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“Plutocrats And Prejudice”: The Base Isn’t Taking Guidance The Way It Used To

Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?

Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.

Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference — both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

As you might guess, I’m on the many-evils side of this debate. Oligarchy is a very real issue, and I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today’s Sanders supporters were in elementary school. But it’s important to understand how America’s oligarchs got so powerful.

For they didn’t get there just by buying influence (which is not to deny that there’s a lot of influence-buying out there). Crucially, the rise of the American hard right was the rise of a coalition, an alliance between an elite seeking low taxes and deregulation and a base of voters motivated by fears of social change and, above all, by hostility toward you-know-who.

Yes, there was a concerted, successful effort by billionaires to push America to the right. That’s not conspiracy theorizing; it’s just history, documented at length in Jane Mayer’s eye-opening new book “Dark Money.” But that effort wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as it has without the political aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, and the resulting flip of Southern white voters to the G.O.P.

Until recently you could argue that whatever the motivations of conservative voters, the oligarchs remained firmly in control. Racial dog whistles, demagogy on abortion and so on would be rolled out during election years, then put back into storage while the Republican Party focused on its real business of enabling shadow banking and cutting top tax rates.

But in this age of Trump, not so much. The 1 percent has no problems with immigration that brings in cheap labor; it doesn’t want a confrontation over Planned Parenthood; but the base isn’t taking guidance the way it used to.

In any case, however, the question for progressives is what all of this says about political strategy.

If the ugliness in American politics is all, or almost all, about the influence of big money, then working-class voters who support the right are victims of false consciousness. And it might — might — be possible for a candidate preaching economic populism to break through this false consciousness, thereby achieving a revolutionary restructuring of the political landscape, by making a sufficiently strong case that he’s on their side. Some activists go further and call on Democrats to stop talking about social issues other than income inequality, although Mr. Sanders hasn’t gone there.

On the other hand, if the divisions in American politics aren’t just about money, if they reflect deep-seated prejudices that progressives simply can’t appease, such visions of radical change are naïve. And I believe that they are.

That doesn’t say that movement toward progressive goals is impossible — America is becoming both more diverse and more tolerant over time. Look, for example, at how quickly opposition to gay marriage has gone from a reliable vote-getter for the right to a Republican liability.

But there’s still a lot of real prejudice out there, and probably enough so that political revolution from the left is off the table. Instead, it’s going to be a hard slog at best.

Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 29, 2016

January 30, 2016 Posted by | Election 2016, Plutocrats, Prejudice | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Privilege, Pathology And Power”: What Happens To A Nation That Gives Ever-Growing Political Power To The Super Rich?

Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.

And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances, and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he could become almost pathologically self-regarding and unconcerned with others.

So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?

Modern America is a society in which a growing share of income and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, and these people have huge political influence — in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, around half the contributions came from fewer than 200 wealthy families. The usual concern about this march toward oligarchy is that the interests and policy preferences of the very rich are quite different from those of the population at large, and that is surely the biggest problem.

But it’s also true that those empowered by money-driven politics include a disproportionate number of spoiled egomaniacs. Which brings me to the current election cycle.

The most obvious illustration of the point I’ve been making is the man now leading the Republican field. Donald Trump would probably have been a blowhard and a bully whatever his social station. But his billions have insulated him from the external checks that limit most people’s ability to act out their narcissistic tendencies; nobody has ever been in a position to tell him, “You’re fired!” And the result is the face you keep seeing on your TV.

But Mr. Trump isn’t the only awesomely self-centered billionaire playing an outsized role in the 2016 campaign.

There have been some interesting news reports lately about Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas gambling magnate. Mr. Adelson has been involved in some fairly complex court proceedings, which revolve around claims of misconduct in his operations in Macau, including links to organized crime and prostitution. Given his business, this may not be all that surprising. What was surprising was his behavior in court, where he refused to answer routine questions and argued with the judge, Elizabeth Gonzales. That, as she rightly pointed out, isn’t something witnesses get to do.

Then Mr. Adelson bought Nevada’s largest newspaper. As the sale was being finalized, reporters at the paper were told to drop everything and start monitoring all activity of three judges, including Ms. Gonzales. And while the paper never published any results from that investigation, an attack on Judge Gonzales, with what looks like a fictitious byline, did appear in a small Connecticut newspaper owned by one of Mr. Adelson’s associates.

O.K., but why do we care? Because Mr. Adelson’s political spending has made him a huge player in Republican politics — so much so that reporters routinely talk about the “Adelson primary,” in which candidates trek to Las Vegas to pay obeisance.

Are there other cases? Yes indeed, even if the egomania doesn’t rise to Adelson levels. I find myself thinking, for example, of the hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, another big power in the G.O.P., who published an investor’s letter declaring that inflation was running rampant — he could tell from the prices of Hamptons real estate and high-end art. Economists got some laughs out of the incident, but think of the self-absorption required to write something like that without realizing how it would sound to non-billionaires.

Or think of the various billionaires who, a few years ago, were declaring with straight faces, and no sign of self-awareness, that President Obama was holding back the economy by suggesting that some businesspeople had misbehaved. You see, he was hurting their feelings.

Just to be clear, the biggest reason to oppose the power of money in politics is the way it lets the wealthy rig the system and distort policy priorities. And the biggest reason billionaires hate Mr. Obama is what he did to their taxes, not their feelings. The fact that some of those buying influence are also horrible people is secondary.

But it’s not trivial. Oligarchy, rule by the few, also tends to become rule by the monstrously self-centered. Narcisstocracy? Jerkigarchy? Anyway, it’s an ugly spectacle, and it’s probably going to get even uglier over the course of the year ahead.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 1, 2016

January 2, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Economic Inequality, Money in Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Breed Apart”: So This Is What “Individual Liberty” Looks Like

I was minding my own business channel surfing when I stumbled upon a disturbing scene carried on (where else?) Fox News. More than 1,500 students from all over the world were gathered in Washington to attend what was billed as the Students for Liberty Conference, whose advertised aim was to “celebrate freedom.”

The part I saw had Fox Business host John Stossel, author of No They Can’t: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed, moderating a panel in which he asked students this bit of political trivia: How often is the word “democracy” used in the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter?

What came next was chilling. When students were given the correct answer – none – they cheered.

Stossel later explained why. These students, like the Founding Fathers, “understood that democracy may bring mob rule – tyranny of a majority. So the Constitution focuses on restricting government – to secure individual liberty.”

Thanks go to Chris Hayes of MSNBC for showing what this so called “individual liberty” sometimes looks like in real life.

Hayes profiled ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. As the head of the largest natural gas producer in the US, Tillerson is a vocal proponent of a controversial process known as hydraulic fracking.

It is so controversial, in fact, that many municipalities have begun passing local ordinances to place a moratorium on the practice until more is known about its long-term consequences. Exxon, for its part, has been just as active suing these cities and towns to have the ordinances overturned.

Then along comes another gas company with plans to construct one of these water towers needed for fracking — but this one near Exxon Rex’s 83-acre, $5 million horse ranch near Bartonville, Texas. Tillerson, of course, welcomes the new gas company to the neighborhood with open arms. Right?

Not on your life. Instead, Tillerson and his super-wealthy neighbors file a lawsuit which states that the fracking tower must be stopped since it might “devalue their properties and adversely impact the rural lifestyle they sought to enjoy.”

Further, as the Wall Street Journal disapprovingly reports, Tillerson and his neighbors filed suit, claiming that what the gas company wanted to do was illegal since it would create “a noise nuisance and traffic hazards” due to the heavy trucks hauling and pumping the massive amounts of water needed to unlock oil and gas from dense rock.

As Hayes succinctly put it: “Rex Tillerson is leading the fracking revolution — just not in his backyard.”

Adds Rich Unger writing in Forbes: “Sometimes, the hypocrisy expressed in real life is so sublimely rich that one could never hope to construct a similar scenario out of pure imagination.”

Being a vocal advocate for fracking is “a key and critical function” of Mr. Tillerson’s day job, says Unger. It is all he can do when he wakes up in the morning to “protect and nurture the process of hydraulic fracturing so that his company can continue to rack in billions via the production and sale of natural gas.”

So committed is Rex to the process of fracking, says Unger, “that he has loudly lashed out at those who criticize and seek to regulate hydraulic fracturing, suggesting that such efforts are a very bad idea, indeed.”

Except when the fracking is in Tillerson’s backyard.

The odium directed at Tillerson practically writes itself. But critics are wrong to call him a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who subscribes to the notion that people are basically equal, who agrees that rules should apply equally to everyone, but who nonetheless insists on special privileges or exemptions for themselves.

Tillerson, and those of his kind throughout history, do not subscribe to such egalitarian — dare we say democratic — ideals as justice or fairness. They really do believe their wealth makes them a breed apart. And they really do think that rules which apply to everyone else do not apply to them, though they rarely admit that in public.

To Tillerson and his caste, double standards are the only ones worth having. Consequently, it is perfectly legitimate, in their view, to make billions of dollars supporting a fracking process they say is a danger to no one — except people who  own multi-million horse ranches in rural Texas.

I wonder if Stossel’s Students for Liberty cheered just as loudly once they learned the Constitution does not use the world oligarchy either?

 

By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, February 27, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Fracking, Oil Industry | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Limits Of Free-Market Capitalism

Until a few years ago, my spiritual devotions were  limited to the free market and the music of Patsy Cline. I’m sorry to say it’s  just me and Patsy now.

Karl Marx may have been wrong where it really mattered—communism, to paraphrase Churchill, is government “of the duds, by the duds,  and for the duds”—but he was spot on about the pitfalls of capitalism,  particularly when it came to the entrenchment of social classes, the fetish of  consumption, the frequency of recession, and the concentration of industry. Yet,  like trained seals, we continue to leap through the flaming rings of a system  that is contemptuous of the public good while rewarding those who feed off  “free” markets and the politicians who rig them. Nearly three years after the  global economy almost collapsed under the weight of a corrupt and inbred  financial order, Washington is still mired between the false choice of the  state or private enterprise as the proper steward of the general welfare.

It should be clear to anyone who has lost a cell phone  signal in our nation’s capital or been denied health coverage because of a  pre-existing ailment that capitalism’s endgame is not freedom of choice and  efficiency, but oligarchy. Many of America’s top industries—agriculture,  airlines, media, medical care, banking, defense, auto production,  telecommunications—are controlled by a handful of corporations who fix prices  like cartels. As Marx predicted, the natural inclination of players in a  market-driven economy is not to compete but to collude.

Reporting in Asia and the Middle East for many years, I  prayed to the same kitchen gods of untrammeled commerce that now bewitch the  Republican Party faithful and the neoliberals who inhabit the Obama White House. In Asia more than a decade ago, I covered the liquidation of state  assets as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, perhaps the  largest-ever transfer of wealth from public to private hands, as if it were a  new religion that would transform economies from the Korean peninsula to the  Indian subcontinent. Laissez-faireism, I wrote, would liberate consumers and  domesticate once overweening state-owned enterprises.

In fact, privatization merely shifted economic control  from corrupt apparatchiks to their allies in business, a transaction lubricated  with kick-backs and sweetheart deals. That’s what happened in the Middle East,  and it became the spore that engendered the Arab uprising.

The corruption of capitalism in America is all the more  appalling for its legality. With the economy still struggling to recover from a  housing crisis fomented largely by Wall Street’s craving for mortgage-backed  securities, prosecution of those responsible has been confined to a single lawsuit filed by the Securities Exchange Commission against a  lone financier. The system is still lousy with loopholes, and the Republican  Party, which demographically as well as ideologically is becoming a gated  community for white, southern males, is calling for more deregulation, not  less.

Which brings us to the central failure of American  capitalism: the excoriation of the state.

So deep is the mythology of the free market that we  ignore the consequences of starving our schools, libraries, public media, and  roads and railways. We expect our teachers to assume the burdens of parenthood  and then blame them for failing education. We lament our dependence on foreign  oil and the aviation cartels, but we refuse to underwrite a passenger-rail  equivalent of the interstate highway system. We disparage the coarse  reductionism of corporate-owned news outlets while neglecting public  broadcasting, an isolated archipelago of smart, responsible journalism.

Our hostility to the public sector—fountainhead of  the Hoover Dam, Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Los Angeles  Coliseum, our national parks, and countless other public utilities and services  in addition to the federal highway system—is inversely proportional to our  reverence for private consumption. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his 1958 book The Affluent Society, “Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses are  praiseworthy and essential in our standard of living. Street cleaners to ensure  clean streets are an unfortunate expense. Partly as a result, our houses are  generally clean and our streets are generally filthy.” Galbraith also noted the  uniquely American conceit of sanctioning debt when households and private  investors hold it but condemning it when  governments do.

Should the feds nationalize banks and appropriate soy  fields? Certainly not. At its essence, there is probably no more efficient way  of establishing the price of a particular good or service than market  economics. Not all transactions are so simple, however, and there are some  services—healthcare, for example, or transportation—that often fare better  more as public goods than as private commodities. In order to save American capitalism,  we must appreciate its limits even as we struggle to harness its power.

By: Stephen Glain, U. S. News and World Report, June 2, 2011

June 3, 2011 Posted by | Businesses, Capitalism, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Financial Institutions, GOP, Government, Health Care, Ideologues, Ideology, Politics, Republicans, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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