Fully in Charge

Republicans didn’t want John McCain to be their nominee in 2008 – he’d been squishy on immigration, saying those folks who had come here to find work were family folks, good people, worthy of a little respect. That didn’t go over well, and his name was also on campaign finance reform too – that Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, that McCain–Feingold Act that had kept the party’s billionaires from being able to express their political views, one ten million dollar check at a time, as often as they’d like. He even called himself a maverick, but the thought was that at least he could win, and he might be turned back to severe conservatism, or whatever they were calling it at the time. He decided to toss Sarah Palin into the mix, to assure the base he was comfortable with unthinking ideologues, as she certainly was one of those, but that only made things worse. She spooked the party’s billionaires, interested in their own prosperity and maybe the nation’s, and swing voters, who might have been uncomfortable with Obama’s youth and inexperience, were appalled at her proud ignorance, which she wore as a badge of honor, which might have been her only choice after all the disastrous interviews – and the whole thing was a disaster. The party’s base vowed that next time they’d force the issue – they’d force the party to run a real conservative, not a fake one. The party’s billionaires knew that what the country needed was someone who knew how the economy worked – McCain freely admitted he hadn’t a clue about that sort of thing. The country needed Mitt Romney.

That didn’t work out either. This was the Bain Capital man who had fired many people – inadvertently, as regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage from all the leveraged buyouts and reorganizations of this company or that – but this was a man who knew how things really worked, and that proved it. Capitalism is not a game for sissies, and some people are going to lose – as they should. The party’s billionaires had their man, and after Citizens United they were free to spend tens of millions of dollars every other day to make their guy look like the answer to all questions economic and social. That was cool, but the party’s base remembered that Romney championed the prototype of Obamacare in Massachusetts. They never could forgive him for that, and the rest of the country couldn’t forgive Romney for that forty-seven percent comment. Those holding three jobs and just getting by, and not making enough money to qualify to pay income tax, didn’t like being called worthless deadbeats – especially after all the payroll taxes and sales taxes they did pay. That also meant that the prospect of Obamacare wasn’t as scary as it might have otherwise been – and by then it was the law anyway. Give it a rest. Maybe it’ll work out.

Obamacare has worked out – and that means it’s now what might be called a zombie issue. People now trust Democrats on health issues and health insurers love Obamacare too – all those new paying customers will do that – so when Ted Cruz says he’ll lead the charge to repeal every single word of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, Cruz is about four years too late. And so, as with Fast and Furious and Benghazi and the IRS scandal, such as it was, Republicans have become the guys who just won’t give it a rest. They’d like to spin that into obvious patriotic heroism, but only the party’s base sees any heroes here – and it’s really not their party anyway.

Someone else is in charge, and they’ll pick the party’s candidate once again. Slate’s John Dickerson makes a convincing case that this time it will be Jeb Bush – the Republican establishment wants the guy, even if the base hates him. He’s saying absurdly nice things about immigrants – just like John McCain until McCain realized the base hated him. He’s also big on Common Core – the proposed national core curriculum for schools – which the base hates of course. Basic standards for what kids should know sounds a lot like the government saying God doesn’t matter, and such things should be determined at the local level. If folks want to spend their tax money teaching kids in their district that Jesus rode a dinosaur and all of science comes from the pit of hell, that’s their business, not Washington’s. The current line is this is just like those minimal standards for what should be included in any health plan – an attack on American values, and on religion itself, but Ed Kilgore notes it’s more than that:

A Google search indicates that the “ObamaCore” meme goes back at least until last fall, when education wonks associated with the American Enterprise Institute were making the comparison. But whereas Republican Common Core opponents typically blame the Obama administration for promoting the initiative via generous federal grant support, there’s little question their real targets are the “Establishment Republicans” and chamber of commerce types on their own side of the barricades who have “betrayed” local-control-of-education advocates. And it’s especially convenient that Jeb Bush (joined to a lesser degree by Chris Christie) is the single most prominent Common Core supporter in the ranks of nationally visible GOP pols.

There’s a problem here:

Romney got around his health policy record in Massachusetts by consistently promising to kill Obamacare at the federal level. Emulating that maneuver would at a minimum require Bush to pledge to kill federal support for Common Core. He’s shown no signs of willingness to go there. He’s more likely to accuse Common Core opponents in his own party of forming an unholy alliance with teachers unions (which typically have supported Common Core in theory but are increasingly inclined to fight its implementation) and high-stakes-testing opponents on the left – which will, of course, infuriate them.

Of course it will, but the American Enterprise Institute and the National Chamber of Commerce folks will get what they want, an initiative that addresses the problem of developing an educated workforce who knows, generally, how things work in the real world. A workforce that belligerently believes in magic, and no more than magic, is kind of useless. How can you make money if those are the only people you find out there to hire?

The Republican base has to realize what everyone else has come to realize, that someone else is in charge:

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy – namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking “who really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

That works within the party too, and has some odd twists on this. Evan Halper in the Los Angeles Times reports on a new conservative effort to fight America’s biggest energy scourge, which is solar power:

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states. …

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

The American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – a membership group for conservative state lawmakers, recently drafted model legislation that targeted net metering. The group also helped launch efforts by conservative lawmakers in more than half a dozen states to repeal green energy mandates.

“State governments are starting to wake up,” Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, said in an email. The organization has led the effort to overturn the mandate in Kansas, which requires that 20% of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources.

Few in the base of the party have a problem with solar power, but they’re not billionaire industrialists like Charles and David Koch, and Kevin Drum suggests now they will be told that they have one:

There are, technically speaking, some colorable objections to the way net metering (or feed-in tariffs, a similar concept) operate. Sometimes the incentive schemes go awry, and sometimes the pricing goes awry. It’s reasonable to insist that these programs be evaluated regularly and rigorously, and modified where necessary. Mandates need to be designed properly too, though in practice they tend to have fewer problems since they allow a lot of flexibility in implementation.

But does anyone think this is what’s going on here? A calm, technocratic effort to make sure these programs work better? Of course not. We’ve now entered an era in which affinity politics has gotten so toxic that even motherhood and apple pie are fair targets if it turns out that liberals happen to like apple pie. There are dozens of good reasons that we should be building out solar as fast as we possibly can – plummeting prices, overdependence on foreign oil, poisonous petrostate politics, clean air – but yes, global warming is one of those reasons too. And since global warming has now entered the conservative pantheon of conspiratorial hoaxes designed to allow liberals to quietly enslave the economy, it means that conservatives are instinctively opposed to anything even vaguely related to stopping it. As a result, fracking has become practically the holy grail of conservative energy policy, while solar, which improves by leaps and bounds every year, is a sign of decay and creeping socialism.

Does it help that the Koch brothers happen to be oil barons who don’t want to see the oil industry lose any of the massive government support it’s gotten for decades? It sure doesn’t hurt, does it?

Yep, oligarchy can be a bitch:

If there’s anything that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on, it’s the benefit of renewable power. It’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get. But President Obama made green programs part of his stimulus package, and that was that. When tea-party hysteria took over the conservative movement, renewable energy became one of its pariahs. Griping about Solyndra is ancient history. Today’s conservatives oppose renewable energy for the same reason they’ve gone nuts over Benghazi and the IRS and Syrian rebels: to show solidarity to the cause. Welcome to modern American politics.

Yeah, but the base is being used here. Oklahoma jumped in first – now you have to pay what is essentially a fine there for installing solar panels or wind turbines. Charles and David Koch are NOT going to lose money, damn it. Kansas is resisting, but it will fall to, as will other states. Who do you think is in charge here?

Even the White House knows what’s going on:

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt.

His family owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, TGI Friday’s and a few other brands, and the White House knows how things get done, or can get done now – enlist the idle children of billionaires. They’re probably bored anyway. Get ’em before the Republicans do:

Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age – specifically in their 20s and 30s – and imprinting them with the social values of their generation.

A case in point is Zac Russell, an eloquent 26-year-old whose grandfather made a fortune with the asset management firm Russell Investments and who officially joined the board of the Russell Family Foundation last year. While not an ardent supporter of the Obama administration, he decided to attend the conference to consult, he said, with White House experts on climate change and to discuss grass-roots efforts to improve water quality in Puget Sound, where the foundation is based.

The water quality in Puget Sound is an issue for the yachting crowd, but it’s a start, and Thomas Frank sees a trend here:

Liberals rejoice. The former mayor of New York City, megabillionaire Michael Bloomberg, recently announced to the New York Times that he will spend some $50 million dollars on an effort to confront the National Rifle Association and advance background-check legislation for gun buyers. I’m a strong supporter of gun control, so hooray, I guess.

It’s just that today’s reformist billionaires like Michael Bloomberg aren’t much different from what we saw in the late nineteenth century:

During the nineteenth century, a long string of saintly aristocrats fought to reform the state and also to adjust the habits and culture of working-class people. These two causes were the distinctive obsessions of the wealthy liberals of the day: government must be purified, and working people must learn to behave. They had to be coerced into giving up bad habits. They had to learn the ways of thrift and hard work. There had to be sin taxes. Temperance. Maybe even prohibition.

On the single greatest issue of the time, however, these sanctimonious reformers were of no use at all. They were in favor of clean government, to be sure, but when it came to organized money’s war on the world, which was then bringing impoverishment and industrial combat and dislocations of every description, they were indistinguishable from the most stalwart conservatives. Describing the patrician “Mugwump type,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes,

“The most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire… He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.”

If that description hits uncomfortably close to home, well, good. We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back. The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like Bloomberg – a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one – have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans-fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk and he would denounce it as Soviet-style interference in private affairs.

The Washington Monthly’s Kathleen Geier adds this:

I like Frank’s parallel of the moralism between plutocrats then and now – his comparison of the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the anti-Big Gulp crusades today is a particularly inspired touch. His point – that wealthy reformers both today and in the past conveniently ignore the most important issue of all – economic inequality – is also a crucial one.

Geier then cites this quote from the economist Branko Milanovic:

I was in a think tank in Washington. The president of the think tank told me: “Well, you can do whatever you want, but just don’t call it inequality. Put the word poverty there. Because we have many rich people on our board, and when they see the word poverty that makes them feel good, because it means they’re really nice people who care about the poor. When they see the word inequality it makes them upset, because it means you want to take money from them.”

Frank puts it this way:

To say that there is no solidarity in this form of liberalism is to state the obvious. This is not about standing with you, it is about disciplining you: moving you out of the desirable neighborhoods, stopping and frisking you, prodding you to study the right things. Or, at its very noblest, it is about enlisting you in some fake “grassroots” effort whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the supreme moral virtue of the neo-Mugwump who’s funding the thing – to foam the runway for him as he makes his final approach to Heaven International Airport. …

But I can’t help but suspect that the Bloombergs of the world have the whole thing upside down. That the way to improve a place – or to get folks to eat better food – actually starts with proper pay for the people who live there. And that this antiquated form of organizing, in which the disenfranchised come together to help one another, is the only truly promising way to avoid the disasters of the last Gilded Age.

Kathleen Geier:

What it comes down to, very simply, is whether you prefer democracy or aristocracy. I thought we settled that question long ago.

Actually, we chose the third option, oligarchy, although that might not have been a choice. In what has been called the most important economic book in a generation or two, the argument is that this is where capitalism must end up:

Until now, left-leaning students of rising income inequality tended to prefer crony capitalist explanations for what was going on. You might call this the Elizabeth Warren School of Plutocracy: The 0.01 percent was becoming filthy rich because, in cahoots with sympathetic right-wing politicians, they had tilted the rules of the economic game in their favor, and stacked the deck against those whom Senator Warren would call ordinary folks.

The right, by contrast, began with denial. It has taken years for conservatives to concede that income inequality was rising, or that if it was, that shift was worth thinking about –remember Mitt Romney’s quiet-rooms comment, when the Republican presidential nominee was asked about why he seemed to equate discussion of income inequality with class warfare. “It is fine,” he said in widely mocked comments, “to talk about those things in quiet rooms and tax policy and the like.”

But now that the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has become a chasm, even Republicans have been reluctantly dragged into the discussion about income inequality. Conservatives have found that the most congenial explanations of this growing gap between the rich and the rest are those rooted in underlying, often global, economic forces. Income inequality, in this reading, isn’t about banksters. It is just the way capitalism works.

No one’s to blame, really:

The world the West built after World War II was founded on the conviction that market democracy was the political economy best able to create widely shared economic growth. The decades of prosperity that followed strengthened that belief. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and capitalism seemed to be not just the best system, but the only one. Capitalism worked, and capitalists were our heroes. It was the “end of history.”

But over the past couple decades we have started to realize that capitalism is no longer delivering for the vast majority of people in most Western democracies. The middle class is being hollowed out, even as fortunes continue to grow at the very top.

The data support this. Someone else is in charge. Everyone needs to learn that lesson.

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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1 Response to Fully in Charge

  1. Rick says:

    “Mugmump”! There’s a word you don’t hear very often these days. Cool!

    And if someone wants to use it to describe liberals who care about some liberal things but not others, I suppose you could maybe bring up Michael Bloomberg, but that’s where it gets tricky, because Bloomberg is an odd-duck, not really a type — “You know who I’m talking about, people like Mayor Bloomberg”, or even, as Thomas Frank does, refer to “the Bloombergs of the world”? That doesn’t work.

    In fact, I don’t even feel comfortable calling him a liberal, since if you’re really enough of an outlier, you can neither be really a liberal or conservative.

    Other than that, I have nothing to add, since me further pointing out that…

    (a) the money you use to buy speech is not speech, any more than the money you use to buy a car is a car; and

    (b) oligarchs running our lives does not change the fact that the founders didn’t design it that way, since they created a system in which the people are supposed to be in charge, so this oligarchy business is not a feature of our governance, it’s a bug,

    …would just be me beating a dead horse.


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