Casino Politics

No, you don’t matter. That’s why so many people don’t vote – unlike Australia, where it’s required by law, here voting is voluntary. There’s no fine if you stay home and watch American Idol and text in your vote for the least marginally-untalented young singer, and then feel you’ve done something important. Sure, the politicians we elect can take us to war, or fund a new highway system or space program, or make something you like to do illegal, or refuse to make something illegal that you think should be – or cut off your benefits just when you need them the most, or if you’re of the other sort of mind, stupidly extend benefits to those you think are shiftless or just plain evil – and they can save the economy, or ruin it too. These things matter far more than which starry-eyed kid will end up with a fat recording contract, and maybe, like Taylor Hicks, eventually end up in Las Vegas, headlining a nightly show at a second-tier casino, for a half-filled room of desperate tourists.

But that’s okay. Everyone has the sense politics is rigged – far more than American Idol. Lobbyists for corporations, and banks, and big unions, fund these guys, so they say what they’re supposed to say – most of which isn’t very interesting. And they have their sugar daddies – rich individuals keeping them afloat – who also tell them which positions to take. You don’t have the money to do any of that, and if you got together with all your likeminded friends, you still wouldn’t have the money necessary to make a difference – not a tiny fraction of it.

It’s a Vegas thing. Sheldon Adelson has the money for such things – he’s worth at least twenty-five billion. He owns the Venetian in Vegas, the Sands Corporation, and every casino in Macau. He and his wife gave Newt Gingrich five or ten million dollars, several times, and has promised to spend “unlimited funds” to get Mitt Romney elected. It’s legal – all the money goes to the appropriate SuperPAC – he doesn’t hand the candidate a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills or anything – at least not directly. The Roberts court’s Citizens United ruling did say that any corporation – or any individual – can spend unlimited funds to express political opinion. Free speech was the issue. And thus we are where we are, although this is interesting – Sheldon Adelson, Biggest Donor To Romney And GOP, Did Business With Chinese Mob – and this – Is Sheldon Adelson trying to oust Obama to thwart an investigation by the Department of Justice?

There is the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act and a few other juicy bits:

In 2001, Adelson allegedly helped derail a House Republican measure opposing Beijing’s Olympic bid due to human rights issues. “The bill will never see the light day, Mr. Mayor. Don’t worry about it,” he reportedly told Beijing’s mayor after phoning then-House Majority Whip Tom Delay. Sands went on to receive its lucrative casino license from China.

No one else plays at that level. So go to Vegas, play the slots, sip the watered-down drinks, catch the Taylor Hicks show or the Blue Men – have fun – and come away considerably poorer. The house always wins. And it seems the house also decides which way the country goes on most things. You really don’t matter. And don’t think about moving to Israel – Adelson owns the biggest newspaper there and has bankrolled Prime Minister Netanyahu since the days when Netanyahu was merely a minor backbencher. Try Finland. He doesn’t own anyone there yet.

Consider where the campaign cash comes from. In the Atlantic, Lawrence Lessig runs the numbers:

A tiny number of Americans – .26 percent – give more than $200 to a congressional campaign – .05 percent gives the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. – .01 percent gives more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent – 196 Americans – has given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

Are you one of those 196 Americans? Of course you’re not, and Lessig explains the current two-tiered system we have:

It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election.

To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.

In 2008, Obama ran on hope and change and that sort of thing, so that election cycle might have been the exception – but of course it wasn’t. Obama, for all his small donors – something quite extraordinary – had his corporate and Wall Street backers too. Yes, now they’ve turned on him – a real problem for Obama, but also an indication that there’s only one way to play this game. You ante-up. You put your quarter in the slot. And the house always wins. You may get a bit of hope and change, but the odds are against you. Better you should be a mobster or city official in Macau – bone up on Cantonese and Portuguese and grease a few palms. Maybe Sheldon will do something for you – and then Mitt will. No wait – forget Portuguese. Hardly anyone in Macau speaks Portuguese anymore.

That may seem a bit cynical, but a Nobel Prize economist doesn’t think so, and that would be Paul Krugman:

A lot of people inside the Beltway are tut-tutting about the recent campaign focus on Mitt Romney’s personal history – his record of profiting even as workers suffered, his mysterious was-he-or-wasn’t-he role at Bain Capital after 1999, his equally mysterious refusal to release any tax returns from before 2010. Some of the tut-tutters are upset at any suggestion that this election is about the rich versus the rest. Others decry the personalization: why can’t we just discuss policy?

And neither group is living in the real world.

First of all, this election really is – in substantive, policy terms – about the rich versus the rest.

Those who aren’t rich do get to vote, but they can be bamboozled:

Former President George W. Bush pushed through big tax cuts heavily tilted toward the highest incomes. As a result, taxes on the very rich are currently the lowest they’ve been in 80 years. President Obama proposes letting those high-end Bush tax cuts expire; Mr. Romney, on the other hand, proposes big further tax cuts for the wealthy.

The impact at the top would be large. According to estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the Romney plan would reduce the annual taxes paid by the average member of the top 1 percent by $237,000 compared with the Obama plan; for the top 0.1 percent that number rises to $1.2 million. No wonder Mr. Romney’s fund-raisers in the Hamptons attracted so many eager donors that there were luxury-car traffic jams.

What about everyone else? Again according to the policy center, Mr. Romney’s tax cuts would increase the annual deficit by almost $500 billion. He claims that he would make this up by closing loopholes, in a way that wouldn’t shift the tax burden toward the middle class – but he has refused to give any specifics, and there’s no reason to believe him. Realistically, those big tax cuts for the rich would be offset, sooner or later, with higher taxes and/or lower benefits for the middle class and the poor.

This really is about the rich versus the rest of use, and we just like to pretend otherwise:

Look, voters aren’t policy wonks who pore over Tax Policy Center analyses. And when a politician – say, Mr. Obama – cites actual numbers in a speech, well, there’s always a politician on the other side to contradict him. How are voters supposed to know who is telling the truth? In fact, earlier this year focus groups given an accurate description of Mr. Romney’s policy proposals refused to believe that any politician would take such a position.

And the press doesn’t help:

Perhaps in a better world we could count on the news media to sort through the conflicting claims. In this world, however, most voters get their news from short snippets on TV, which almost never contain substantive policy analysis. The print media do offer analysis pieces – but these pieces, out of a desire to seem “balanced,” all too often simply repeat the he-said-she-said of political speeches.

Trust me: you will see very few news analyses saying that Mr. Romney proposes huge tax cuts for the rich, with no plausible offset other than big benefit cuts for everyone else – even though this is the simple truth. Instead, you will see pieces reporting that “Democrats say” that this is what Mr. Romney proposes, matched with dueling quotes from Republican sources.

Given that, Krugman is fine with Obama talking about Romney’s personal history:

Thus the entirely true charge that Mr. Romney wants to slash historically low tax rates on the rich even further dovetails perfectly with his own record of extraordinary tax avoidance – so extraordinary that he’s evidently afraid to let voters see his tax returns from before 2010. The equally true charge that he’s pushing policies that would benefit the rich at the expense of ordinary working Americans meshes with Bain’s record of earning big profits even when workers suffered – a record so stark that Mr. Romney is attempting to distance himself from part of it by insisting that he had nothing to do with Bain’s operations after 1999, even though the company continued to list him as CEO and sole owner until 2002. And so on.

This isn’t a diversion:

On the contrary, in a political and media environment strongly biased against substance, talking about Bain and offshore accounts is the only way to bring the real policy issues into focus. And we should applaud, not condemn, the Obama campaign for standing up to the tut-tutters.

And maybe Sheldon Adelson shouldn’t be off-limits either, although he’s a self-made man, the son of a taxi driver who made it big because of hard work and cunning and the wonderfulness of capitalism, where anyone can do that, if they have what it takes. We’re supposed to admire him. He now owns the house, as it were.

Thomas Edsall has been thinking about that proposition, and sees it playing out now:

Mitt Romney is an evangelist for capitalism.

“Free enterprise is still the greatest force for upward mobility, economic security, and the expansion of the middle class,” Romney declared last week at the NAACP convention in Houston. “As president, I will show the good things that can happen when we have more free enterprise – more business activity, more jobs, more opportunity, more paychecks, more savings accounts.”

And he cites Romney describing his ideal society:

In a merit-based society, people achieve success and rewards through hard work, education, risk taking, and even a little luck. The founders considered this principle to be one endowed by our Creator, and called it the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ We call it opportunity, or we call it the freedom to choose our course in life. A merit-based, opportunity society gathers and creates a citizenry that pioneers, that invents, that builds and creates. And as these people exert the effort and take the risks inherent in invention and creation, they employ and lift the rest of us, creating prosperity for us all. The rewards they earn do not make the rest of us poorer, they make us better off.

That sounds way-cool, but Edsall isn’t so sure about that:

Merit has been traditionally equated with intelligence, industriousness, educational attainment, creativity and competency. In a meritocracy, formal qualifications provide opportunity, position is no longer ascribed by birth, and rewards flow to those who excel.

The rise of meritocratic competition as the preeminent means of social stratification in America has been hailed as a welcome advance because it replaced a society dominated by an upper class dependent on inherited wealth and status. The transition to meritocracy has, however, had unintended consequences. In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.

You get casino politics, where the house always wins, because they’ve rigged the game, as anyone in their position would:

Over the past two decades, newly minted corporate titans have used political power to minimize taxation on their principal sources of income, winning preferential rates on capital gains and dividends – and have nearly eliminated taxation on the intergenerational transfer of wealth, brilliantly exploiting the term “death tax.”

One industry in particular – the financial sector – has used its power to gain an enormous advantage at public expense persuading the government to dismantle much of the federal regulatory structure. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a 10-member bipartisan panel appointed in 2009 by congressional leaders of both parties, reported in January 2011 that “from 1997 to 2008, the financial sector expended $2.7 billion in reported federal lobbying expenses; individuals and political action committees in the sector made more than $1 billion in campaign contributions” to achieve what the commission described as “deregulation redux.”

And that leads back to the money:

Campaign contributions are among the most important weapons deployed by new corporate elites. The finance industry, for example, has given more money, $19 million, to the Romney campaign than any other sector, quadrupling its nearest competitor, real estate, which contributed 4.8 million.

At an extreme, the predatory aspect of “meritocratic” corporate competition is illustrated by the scandals of Enron and WorldCom, by the insider trading convictions of Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta, and by the fraudulent schemes of Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff.

If you can become wealthy in an “opportunity society” you do look for opportunities, or you create them. Edsall spends some time discussing payday loan and auto-title lending companies, usually located near military bases, ripping off anyone in the military. No one will shut them down now. They spent the money they needed to spend:

The contributions followed Romney’s denunciation on January 4th of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – which is preparing to regulate the payday loan industry and other “non-bank” lenders – as “perhaps the most powerful and unaccountable bureaucracy in the history of our nation.” BusinessWeek wrote that from “January 13 to February 29, payday and auto-title lenders contributed $427,500 to Restore Our Future.”

We all know how these things happen:

Not only would Romney’s tax, regulatory and spending proposals reinforce the leverage over public policy now exercised by the affluent, but he would leave untouched the post-Citizens United campaign finance regime that gives corporations, unions and billionaires unlimited opportunities to shape election outcomes.

Nor would Romney reform the Washington lobbying community that now amounts to a fourth branch of government, staffed by former Senators, Congressmen and executive branch officials, who work for clients equipped to pay fees of $200,000 or more a year.

The overwhelming majority of the $3.3 billion spent annually on lobbying goes to preserve and expand the market-distorting corporate “rents” granted by Congress and the executive branch, ranging from agribusiness subsidies to an array of special breaks that allow companies like G.E. to pay little or no federal tax.

Romney has no incentive to initiate reform – he is a major beneficiary of the system as it is.

It’s no wonder people don’t vote:

As reasonable as Romney’s endorsement of a “merit-based opportunity society” may appear on the surface, what he is really calling for is a society that rewards hard-hearted, relentless competitors and disregards the losers. It is precisely this aspect of his campaign that has made him vulnerable to Democratic attacks.

Of course those attacks only work if folks vote, and anyway, Romney keeps saying he’s not responsible for the sometimes dark side of the generally wonderful merit-based opportunity society. All the bad stuff happened after he left Bain Capital.

Andrew Sullivan is having none of that:

It has always seemed to me that a core principle of Anglo-American conservatism has always been personal responsibility. We are all human and we all screw up all the time – but taking responsibility for both good and bad decisions is a prerequisite for democratic accountability in a free society. George W Bush famously summarized the GOP’s current view of such accountability and responsibility by saying that in eight years, he had only one accountability moment – and that was the 2004 election. The authorization of a war on empirically false grounds, the resort to illegal torture, the tens of thousands of civilian deaths from the Iraq occupation: none of this was or is Bush’s responsibility, according to the GOP. Bush even made a joke about the WMDs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

This flight from responsibility is also, alas, baked deep in today’s one percent, and marks them as very different from their wealthy predecessors in the American elite for much of the last century. The bankers whose recklessness precipitated our current recession see no reason to take responsibility for the misery their gambling and greed bestowed on so many others. Indeed, they shamelessly lobby to remove any constraints on their reckless ways, continue to gamble with glee (see JP Morgan), and continue to hand themselves bonuses and salaries out of any proportion to the benefits they bring to society as a whole.

And as with the financial elite, so with the political elite:

Those directly involved with or openly supportive of war crimes under Bush and Cheney – far from being held accountable – were given op-ed columns at the Washington Post and sinecures at AEI. A vice-president who openly boasted of torturing prisoners just held a fundraiser for the current nominee. No one in the cabinet responsible for Abu Ghraib resigned. The Republicans refuse to take any responsibility for the massive debt we accumulated since 2000 and have, indeed, tried to shift the entire responsibility onto Obama’s shoulders.

The reason America’s elite finds itself under so much criticism is not that they are elites. It is that they have become self-serving, accountability-free elites. Romney’s pique that he could even be challenged to take responsibility for a company of which he was legally CEO is a perfect symbol of this abdication of responsibility.

Maybe responsibility is, like taxes, for the little people.

No, wait – there has been some discussion of the little people:

President Barack Obama “hates this country,” and his philosophy appeals to “people with miserable, meaningless lives” and “people who don’t count,” Rush Limbaugh said Monday.

No, you don’t matter:

“I think it can now be said, without equivocation – without equivocation – that this man hates this country,” the conservative radio host said. “He is trying – Barack Obama is trying, to dismantle, brick-by-brick, the American dream. There’s no other way to put this. There’s no other way to explain this.”

Obama had said this:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back. Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Limbaugh said that was un-American and aimed at “depressives who needed to belittle successful people to feel better” and so on:

This is a bunch of people that don’t count. This is a bunch of people with miserable, meaningless lives who are lying to themselves; trying to tell themselves that they matter.

There’s much more, but you get the idea – there is no dark side to our wonderful merit-based opportunity society. The House always wins because it should, and you don’t matter. It’s a Vegas thing. Or maybe it’s freedom. And Limbaugh has never driven on a government road or walked on a government sidewalk.

Ah well, the rich will finance the politicians, on both sides, and flood the airways with their slick ads – and a few will vote, as if it matters. It’s no more than choosing your favorite casino billionaire now. The Republicans have more of them this time.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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