Thursday, April 20, 2023

Plutocratic Power

Paul Krugman argues that suspicion of plutocratic power is an American tradition:

People on the right often insist that expressing any concern about highly concentrated wealth is “un-American.” The truth, however, is that worrying about the dangers great wealth poses for democracy is very much part of the American tradition. And our nation basically invented progressive taxation, which was traditionally seen not just as a source of revenue but also as a way to limit excessive wealth.

In fact, if you read what prominent figures said during the Progressive Era, many expressed views that would be hysterically denounced as class warfare today. Theodore Roosevelt warned against “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” Woodrow Wilson declared, “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it.”

What is the root of plutocratic power?

Campaign finance is dominated by a tiny number of extremely rich donors. But there are several other channels of influence.

Until recently I would have said that outright corruption — direct purchase of favors from policymakers — was rare. ProPublica’s revelation that Justice Thomas enjoyed many lavish, undisclosed vacations at Crow’s expense suggests that I may have been insufficiently cynical.

Beyond that, there’s the revolving door: Former politicians and officials who supported the interests of the wealthy find comfortable sinecures at billionaire-supported lobbying firms, think tanks and media organizations. These organizations also help shape what military analysts call the “information space,” defining public discourse in ways that favor the interests of the superrich.

It’s a simplification, but I think fundamentally true, to say that the U.S. right has won many elections, despite an inherently unpopular economic agenda, by appealing to intolerance — racism, homophobia and these days anti-“wokeness.” Yet there’s a risk in that strategy: Plutocrats who imagine that the forces of intolerance are working for them can wake up and discover that it’s the other way around.

That may be what's happening now. But, in the end, the backlash may burn the whole place down.

Image: Financial Times


Cap said...

The plutocrats of the Gilded Age competed with each other in philanthropy, donating large sums to public causes and founding many institutions we now take for granted. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University. He helped fund the American University of Cairo, and the culture and arts centre in New York that bears his name.

Once he'd made his money, Carnegie retired and turned his attention to giving it away. He set up numerous trusts and foundations to direct his money into education, medical research and the arts. He's perhaps best known for funding public libraries around the world. He believed the rich have a duty to give back to society and said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

Vanderbilt also donated large sums to education, medical research and the arts. He funded the building of hospitals, Grand Central Terminal in NYC, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Gilded Age philanthropists played and important positive role in shaping American society, and the trusts and foundations they created continue to do so. I wish I could say the same for the plutocrats of the New Gilded Age. Other than Gates, I can't think of any contemporary plutocrats leaving much of a philanthropic mark. Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg, Ellison, Buffet, Page, Brin, Walton and their their ilk seem determined to die disgraced.

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that it is the Dems who are the party of Wall Street. The problem with the American political system is that two parties (who are not actually that different) have a stranglehold on power. For instance, why don't we let the words of staunch Democrat Andi Owen speak for themselves:

Owen Gray said...

They are a different crew, Cap. The phrase "noblesse oblige" has no meaning to them -- perhaps because it's French.

Owen Gray said...

Thanks for the link, Anon. Please initial your next comment.

Trailblazer said...

Successful philanthropists are usually self seeking/promoting , shy away from paying taxes at the proletariat level only to give back, at a sizeable tax exemption, to the public they withheld their share of taxes !
They would argue that they are better judges of where and how taxes are distributed and spent; better than government.
The problem is that they have succeeded in going passed making a comfortable and honest living to controlling the narrative in their favour!
Whilst they 'may' be more capable of the use of taxable income , better than government , it is not for the benefit of the masses but of self interest.
Self interest is our ruin!!


Trailblazer said...

perhaps we are experiencing the comeuppance of those we despise?

Perhaps in USA/Hollywood talk ; the empire does really strike back?

It's time to call their bluff!!!


Owen Gray said...

The problem is that several years ago we bought the lie that self-interest was in the public interest, TB.

Owen Gray said...

In the end, there's only one way to deal with a bully, TB.

jrkrideau said...

Until recently I would have said that outright corruption — direct purchase of favors from policymakers — was rare.

Some US people are so naive.

Owen Gray said...

That's the problem with everything that happens there, jrk.