Friday Follow-Up: Oligarchy Links And A Comment

Well, I counted 15 of us.  I thought the topic would scare people away.  Good discussion, too, but a little one-sided.  Either that, or we are closer to an oligarchy than I thought.  Thanks to Jim W. for challenging us on whether we were overstating the extent to which plutocrats control our politics. 

Here are some follow-up links, and a bit of a rebuttal to Jim, which I should have made last night.  Or, maybe I did.  Who listens?   



Jim questioned whether it makes sense to call the U.S. an oligarchy when every effort to cut middle class entitlements or meat ax middle class interests has crashed and burned (Social Security privatization, slashing Medicare, etc.). 

Fair enough.  But, I wonder if the point isn’t so much that the rich always get everything they want, but that they never get what they don’t want.  Letting the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of filers reset to its 1999 level.   Keeping the estate tax exemption at $5 million rather than raising it to (I think) $7 million.  Adding a public option insurance plan to health care reform.  Major new regulations with teeth on Wall Street or a greenhouse gas cap and trade.  In all of these recent cases and more, the boundary of what is acceptable public policy seems never to extend to the point where the top 1% or so of the public and the corporate donor base that both parties depend on would have to give up much of anything for the public good.  I know the electorate doesn’t support all of these things, for example cap and trade.  But, even when they do, the hurdle of elite opposition seems to be insurmountable. 

Plus, even if Jim is right and Peter is wrong that middle class entitlements remain exempt from predation, keeping taxes and regulation on the wealthy low is forcing major cuts in social services that another group of americans need to get by: The poor and working class.  In California alone, they have or are going to gut Medi-Cal, In-Home Supportive Services, community college budgets, and on and on.  Closing the budget gap with tax revenues may not always be the best option, especially in a recession.  But, regardless, it’s simply off the table in CA and almost every other of the 50 states

No, I suppose this isn’t oligarchy.  In a way, it’s not even close.  But, it may have a snowball effect over time, as protected wealth begets more political power begets more wealth.  Will there come a point at which we still call it pluralism when the interests of the bottom one-third of earners — and maybe one day the middle one-third — only get met when they don’t conflict with the interests of the top 1%?


6 responses

  1. That Atlantic piece was hilarious. The best part was the attitudes.

    I thought I remembered reading somewhere a statistic that gave me a bit more hope: it was about how few billionaires transmit their wealth via their family. Sure there are the Paris Hiltons of the world and people tended to stay within the same general income, but overall it seemed like at the very top there was a lot of movement. Can’t find it at the moment though.

  2. It depends which stratum one is talking about. I do believe it’s true that many of today’s superclass are self-made. The Atlantic article says this, but also makes another point: That this has eroded the group’s sense of noblesse oblige. He says that’s why the Wall Street masters of the universe are whining about how Obama doesn’t respect them, even though he saved them and asked little in return. They are meritocrats, at least in their own minds, so they are baffled by the public’s anger at them.

    Once you get out of the richest of the rich, though, the United States has less social mobility than most other OECD countries. I think scholars are not sure why this is. Maybe it’s the growing unaffordabilitty of college, decreasing returns to education for non-4-year degree college types, etc.

  3. This is perfect then:

  4. Has anyone explored what seems to me the fundamental psychology behind all this, which is: I can be a billionaire too!
    For many, perhaps the most, ability of some to become billionaires–of whom there are
    only about 175 after all, in this country–is more important than the goal of
    having basic necessities for everyone. Presumably, that feeling of “maybe I can do it too” is what’s behind this.

  5. People should read about the Rockefeller family, for example. (Particularly the cousins). The inheritance of such great wealth is probably more of a burden and a curse, than a blessing.

    1. From Fiddler On The Roof:

      A young socialist: “Money is the world’s greatest curse!”

      Tevye: “Then, may the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.”

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