serve and to serve under private interests. The post-9/11 hyper-anxiety provided political and ideological cover for a deal devised by Mayor Mike Bloomberg (himself a Wall Street billionaire who has gone down the line to defend it against all charges of financial abuse) in collusion with his former associates. Is this simply Bloomberg registering NYC’s fiscal dependency on financial sector jobs? Well, this is the same Bloomberg who killed a widely supported initiative to set a minimum decent wage of $10 an hour with health insurance ($11.50 without) on development projects that receive more than $1 million in taxpayer subsidies. He stigmatized the measure as “a throwback to the era when government viewed the private sector as a cash cow to be milked…. The last time we really had a big managed economy was the USSR and that didn’t work out so well.” That’s as plutocratic as it gets – and in liberal New York.
Furthermore, the moving forces of the plutocracy are not very organized. There is no conspiracy as such. It is the convergence of outlook among disparate persons in different parts of the system that has accomplished the revolution in American public life, public discourse, and public philosophy. Nobody had to indoctrinate Barack Obama in 2008-2009 or intimidate him or bribe him. He came to the plutocrats on his own volition with his mind-set and values already in conformity with the plutocracy’s view of itself and of America. This is the man who, for the first two years of his presidency, repeatedly misstated the coverage of the Social Security Act of 1935 – ignorant and not bothering to find out or willfully ignorant so as to create a convenient comparison with his fatally flawed health care pseudo-plan. This was the man, after all, who cited Ronald Reagan as model for what sort of presidency American needed. He has been living proof of how effectively Americans had been brought into line with the plutocratic vision.
This is not to say that the plutocrats’ success was inevitable – or that they were diabolically clever in manipulating everything and everyone to their advantage. There has been a strong element of good fortune in their victory. Their most notable piece of luck has been the ineptitude and shortsightedness of their potential opposition – liberal Democrats, intellectuals, and their like. The plutocrats pursued their goals is a disorganized, diffuse way. However, the absence of an opponent on the contested terrain assured success.
As to cleverness, the American plutocracy is actually a stupid plutocracy. First, it is overreaching. Far better to leave a few goodies on the table for the 99% and even a few crumbs for the 47% than to risk generating resentment and retaliation. Since the financial meltdown, financial and business interests have been unable to resist picking the pockets of the weak. Fishing out the small change in the wake of grand larceny is rubbing salt into wounds. Why fight a small rise in the minimum wage? Why ruthlessly exploit all those temps and part-timers who have so little in the way of economic power anyway? Why squeeze every last buck from the small depositors and credit card holders whom you already systematically fleece? In the broad perspective, that sort of behavior is stupid.
To explain it, we must look to the status compulsions of America’s audacious corporate freebooters. These peculiar traits grow more intense the higher one goes in the hierarchy of riches. One is the impulse to show to everybody your superiority by displaying what you can get away with. “Sharp dealing” always has been prized by segments of American society. It’s the striving, insecure man who has to prove to the world – and to himself – that he can act with impunity. He is little different from the hoodlum showing off to his pals and to his moll. These people at heart are hustlers – they crave the thrill of pulling off a scam, not constructing something. Hence, Lloyd Blankfein not showing up for White House meetings yet having Obama thank him for letting the president know, albeit after the meeting already had begun, that Blankfein can’t make it. Hence, Jaime Dimon indignantly protesting his verbal mistreatment by the press, by the White House, by whomever. Then there is Jack Welch, the titan of American industry who struts sitting down, who holds the Guinness record for the most manufacturing jobs outsourced by one company – and yet impudently calls Barack Obama “anti-business” after the president appoints his hand-picked successor, Jeffrey Immelt, to head the White House’s Job Council. Or Bank of America’s faking compliance with the sweetheart deal it got from Obama on the felonious foreclosure scam. The ultimate episode of egregious lawlessness is the MF Holdings affair – whereby under its chief, former Senator and Governor Jon Corzine, this hedge fund took the illegal action of looting a few billion from custodial accounts to cover losses incurred in its proprietary trading. JP Morgan, which held MF Global funds in several accounts and also processed the firm’s securities trades, resisted transferring the funds to MF’s customers until forced to by legal action. Punitive action: none. Why? The Justice Department and regulatory bodies came up with the lame excuse that the MF group’s decision-making was so opaque that they could not determine whose finger clicked the mouse. To pull capers like these and get off scot free, without chastisement, is the ultimate ego trip.
Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber of the 1940s, explained his targeting banks this way: “that’s where the money is.” Today’s financial swindlers go after the high risk gambles because that’s where the biggest kicks are. That is more important than the biggest bucks – although they add to the thrill. For the ever status striving, identity insecure financial baron is a compulsive gambler. He needs his fixes. Of winning, of celebrity, of respect. Of deference. All are transitory, though. For American culture provides few insignia of rank. No ‘Sirs,’ no seats in the House of Lords, no rites of passage that separate the heralded elite from all the rest. Oblivion shadows the most famous and acclaimed. Thus, the grasping for whatever badges of regard are within reach – however ludicrous they might be. When IR Magazine awarded JPMorgan the prize for “best crisis management” of 2012 for its handling of the London Whale trading debacle, at a black-tie awards ceremony in Manhattan, Morgan executives were there to express their appreciation, rather than bow out gracefully. The only Wall Street personage who has played the celebrity game without being marginalized in the public mind is Robert Rubin. Through nimbleness and political connection he has semi-institutionalized his celebrity status. Yes, there is Paul Volcker – but that is another world all together. His stature is built on an unmatched record of service to the commonweal and unchallenged integrity. The Blankfeins and Dimons and Welchs not only lack the critical attributes – they also lack the sense of what it means to serve the public from which they habitually distance themselves.
The plutocrats’ compulsive denigration of the poor, the ill and the dispossessed is perhaps the most telling evidence of status obsession linked to insecurity that is at the core of their social personality. They find it necessary to stigmatize the latter as at best failures, at worst as moral degenerates – drug addicts, lazy, parasites, in part to highlight their superiority and in part to blur the human consequences of their rapacity. Behavior of this kind is the antithesis of what could be the cultivated image of the statesman of commerce – even though they pay a price in public esteem. They also pay in price in terms of the other aspect of their own self-image.
Second, Americans have a craving to believe in their own virtue – as well as to have others recognize it. The perverse pride in beating the system cannot in and of itself compensate for the feeling that you’re a bad guy. Blankfein again: “I have been doing the Lord’s work.” No one laughs in public – so I’m right about that. Dimon swaggering through the Council On Foreign Relations or Brookings with the huddled masses in his audience – and on the dais – beaming their adulation as they bask in his fame and thirst for his wisdom on the great affairs of the world. Perhaps, his views on whether the BRICS can rig the LIBOR rate with the connivance of the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve – or ignore regulatory reporting rules when they threaten to reveal a madcap scheme that loses $6 billion?
Plutocracy in the current American style is having pernicious effects that go beyond the dominant influence of the rich on the nation’s economy and government. It is setting precedents and modeling the unaccountability and irresponsibility that is pervading executive power throughout the society. Two successive presidential administrations and two decades of rogue behavior by corporate elites have set norms now evident in institutions as diverse as universities and think tanks, the military and professional associations. The cumulative result is a widespread degrading of standards in the uses and abuses of power.
Plutocracy also raises social tensions in society. Logically, the main line of tension should be between the plutocrats and the rest – or, at least, between them and all those with modest means. But that is not the case in the United States. While it is true that there were bitter words about the Wall Street moguls and their bailouts during the first year or so after the financial collapse, it never became the main line of political division. Today, outrage has abated and politics is all about austerity and debts rather than the distribution of wealth and the power that goes along with it.The deep-seated sense of anxiety and grievance that pervades the populace manifests in outbreaks of hostile competition among groups who are in fact themselves all victims of the plutocrats’ success in grabbing for themselves most of the country’s wealth – thereby leaving the rest of us to fight for the leftovers. So, it is private sector employees pitted against government employees because the latter have (some) health insurance, some pension and some security relative to the former who have been shorn of all three. It’s parents worried about their kids’ education against teachers. Both against cash strapped local authorities. Municipalities vs states. It’s the small businessman against unions and health insurance requirements. It’s doctors against patients against administrators. It’s university administrators against faculty and against students, faculty against students in competing for a much reduced appropriations. It’s all of those against boards of regents and state governors.
It’s everyone frustrated by the ever sharpening contrast between hopes and aspirations and darkening realities of what they might expect for themselves and their children. Meanwhile, the folks at the top wait confidently and expectantly above the fray they have engineered – ever ready to swoop down to strip the remains of combat by way of privatized public assets, no-bid contracts, tax and regulatory havens, commercially owned toll roads, student loan monopolies, rapacious buying up of foreclosed properties with federal incentives, and myriad tax breaks.
President Obama used his State of the Union Address to send the message loud and clear. “Let me put colleges and universities on notice” he warned, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” He thereby set forth a line of reasoning that put him on the same wavelength as Rick Perry. For the reality is the exact opposite. It is because funding has gone down by 2/3 over the past few decades that colleges and universities are obliged to raise tuition – despite flat-lining faculty and staff salaries. This is the essence of intellectual conditioning to the plutocracy’s self-serving dogma and the suborning of public authorities by the plutocracy. Beyond capture, it is assimilation.
Does this sort of perverse pride go before the fall? No sign of that happening yet. Plutocracy in America is more likely to be our destiny. The growing dynastic factor operating within the financial plutocracy militates in that direction. Wealth itself has always been transferred from one generation to another, of course; reduced inheritance taxes along with lower rates at upper income brackets generally accentuate that tendency. With socio-economic mobility in American society slipping, it gains further momentum. Something approaching a caste identity is forming among the financial elites – as personified by Jaime Dimon who is the third generation of Wall Street stockbrokers/financial managers in his family – his father an Executive Director at American Express where the young Dimon joined forces with Sandy Weill. As a revealing coda to this generational tale, Dimon, last year, hired his 81 year old father to work for JP Morgan Chase. His father’s first-year salary was $447,000; slated to rise to $1.6 million – now that he has some work experience under his belt, presumably. A sense of limits is not part of the financial plutocracy’s persona.
All that has been recounted here is on the public record. Facts are facts; the inferred attitudes of the plutocracy are confirmed by an abundance of data – including the players’ own statements. The consequences analyzed are also a matter of public record. The tepid reaction should be no surprise; that is exactly what is to be expected in a plutocracy.
So what is to be done? Rectify the sins of commission by rescinding them and those of omission by restoring responsible, enlightened policies. A model? How about 1974? Inglorious year, but….Richard Nixon was well to the ‘Left’ of Barack Obama – civil liberties included; corporate power, especially that of big finance, was kept in check by effective regulation; and the integrity of American institutions was a paramount concern of most elected officials and the political elite in general.
The Word awaits…but
The script is small
The preacher is blind
The audience is deaf
And the echoes ricochet off bare walls soundlessly
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.