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Michael Brenner Headshot

Plutocracy's Toll on America

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Plutocracy in the current American style is having pernicious effects that go beyond the dominant influence of the rich on the nation's economy and government. It is setting precedents and modeling the unaccountability and irresponsibility that is pervading executive power throughout the society. Two successive presidential administrations and two decades of rogue behavior by corporate elites have set norms now evident in institutions as diverse as universities and think tanks, the military and professional associations -- even private clubs. The cumulative result is a widespread degrading of standards in the uses and abuses of power.

Plutocracy also raises social tensions in society. Logically, the main line of tension should be between the plutocrats and the rest -- or, at least, between them and all those with modest means. But that is not the case in the United States. While it is true that there were bitter words about the Wall Street moguls and their bailouts during the first year or so after the financial collapse, it never became the main line of political division. Today, outrage has abated and politics is all about austerity and debts rather than the distribution of wealth and the power that goes along with it. The deep-seated sense of anxiety and grievance that pervades the populace manifests itself in outbreaks of hostile competition among groups who are in fact themselves all victims of the plutocrats' success in grabbing for themselves the lion's share of the country's wealth -- thereby leaving the rest of us to fight for the leftovers.

So, it is private sector employees pitted against government employees because the latter have (some) health insurance, some pension and some security relative to the former who have been shorn of all three. It's parents worried about their kids' education against teachers. Both against cash strapped local authorities. Municipalities vs. states. It's the small businessman against unions and health insurance requirements. It's doctors against patients against administrators. It's university administrators against faculty and against students, faculty against students in competing for a much reduced appropriations. It's all of those against boards of regents and state governors.

It's everyone frustrated by the ever sharpening contrast between hopes and aspirations and darkening realities of what they might expect for themselves and their children. Meanwhile, the folks at the top wait confidently and expectantly above the fray they have engineered -- ever ready to swoop down to strip the remains of combat by way of privatized public assets, no-bid contracts, tax and regulatory havens, commercially owned toll roads, student loan monopolies, rapacious buying up of foreclosed properties with federal incentives, and myriad tax breaks.

President Obama used his State of the Union Address to send the message loud and clear. "Let me put colleges and universities on notice," he warned, "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." He thereby set forth a line of reasoning that put him on the same wavelength as Rick Perry. For the reality is the exact opposite. It is because public funding has gone down by two-thirds over the past few decades that colleges and universities are obliged to raise tuition -- despite flat-lining faculty and staff salaries. This is the essence of intellectual conditioning to the plutocracy's self-serving dogma and the suborning of public authorities by the plutocracy. Beyond capture, it is assimilation.

Does this sort of perverse pride go before the fall? No sign of that happening yet. Plutocracy in America is more likely to be our destiny. The growing dynastic factor operating within the financial plutocracy militates in that direction. Wealth itself has always been transferred from one generation to another, of course; reduced inheritance taxes along with lower rates at upper income brackets generally accentuate that tendency. With socioeconomic mobility in American society slipping, it gains further momentum. Something approaching a caste identity is forming among the financial elites, as personified by Jamie Dimon, who is the third generation of Wall Street stockbrokers/financial managers in his family -- his father an executive director at American Express where the young Dimon joined forces with Sandy Weill. As a revealing coda to this generational tale, Dimon in 2009 hired his father to work for JPMorgan Chase. His father's 2011 salary was $447,000, rising to $1.6 million in 2012 -- now that the apprentice has some work experience under his belt, presumably. A sense of limits is not part of the financial plutocracy's persona. A sense of limits is not part of the financial plutocracy's persona.

All that has been recounted here is on the public record. Facts are facts; the inferred attitudes of the plutocracy are confirmed by an abundance of data -- including the players' own statements. The consequences analyzed are also a matter of public record. The tepid reaction should be no surprise; that is exactly what is to be expected in a plutocracy.

So what is to be done? Rectify the sins of commission by rescinding them and those of omission by restoring responsible, enlightened policies. A model? How about 1974? Inglorious year, but... Richard Nixon was well to the 'Left' of Barack Obama -- civil liberties included, if not civil rights; corporate power, especially that of big finance, was kept in check by effective regulation; and the integrity of American institutions was a paramount concern of most elected officials and the political elite in general.

The Word awaits... but
The script is small
The preacher is blind
The audience is deaf
And the echoes ricochet off bare walls soundlessly