Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where real power comes from

Matt Yglesias wonders why we listen to the rich:
The presumption of the annual World Economic Forum meeting is that leading policymakers and scholars ought to mingle with very, very, very rich businessmen (and, yes, it’s overwhelmingly men) to talk about the leading issues of the day. The idea, in other words, is that CEOs and major investors have unique and important insights on pressing public policy issues. After all, they’re so rich! How could they not be smart?

Outside the business world, we tend to take it for granted that just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t automatically make you a mastermind at other things. Nobody expects Taylor Swift to make important contributions to a panel on sustainable growth in Africa or rethinking global food security. But the Davos panels on such topics always include a rich executive from the business world. Because who better to solve the world’s problems than the people who benefit from the status quo?

Of course, if there were just one somewhat obnoxious conference like Davos, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the Davos mentality—the assumption that managing a for-profit enterprise gives you special insight into social ills—is all around us, from the Aspen Ideas Festival on down. It has also infested more formalized policymaking settings. Rich businesspeople wield disproportionate interest in the political system simply through their ability to make campaign contributions and hire lobbyists. But over and beyond that, they are regularly invited to enter policymaking circles.

In the early months of his administration, President Obama held a summit with bank CEOs to discuss the state of the financial system. He did a big roundtable with tech CEOs in December. Back in 2011, he made a big deal out of creating a council on jobs and competitiveness headed by General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and largely composed of other business titans. And yet a staple of Republican criticism of Obama during his first term was that he didn’t do enough of this kind of thing and his administration lacked firsthand business experience. Finance whiz kid Mitt Romney was supposed to turn things around with his business savvy.

It’s not impossible to be multitalented. Bill Gates was a great innovator and businessman and also has pretty smart ideas about global public health. But the fact of the matter is that he’s an important figure in global public health because he’s both extremely rich and extremely generous, not because he’s the No. 1 most insightful thinker on the subject. To say that some billionaires are insightful on subjects outside their core area of expertise is just to say that billionaires are people too—and for every Gates, you have a dozen business leaders who can’t tell the difference between policy insight and knee-jerk prejudice. They’re up there on the panels, in the meetings with policymakers, spouting off on CNBC, being quoted in newspapers, and writing the occasional op-ed. All because of the unwarranted presumption that being rich and successful makes you insightful.
Either Yglesias is being deliberately obtuse or deliberately naive. The reason politicians and the media listen to and consult with the rich and business leaders has absolutely nothing to do with any presumption of their knowledge, experience, insight or competence. Anyone can see that. The reason the rich have exclusive access to politicians and the power to make policy and allocate resources is because we live in plutocracy. It's as simple as that. A plutocracy, by definition, is rule by those with money. That's what the word means! And that's why people use it all the time - because it's a far, far better and more accurate description of our current political system than democracy.
Plutocracy (from Greek πλοῦτος, ploutos, meaning "wealth", and κράτος, kratos, meaning "power, dominion, rule"), also known as plutonomy or plutarchy, defines a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term is 1652. Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy and has no formal advocates. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.

The wealthy rule the world. Period, full stop. What they decide becomes law. What they oppose does not. It's that simple. What do they want? To increase their wealth, naturally. How can that be done? By making the rest of the world poorer is one way. By stripping away laws limiting their power is another way. Everything the wealthy advocate is designed to increase their fortunes, regardless of the effect on society. You don't need to know any more than that. That, in a nutshell, is why global civilization is failing. As Salon put it:
It is impossible to get elected president without the backing of a cadre of multimillionaires. It is nearly impossible to get elected to the U.S. Senate without a couple in your corner. The multimillionaires and billionaires fund every effective political interest group in the country, from gun rights to gay rights groups. What makes the wealthy persecution fantasy so risible is that our political class is responsive almost solely to the priorities and views of the rich, but the fantasy serves a purpose: It prevents Congress from actually acting to address economic inequity. As long as the rich perceive even ineffectual social opprobrium as an existential threat, politicians will be too terrified to advance any actual redistributionist agenda.
And a commenter to the Slate piece:
The trouble is, we, and our government can't stop listening to the super wealthy. They speak much more loudly than the rest of us through ownership of the media, and ownership of politicians, and all the influence over public policy, laws, and our freedom to consume what they are selling that that buys. It's obvious and easy to say that we shouldn't (shouldn't have to?) listen to some of these besieged billionaires, but we have to in more ways than we should. It is our version of official state corruption, not so different from the systems in Russia and China. It creates cynicism and apathy and is the enemy of real democracy.
Increasingly, the wealth class rules directly rather than indirectly: Half of US Congressional politicians are millionaires (BBC) Democrats were slightly more wealthy than Republicans.

Wealth and democracy are inherently incompatible, and they're taking us back to the Gilded Age, and possibly pre-Enlightenment. More on that tomorrow.

Why Do the Super-Rich Keep Comparing Obama to Hitler? (The Atlantic)

The Brittle Grip, Part 2 (Talking Points Memo)

Plutocrats Feeling Persecuted (NYT)

Why the rich are freaking out (Politico)

Twisted minds of the super-rich: Why insane Nazi analogies have become so common (Salon)

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