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“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 Twisted Moral Value System”: In Lousiana Governor Loss, David Vitter Shows Just How Far A Republican Must Sink To Be Rejected In A Red State

As most Washington Monthly readers know by now, Democrat John Bel Edwards defeated disgraced Louisiana Senator David Vitter in his bid for governor to replace failed presidential candidate Bobby Jindal. Vitter was famously the center of several scandals, especially including a prostitution debacle in which he reportedly engaged in not-so-vanilla interests.

Vitter had been trailing heavily in the polls for quite some time, and pulled out all the usual Republican dogwhistle tricks, from scaremongering over Syrian refugees to his own version of the racist Willie Horton strategy, claiming that his opponent would assist President Obama in releasing “thugs” from jail.

None of it worked. Jon Bel Edwards isn’t the sort of Democrat progressives will croon over anytime soon: he is anti-abortion, pro-gun and opposed President Obama on refugees. But he’s the first Democrat to win major elected office in the South since 2009, and his victory will mean that a quarter of a million people will get healthcare who would almost certainly have been denied it under a Vitter administration. That’s definitely a good thing.

But it would be extremely premature to declare that this result bodes well for a Democratic resurgence in the South. Democrats fared far more poorly downballot from the governor’s race, proving that the John Bel Edwards’ victory owed more to Louisiana voters’ disgust with David Vitter than to sympathy for his own agenda. The example of Matt Bevin’s recent election in Kentucky shows that at least the voters who turn out in off-year cycles in the South are more than willing to deny hundreds of thousands of people their right to healthcare and other benefits. It was David Vitter’s personal troubles that hurt him badly enough to hand a Democrat an overwhelming victory.

And that itself is yet another indictment of Republican voters. David Vitter’s prostitution scandal is weird, creepy and untoward for a U.S. Senator. But a legislator’s fidelity and sexual proclivities have very little bearing on their job as a representative of the people, which is to protect the Constitution and do a responsible job providing the greatest good for the greatest number of constituents. Scapegoating refugees and denying medical care to hundreds of thousands are objectively both far greater moral crimes against common decency than a thousand trysts with sex workers. That the latter is illegal and the former is legal is a testament to the twisted moral value system perverted by puritan Calvinist ethics. Vitter should have been ousted for his overtly destructive public morality, not his far less consequential private failures.

But that’s not how Republicans roll. In their world, causing the needless deaths of thousands is fair game. Having sex with the wrong person, on the other hand, is unforgivable.

There may be a large number of people in this world who share that value system. But that doesn’t mean that those with a well-adjusted moral compass must respect it or grant it validity.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthy, November 22, 2015

November 23, 2015 Posted by | David Vitter, John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Governors Race | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Brush-Back Pitch”: Senate Democrats Have Had All They Can Take From David Vitter And His Obamacare Fixation

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) this week tied up his chamber, blocking efforts to work on a bipartisan energy efficiency bill. He said he’d reconsider his obstructionist antics if the Senate voted on his measure to end the “Washington exemption from ObamaCare.”

As a substantive matter, Vitter is either deeply confused or playing a silly game in the hopes the public is deeply confused. There is no congressional “exemption” from the Affordable Care Act, as I imagine most senators realize. But Vitter engaged in his little stunt anyway, to his colleagues’ annoyance.

It appears that some of those colleagues are growing tired of the Louisiana Republican’s antics, and have a brush-back pitch in mind.

Senate Democrats have had all they can take from David Vitter and his fixation on Obamacare — and they’re dredging up his past prostitution scandal to hit back.

Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has infuriated Democrats this week by commandeering the Senate floor, demanding a vote on his amendment repealing federal contributions to help pay for lawmakers’ health care coverage.

But Democratic senators are preparing a legislative response targeting a sordid Vitter episode. If Vitter continues to insist on a vote on his proposal, Democrats could counter with one of their own: Lawmakers will be denied those government contributions if there is “probable cause” they solicited prostitutes.

Ouch.

For those who may have forgotten, Vitter ran for the Senate on a “family values” platform, before getting caught with prostitutes. Making matters slightly worse, in at least one instance, the far-right Republican was found to have arranged a liaison with prostitutes from the congressional floor.

Vitter then ran for re-election anyway and won with relative ease.

By and large, Democrats have made very little effort to humiliate their conservative colleague over this, but it’s obvious they haven’t forgotten about it, either. The issue has apparently become something of a trump card Dems are prepared to play if nothing else works.

I imagine Vitter will see this as a cheap shot. Indeed, he’s already complaining.

“Harry Reid is acting like an old-time Vegas mafia thug, and a desperate one at that,” Vitter said in a statement to POLITICO, referring to the Senate majority leader. “This just shows how far Washington insiders will go to protect their special Obamacare exemption.”

First, let’s just be absolutely clear about the policy — there’s no such thing as an Obamacare exemption for Congress. It’s a made-up talking point that Republicans are fond of, which has no basis in fact. Whether or not Vitter realizes how wrong he is doesn’t matter; he keeps saying something that isn’t accurate.

Second, when you’re a married, family-values conservative who gets caught with prostitutes, you probably shouldn’t expect there to be no consequences for your actions.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Forgiveness, Unless You’re A Democrat”: Anthony Weiner Is No Bill Clinton Or David Vitter

Republicans, the party of forgiveness … unless you’re a Democrat.

Anthony Weiner ain’t no Bill Clinton, although many Republicans consider them one and the same, which is why many on the right are perplexed about Weiner’s popularity rapidly dropping in the polls this week in his bid to become mayor of New York. Democrats have pulled their support from him and, so it would seem, have the Clintons.

Weiner’s problem isn’t that Democrats can’t be forgiving. Weiner’s problem is that he continued his inappropriate behavior after stepping down from Congress. The Weiners like to compare themselves to the Clintons, but the situations are not the same, though many of my Republican friends love the comparison. Let me break it down as to why the situations are quite different:

Weiner isn’t, nor ever will be, president. Weiner was a congressman, and not a popular one. Bill Clinton was a popular president, the economy was good and we were at peace. In other words, Bill Clinton was doing his job, despite his behavior, and a good job at that. Weiner on the other hand, it could be argued was distracted by his…umm…hobby.

Hilary wasn’t pregnant. As a woman, I think it was even more reprehensible to many of us ladies that Anthony Weiner was having cybersex, if you will, while his wife was pregnant with his child.

Weiner’s marriage was new. Hilary and Bill have been together a lifetime. Hilary had already suffered through Bill’s indiscretions. She had forgiven him and decided long ago to stand by her man. Although I am sure this was quite painful for her, she was used to forgiving him, and I am sure his behavior was not shocking to her as it was a pattern of behavior.

The “affair” of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was behind closed doors, albeit those doors were that of the oval office. They were not out for the public to see. On the other hand, Weiner’s penchant for taking photos of his own body parts is, well….a bit perverted. And putting it out there, online for all the world to see, makes it public and a public embarrassment for his wife as well.

I also find it odd that Republicans couldn’t wrap their heads around Democrats forgiving Bill Clinton, and for a time, Anthony Weiner. Isn’t David Vitter still in his political seat after soliciting a prostitute? Not only engaging in adultery, but breaking the law? And how about Mark Sanford? A guy who lied not only to his wife and kids, but to his state when he fled to South America to see his mistress?

So when Anthony Weiner stepped down and, at first, New Yorkers forgave him and gave him a chance, why were Republicans so harsh to judge when their own “sinners” had been forgiven? And what about Eliot Spitzer, who did the same thing as David Vitter, but had the decency to step down, get help, work on his marriage and come back, perhaps soon to be a winner again?

It’s obvious. You can hire prostitutes, play footsies with guys under a bathroom stall, run off from your post, commit adultery and use tax dollars to fly to South America to visit your mistress, and it will be forgiven … unless, you’re a Democrat.

 

By: Leslie Marshall, U. S. News and World Report, July 31, 2013

August 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Not That Anyone Really Cares”: Whatever Happened To Little Bobby Jindal?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is renowned for his policy wonkery and strict Catholicism, not a cutting sense of humor. So when he took the stage a few months ago at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner, one jab stood out in particular. “The Menendez scandal is disturbing,” Jindal said, referring to reports (later proved untrue) that Senator Robert Menendez had paid for sex in the Dominican Republic. “Soliciting prostitution is completely unacceptable. We would never put up with that in Louisiana.”

The butt of the joke was obvious to everyone in the room. Six years earlier, Louisiana’s junior senator, David Vitter, confessed to “a very serious sin” when his name appeared in the call records of a large D.C. prostitution ring. His political career survived, but not everyone has been as forgiving as Louisiana voters. Jindal’s joke acknowledged what has become an open secret in Louisiana Republican circles: He and Vitter loathe each other.

“You have two teams, two tribes,” one longtime Louisiana political consultant explained. “If you’re not on team Jindal, you want to be on team Vitter.”

Neither Jindal nor Vitter’s offices would discuss their relationship on the record, and few bayou politicos wanted to attach their names to details of the tension between the two most powerful Republicans in their state. But Baton Rouge insiders use a few key euphemisms to characterize the relationship. Sometimes they say that the two men “won’t have a beer together”; other times, that they’re fighting a “cold war.” Occasionally they slip versions of both into the same quote: “It’s kind of a cold war between Vitter and Jindal. They respect each other, but they aren’t having any beers together, I’ll tell you that much,” a Vitter ally who worked on one of his early campaigns told me.

What makes their rivalry particularly noteworthy is that Vitter—who has been the butt of many more and much better jokes than Jindal’s—may now be more popular and influential in the Louisiana Republican Party. This doesn’t just testify to Vitter’s underrated political skills; it also pulls back the curtain on Jindal’s overrated ones. While Jindal was traveling the country, giving speeches on fixing the Republican Party and stoking presidential and vice presidential speculation, Vitter, who once seemed so isolated and politically vulnerable, was quietly and carefully courting influence in the state GOP.

Now, it’s Jindal who is isolated and vulnerable. His approval rating has plummeted after voters revolted against his handling of the state’s budget crisis. Other Republicans in Louisiana describe a governor so cut off from his party that he and his team operate “like a cult.”

Making matters worse, Jindal is term-limited as governor in 2015—and Vitter could be the candidate to replace him. If Jindal’s off-putting style has driven Louisiana Republicans into the arms of a man more famous for his personal peccadilloes than his legislative record, then just imagine what he’ll do for Marco Rubio or Chris Christie as a presidential candidate in 2016.

Most Louisiana politicos date the start of Jindal and Vitter’s contretemps to July 16, 2007, when Vitter called a press conference to fess up to his role in the D.C. madam scandal. It was the same afternoon that Jindal, then a member of Congress, kicked off his second bid for governor.

“I got the sense that every reporter in town was covering Vitter and not Jindal,” says Robert Mann, who worked as communications director for Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, Jindal’s predecessor. While the rest of the Louisiana congressional delegation rushed to Vitter’s defense, Jindal—who represented Vitter’s old district—waited a day longer and said only: “While we are disappointed by Senator Vitter’s actions, [my wife] Supriya and I continue to keep David and his family in our prayers. This is a matter for the senator to address, and it is our hope that this is not used by others for their own political gain.”

Jindal was elected to the governor’s mansion later that year, while the national press excoriated Vitter. But Vitter had already begun laying the groundwork for his ascendance in his home state. In his days as a state legislator, he had successfully pushed for term limits for legislators, forcing many of the lawmakers he had served alongside to give up their seats in 2007. Vitter began recruiting conservative candidates to replace them and helped fund campaigns through the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM), a PAC he had co-founded a couple years earlier. He also personally reached out to Democrats in conservative districts, encouraging them to get ahead of the state’s rightward turn.

The Louisiana legislature didn’t go red in 2007, but, thanks to a successful election cycle and a few high-profile Democratic defections, the House flipped in 2010. A year later, the state Senate followed suit. It was the first time Republicans controlled the legislature since Reconstruction. Scott Hobbs, a Louisiana-based political consultant, estimated that Vitter helped “at least sixty to seventy percent [of Republicans in the legislature] in some way” between 2007 and 2011. Now Baton Rouge is filled with Vitter-friendly pols, sometimes referred to as the “fiscal hawks.” They’ve made Jindal’s life a lot harder, attacking him for using accounting gimmicks to balance the state budget. Vitter has gotten in on the action too, castigating the governor for “kicking the can down the road—the sort of bad spending policy I’m constantly fighting in Washington.”

Vitter, in fact, has frequently questioned Jindal’s judgment. He vocally criticized Jindal’s handling of a high-profile fight between landowners and the oil and gas industry as “very counterproductive.” When Jindal backed a $1.2 billion teaching hospital in New Orleans, Vitter wrote to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development to ask that they reject the state’s application for federal loan insurance and joined forces with the state treasurer and House speaker to come up with their own, cheaper proposal. “That involvement and willingness to address policy issues kind of allowed his allies to rally around knowing there was another power center other than governor who would be supportive,” says one conservative activist involved with the state party.

Many observers of the state’s political scene believe that Vitter’s motivation, however principled, is also at least somewhat personal. In 2010, when Vitter was up for reelection against Democratic Representative Charlie Melancon, Jindal declined to endorse him—though he had traveled out of state to support other candidates. The following year, when Jindal was up for reelection, Vitter publicly endorsed him, but not without a note of passive aggression: Vitter said Louisiana needed a conservative legislature “[t]o help Bobby become as engaged and bold as possible in his second term.” Vitter’s official Twitter account then tweeted an article to his followers: “Gov. Bobby Jindal gets endorsement from senator he refused to endorse last year.”

Flack from Vitter and his allies, drastic cuts to schools and hospitals, and the impression that he cares more about his own political future than the state’s have cost Jindal dearly with Louisiana voters. Slightly over a year after he was reelected with two-thirds of the vote, his approval rating now sits at 38 percent. His stature with lawmakers is hardly better. In May, when The Lens, an investigative reporting outlet based in New Orleans, surveyed lawmakers in the capital about their relationships with the governor, they discovered that “no one in the Capitol can identify any friendships Jindal has developed among lawmakers.”

“He’s a victim of his own staff,” one conservative activist told me. “His own staff has overprotected him and created this Praetorian guard around him, and therefore he has not been able to engage enough, particularly with legislators and other politicians, and that I think has limited his effectiveness.”

“It’s really, really bad,” said another Louisiana Republican familiar with the relationship. “So essentially Vitter has stepped up to fill that void. Because everyone hates Bobby, David hates Bobby, and presto: The enemy of my enemy is a friend.”

Meanwhile, Vitter hasn’t announced his next move, but recent polls have him neck to neck with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to take Jindal’s job in 2015. That doesn’t mean he’ll waltz into the governor’s mansion. He still hasn’t faced serious criticism over the prostitution scandal, and some Republicans expect it’d be an issue in his run for governor. “It’s not that people haven’t forgiven Vitter. They have,” the Louisiana Republican told me. “But just because you’re there doesn’t mean people need to vote for you.”

Even if he doesn’t make his way to the governor’s mansion, he’s in line to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee if Republicans retake the Senate next year—a hugely important committee assignment for Louisiana lawmakers. “No other politician has momentum like he has right now,” said Republican State Representative Lance Harris. “He caught lightning in a bottle.”

Jindal’s future is less clear. “We can all see he’s running for president,” said Mann. “But there’s also the sense that no one thinks that he’s got a chance. Everybody thinks that it’s a fool’s errand. So what does he do once he flames out?” I put that question to my sources, and a few of them mentioned a kind of presidency Jindal might be better suited for, one that would require less strenuous politicking: a think tank presidency.

 

By: Marin Cogan, The New Republic, July 8, 2013

July 9, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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