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Old posts: Government by the rich, for the rich 1/10/11

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy

Published: Saturday, January 08, 2011, 7:13 AM, by Syndicated columns
By Kevin Horrigan (

The American Interest, a bimonthly magazine written by political intellectuals for other political intellectuals, has devoted its entire January-February issue to this question: “Are Plutocrats Drowning Our Republic?” Not being a political intellectual, I assumed the correct answer is yes, of course they are. But apparently the correct answer is far more nuanced.

“The answer to the question ‘Is America a plutocracy?’ might seem either trivial or obvious depending on how one defines the term,” writes Francis Fukuyama, the former neo-conservative political economist and philosopher who is chairman of The American Interest’s board.

He goes on to say that the magazine is concerned with plutocracy not just as rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. “We mean in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others.”

Fine. Then I still say the answer is yes.

If that’s the case, says Fukuyama, then “Why has a significant increase in income inequality in recent decades failed to generate political pressure from the left for redistributional redress, as similar trends did in earlier times?”

Why is it, he asks, that the only populist movement alive today are the tea partiers, and they’re angry not only with Wall Street plutocrats but also with government policies designed to protect them from plutocrats?

These are excellent questions, but it pains me to report that the brilliant minds at The American Interest have no more of a clue than I do about why people haven’t risen up in righteous anger.

Maybe it’s because we are civilized people. We don’t tar and feather people any more in the name of “redistributional redress.” We yell at each other and return control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, which is like sharpening Jack the Ripper’s knife.

Consider that Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who will be the new House majority leader, has said it’s clear that Americans want the GOP to deny funding for the new financial regulatory reform bill.

Right. We’re outraged at the big banks, so we want to make sure they’re not regulated. How do plutocrats get away with that?

Fukuyama cites several possible explanations: the influence of lobbying and political contributions; the pervasive American idea that if people are poor, it’s their own fault; distrust of big government; seduction by consumerism fueled by cheap credit.

And then there is the economics profession, which he says was bought off by Wall Street to legitimize get-incredibly-rich-quick schemes. And many Americans still buy into the discredited supply-side economics of the Reagan years, Fukuyama writes, “including, oddly enough, all too many of those left behind.”

Elsewhere in the magazine, editor Adam Garfinkle, a former State Department speechwriter in the Bush administration, suggests that the tea party still could evolve into an effective anti-plutocracy force, merging with what he calls the “yuppie middle-class ‘soft’ left.”

“The tea party is a phenomenon whose development bears watching, therefore, as a possible harbinger of a broad-based Bull Moose-like third-party movement,” Garfinkle writes. “Maybe the second coming of (William Jennings) Bryan or TR (Theodore Roosevelt) is nigh, this time wearing L.L. Bean and drinking cappuccino. Perhaps what will be seen a century from now as America’s second Gilded Age is coming to an end, just as the first fell before a polyglot pre-New Deal Liberalism.”

I’m not a political intellectual, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Then there’s libertarian economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University in Virginia, the director of the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank that has strong ties to uber-conservative executives of Koch Industries.

Cowen thinks this whole income inequality-plutocracy thing is overrated. Compared with, say, the first Gilded Age, most people have a pretty good quality of life, he says, and don’t resent rich people.

“So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society,” he writes.

Furthermore, he argues, most people understand that top earners in society have worked very hard to get where they are. Also, he says, a lot of Americans are happy being “threshhold earners,” that is, earning just enough income to get by.

Amazingly, Cowen actually gets paid for making arguments like that, but even he admits that at the very tip-top of the income scale, where big bankers and hedge fund managers operate, plutocrats are putting society at risk by taking excessive financial risks.

“Will it again bring our economy to its knees?” he asks. “Probably. Maybe that’s simply the price of modern society. Income inequality will likely continue to rise and we will search in vain for the appropriate political remedies.”

If stuff like this is the best that our brightest thinkers have got, it’s no wonder the plutocrats are winning.



I'm a writer making my way through life and offering observations as I go. Old enough to know better but that doesn't stop me.

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