Posts Tagged ‘Oligarchy’

The anti-democracy movement in America

October 16, 2017

Democracy means rule of the people. But the Gilens-Page study of 1779 legislative initiatives in 1981-2002 showed that chances of success were strongly correlated with the desires of the affluent, but not at all with average citizens.

For example, polls show a majority of Americans want Wall Street banks to be brought under control, according to Martin Gilens, a co-author of the study.  They want a higher minimum wage, better unemployment benefits and more spending on education.  On the other hand, they are less supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than the economic elite.   But the political system follows the economic elite, not them.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in that we have freedom of speech and contested elections, but in terms of outcomes, we are an oligarchy, ruled by the rich.

This is not an accident, a matter of how things happen to play out. It is the result of a deliberate campaign that has been going on for decades.   It is not something that began with Donald Trump and it will not end when he is out of office.

The anti-democratic movement has three elements:
• Use the power of money to dominate political discourse.
• Use the power of money to dominate politics and government
• Restrict the right to vote and other democratic rights..

I recently read a good book, DARING DEMOCRACY by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and a young friend, Adam Eichen, that ties all this together.

I do have a few reservations about it, particularly the fact that they let Democrats off too nightly, which I’ll get to at the end.  But I’ll first summarize their main contentions.

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The famous Powell Memo—written in1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called on U.S. business to mobilize to counteract anti-business sentiment in the news media and the educational system.

Right-wing billionaires responded by funding the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

They of course have a perfect right to present their point of view.  The problem was that these organizations are dedicated to political warfare, and get to be treated as equivalent to groups who, whatever their unconscious biases, are serious scholars and researchers..

When I was a newspaper reporter, and had to write about something I didn’t know much about, the first thing I’d do was phone experts on various sides of the issue.

When I phoned the Brookings Institution, the person I’d reach would give me a carefully worded opinion, quoting sources and taking into account arguments on both sides.

When I phoned the Heritage Foundation, I’d talk to some young guy who had talking points down pat, but couldn’t back them up. Yet by the rules of my game, I had to treat them as equal authorities.

The Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, consisted of sincere libertarians, who sometimes came down on the side of peace and civil liberties. But when their views closed with corporate interests, the Koch brothers purged the staff.

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Money and oligarchy in U.S. elections

October 7, 2016

We Americans take it for granted that we are a democracy.  Some of us think we have a right and responsibility to spread out democracy to other countries.

Yet a couple of social scientists have determined that the United States is governed as if it were an oligarchy.

reinsdemocracyMartin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern looked at 1,779 issues on which Americans were polled from 1981 through 2002, and then how Congress acted on these issues.

They found that Congress followed the wishes of the top 10 percent of income earners most of the time, and the bottom 90 percent hardly ever.

That is the classic profile of government by oligarchy—government by  a small group, usually of rich people.

The survey found that Americans who band together in interest groups, such as the American Association of Retired People or National Rifle Association, have more influence than numerous, but separate, individuals, but business groups have more influence than other groups.

How can this be?  A rich person’s vote does not count any more than anybody else’s vote.

But rich people, especially corporate executives, have means of influencing policy that the rest of us lack.  They are:
▪    Campaign contributions to influence elections.
▪    Second-career jobs for politicians and government employees
▪    Propaganda to influence opinion, both among the public and the elite.

In this post, I’ll deal with the first.

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Backers of Hillary Clinton don’t know her record

March 10, 2016

Cartoonist Ted Rall writes in his syndicated column that Democrats who support Hillary Clinton don’t know her record.

Bill and Hill have raked in $153 million in speaking fees since 2001. Which is more than the GDP of three countries.  But how many Democratic primary voters know that she is one of the most personally corrupt leaders ever, or that the Clintons have probably sold more political access to corporations than all other American politicians in history combined?

Based on tracking polls and her current delegate lead, roughly the same number of Democrats is aware of Hillary’s record as Republicans who believe in science. 

Hillary's Campaign in Crisis AgainGranted, the fix is in for Hillary. The DNC scheduled debates at times when no one would get to see Bernie.  The wildly antidemocratic super-delegate system designed to prevent progressives from getting nominated has been working perfectly.  Super Tuesday, another scheme to conservatize races by front-loading southern states, went to her.  And corporate media doesn’t cover him.

Given the obstacles, he’s kicking ass.  Nevertheless, watching Hillary’s tortured defense of her indefensible refusal to cough up her Wall Street transcripts the other night, I was struck by how easily a voter who comes to Clinton v. Sanders cold, ignorant of the two candidates’ records, could conclude that she’s more qualified for the presidency.

She’s great — if you don’t know your stuff.  Judging from the results so far, many Democratic voters are voting based on vague impressions rather than the hard facts — which makes them no smarter than the conservative evangelists backing the vulgar, thrice-married, breast-ogling Trump.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Spread an Idea.

The top 0.01 percent and campaign spending

May 4, 2015
Share of campaign contributions by top 0.01% income bracket

Share of campaign contributions by the top 0.01% income bracket

I and others have written about how the problem in the USA is not in the concentration of wealth and income in the top 10 percent or top 1 percent, but in the top 0.01 percent—the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Recently I came across a chart that shows how this tiny group of people, roughly 25,000 out of 150 million American voters, provide 40 percent of the financing of American elections.

I’d be very interested to see any research on the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent—the richest 25 or so Americans.

campaign financeYou can see their influence in the recent appearances of Republican presidential candidates before Charles and David Koch or Sheldon Adelson, like actors auditioning for a part.

This is not the only way that the ultra-rich influence government.  They also provide employment and income for politicians and administration officials after they leave office.  It is not surprising that the political system responds to the wishes of Americans in upper income brackets, but not to average Americans.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, who is running for the Democratic nomination, is trying to break free of this system.   He raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, from about 35,000 donors giving an average of $43.54 each.  That’s more than any of the announced Republican candidates have raised so far.

This is a good start.   But it’s an uphill battle.

Hillary Clinton has announced she intends to raise a campaign war chest of from $1 billion to $2.5 billion.  To make up that amount from small donations, 10 million American voters would have to contribute $100 to $250 each, which would be difficult but not un-doable.

Fortunately it’s not necessary to match billionaires dollar-for-dollar, but only to raise enough money to get the populist message out.

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The passing scene: Links & comments 7/11/14

July 11, 2014

Oligarchy Blues: Without fair elections and a viable legislative process at the federal and state levels, the republic no longer exists by Michael Ventura for the Austin (Texas) Chronicle.

This writer sums up what’s wrong with the USA very briefly and very clearly.  I highly recommend reading this.  Like Ventura, I don’t have a complete answer for what to do, but, like him, I think it is necessary to break free of the assumption that the alternatives that the political system offers are the only possibilities that exist.

In Fever Dreams Begin Irresponsibilities, Texas Edition by Hendrik Hertzberg for The New Yorker.

The Texas Republican Party is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Enemies like these make Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton look good.

Fighting for Oil by Michael Klare for TomDispatch.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

It’s no coincidence that the world’s various “trouble spots” torn by “age-old conflicts” happen to be rich in oil and natural gas.

The legacy children of the Honduran coup by Dan Beeton for Aljazerra America.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

It’s also no coincidence that the unauthorized child migrants sneaking into the USA come from countries such as Honduras, with its U.S.-backed military dictatorship, and not from democratic countries such as Nicaragua.

The French Do Buy Books – Real Books by Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times.  [Hat tip to Laura Cushman]

France and some of the other European governments forbid on-line booksellers to offer big discounts on book prices.  As a result, French people pay more for books, but independent bookstores are much more plentiful.

The fall of a superpower by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Brazilians assumed that being Brazilian made them inherently superior in World Cup football  and were shocked at their team’s defeat by Germans.   But superiority in anything is never inherent.   Excellence takes continual hard work and hard thinking, and, even then, there’s no guarantee that a smart, determined competitor won’t out-do you.

How I would change things if I could

June 27, 2013

Here are ways to push back against the USA’s slippery slide into autocracy and oligarchy.

Rescind the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution.

Repeal the USA Patriot Act.

Repeal the Espionage Act.

Pass a Constitutional amendment creating an affirmative right to vote for all mentally-competent adults.

Have nonpartisan commissions draw legislative and congressional districts.

Pass a Constitutional amendment stating that only individual human beings (not corporations) have the rights of persons.

Prosecute financial fraud.

Restore the Glass-Steagall Act.

Break up the “too big to fail” banks.

Enact the Employee Free Choice Act aka Card Check.

Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.

Raise the mimium wage and index it to inflation.

End the “war on drugs”.

Allow re-financing of student loans by the Federal Reserve at the same rates it gives to big banks.

Allow Bankruptcy Courts to modify mortgage loans of underwater homeowners to fair market value.

Disapprove the Keystone XL Pipeline border crossing.

Break off negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

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Each proposal is also a link that will provide more information.

What have I overlooked?  What have I got wrong?

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Tears for the ultra-rich (not really)

June 30, 2011

A Plutonomy world – we just live in it

June 30, 2011

PLUTONOMY is a word coined five or so years ago by Ajay Kapur, then a global strategist at Citigroup, to describe the United States economy.  It is a kinder, gentler synonym for plutocracy or oligarchy.  It means an economic system based on serving the needs and desires of the ultra-rich.

In the United States, 1 percent of the population has wealth equivalent to the bottom 90 percent.  And, according to Kapur, their share of the national wealth is likely to continue to increase.

Ajay Kapur

One implication of this fact is that it makes more sense for business to make products for the ultra-rich than for the mass public. He recommended a Plutonomy investment portfolio, in stocks of Tiffany’s, Sotheby’s, Burberry, the Four Seasons and other companies that cater to the wealthy elite.

Another is that many of the problems that affect the general public – for example, rising gasoline and food prices – do not affect the Plutonomy.  That means little is likely to be done about these problems.

After Michael Moore cited Kapur in his documentary movie, “Capitalism: a Love Story,” his writings were taken down from the Internet.  But earlier this year Kapur, who now is head of Asian equity strategy for Deutsche Bank, resurfaced with an interview by Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal.

Kapur said the Plutonomy is alive and well, and is so well entrenched it is unlikely to go away anytime soon.  In fact, he now sees the whole world, not just the United States, as a Plutonomy.

The foundation of Plutonomy is deregulation and low taxes, Kapur said, and the Plutonomy is so politically powerful that it can resist populist pressures for the indefinite future.

Unlike me, he has no problem with this.  He sees the desire to join the Plutonomy as the driving force of progress.  And as for an economy in which most people work to serve the desires and interests of the rich, he has made a good career doing just that.

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The rising tide lifts the high net worth folks

June 29, 2011

“High net worth individuals” – people with $1 million or more in ready cash to spend – are leaving behind the vast majority of people worldwide, who are treading water or sinking economically, according to a report by Capgemini, a French consulting firm, and Merrill Lynch.

High net worth individuals are more numerous and individually wealthy than before the recession.  And within this wealthy group, there is an ultra-rich group with $30 million each available to spend.  They are 1 percent of high net worth individuals, but they hold more than a third of the total wealth of people in this category.

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An obituary for the age of mass affluence

June 29, 2011

Advertising Age reported that the only American income group that increased its spending last year were those earning more than $100,000 a year.  Everybody else is economizing and cutting back.  Consumer demand, according to Advertising Age, is being driven by “a small plutocracy of wealthy elites.”

A recent research report by a firm called Digitas, self-described as “the leading global integrated brand agency,” writes off two-thirds of the people even within the $100,000-plus category.  Unless you are taking in $200,000 or more by age 35, you’re not worth bothering about, Digitas says.  And if you aren’t taking in $100,000 or more a year in your 20s, you have little chance of reaching the $200,000 level.

Digitas recommends that business should concentrate on selling only to the Affluent, Wealthy and Rich, and to the Emerging Affluent, since they have a chance of becoming Affluent, Wealthy or Rich.  The rest don’t count.

During most of the 20th century, it was a proud boast of the United States that the vast majority of the population had access to the same kinds of goods and services as the very rich.  They all could afford similar, though not identical, goods and services – automobiles, refrigerators, TVs, annual vacations at the seashore or in the mountains.  You could not tell the difference between a wealthy person and a middle-class or working-class person by looking at them.

This is still true to an extent.  But unless something changes, we’re moving toward an economy more like that of France in the age of Louis the Fourteenth, in which the vast majority of the population labored at low wages to serve the desires of a wealthy minority.

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