Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Eye Of A Needle Just Got Larger

Andrew Trees has an interesting essay in today's Los Angeles Times. He notes the fact that politics today has been turned over to the wealthiest among us because campaigns are too expensive for anyone else. He recalls a phrase common to the earliest campaigns of our nation: "swilling the planters with bumbo." The phrase refers to the candidates' practice of treating voters to rum in order to capture their votes, a very expensive way to campaign.

I was reminded of this phrase when a recent Center for Responsive Politics study of 2009 data found that 261 of the 535 members of Congress were millionaires (this probably understates the actual number because members of Congress aren't required to report their homes as assets). When looking at both houses together, the legislators weighed in with a hefty median income of $911,000. For the Senate alone, median income was an astounding $2.38 million. This is not too shabby when the median household income in America is roughly $50,000.

In other words, politics has increasingly been turned over to the wealthy.

That certainly seems to be the case. Meg Whitman tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to buy her way into the California governor's mansion. Michael Bloomberg (quite successfully) spent even more to retain his position as Mayor of New York City. Both spent millions of their own fortunes in their campaigns. It's pretty hard to compete with that kind of money unless the less wealthy candidate vigorously pursues special interests' donations. The results, Mr. Trees points out, are predictable:

With the modern return of the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo," though, we now find ourselves in a new age of aristocratic despotism. You need only study income distribution over the last quarter of a century to see that the nation's policies have been slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the rich. Between 1979 and 2004, the after-tax income for the top 1% skyrocketed 176%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. How did the bottom fifth do? They squeezed out a measly 6% gain.

And our owners won't have it any other way.



Anonymous Mark said...

Once upon a time at least some of the wealthy felt an obligation to help those less fortunate. The Roosevelts, for example. And, damn! One of them was a Republican!

6:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

True, true. However the Republican party at the time of Teddy Roosevelt was not what it is today! Furthermore we owe Teddy Roosevelt a tremendous debt: National Parks need I say more.

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Figured this out a long time ago. Elective office is now up for sale, just like the Repubs want everything to be, but only the most well-heeled can afford to pay.

This is EXACTLY why (real) campaign finance reform would have been a good idea, and it is EXACTLY why it will never happen.

Despite our proud trumpeting of ourselves as a democracy, we have apparently decided that plutocracy is the way to go...

One reason I tell people that while we claim to be a democratic republic, in actuality, as a socioeconomic entity, we are becoming a quasi-feudal society: an enormously wealthy and powerful elite having it all their way, and lording it over a great mass of wage-serfs...

9:29 AM  
Blogger Batocchio said...

Great title. Yeah, America is increasingly becoming a plutocracy, and the neo-feudalists continue to attack every vestige of the social contract. Ironically, some of them wave the Constitution while attacking all of the Enlightenment values it embodies.

(I've found myself writing a great deal on plutocracy this year, and actually have a post in the works with a Needle-Eye graphic.)

10:46 AM  

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