Given that the US transitioned into an oligarchy in recent years, it is not really that surprising to see Donald “Golden Business” Trump in the White House. In fact, his presence there is part and parcel of what has happened to us already. The real question is: can we stop it? Can we escape the United States of Oligarchy?
Wagging the dog
In autumn 2014 researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page published a paper called, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” This piece summarized their research on who it is that actually influences American politics, and it spanned more than twenty years, from 1981 to 2002.
They then spent years analyzing the data from their research. They wanted their work to be exhaustive and data-driven. Their conclusions?
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
In other words, in the United States it is the very wealthy few who change policy. The average American citizen enjoys little political power. (And we all understand this basic truth, don’t we; it is perhaps why we have such a malaise surrounding our voting process.)
Gilens and Page found that, “A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18% of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favour) is adopted about 45% of the time.”
This is true regardless of how the rest of us feel about it. For example, although only 14 percent of Americans say we should repeal the Affordable Care Act without replacing it, it seems we are on target to do just that. Why? Because the wealthy elites don’t care about it and want it repealed.
That is because even when a great majority of the citizenry disagrees with the economic elites of America—our oligarchs, can we just call them what they are?—we almost always lose.
Gilens and Page conclude:
“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Ah! Now, remember, they said this in 2014. They were concerned in 2014 that, should powerful business interests and oligarchs further dominate our policy process, we would lose even the trappings of our democracy—the vestiges that remain.
Guess what? We are now there.
Donald’s oligarchs: the priciest cabinet in history
And by pricy, I mean they will cost us, bigtime. They are not here to lead. They are here to bilk our nation and the world out of as much as they can, period. It is the richest cabinet in history, composed of true American oligarchs, and is also, by many accounts, the worst cabinet in history. I won’t go over all of them here—just some of them, so we can get a handle on this whole complete devolution into oligarchy and loss of democracy thing.
Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State ($150 million)
As Secretary of State Tillerson’s job would be to head our diplomatic relations all over the world. To help him do this he will be drawing on exactly no years of government or public service experience. He has experience in one part of the world other than the US: Russia, where his financial interests lie.
Tillerson has worked for ExxonMobil since 1975 and has been CEO since 2006. In 2013 Vladimir Putin, the shirtless, absolutist wonder, awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship medal based on what appears to be a friendship that is, for this official position, uncomfortably close. Under Tillerson’s direction the company donated more than $6.5 million to groups that deny that there is any connection between climate change and fossil fuels (otherwise known as reality).
In other words, Tillerson’s greatest experience relative to public policy is his background influencing it with money—using corporate funds to force public policy to work for his corporation and against the public interest.
Tillerson will replace John Kerry, who has decades of public service and diplomatic experience, impressive educational credentials, and no disturbing ties to foreign powers.
Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury ($40 million, or $140 million, depending on whether he “forgets” about $100 million that day or not)
As Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin’s job would be to decide on financial policies for our nation, acts as CFO for the government, manage the national debt, and shape tax policies—policies that are among the top concerns of guys like him who are very, very rich, especially when they own their own capital funds (he does). To help him in this vitally important work he will have the same no years of experience that Tillerson has. He also has the same kind of conflict: a direct personal interest in a specific outcome that is contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of the American people.
Before he ran his own capital fund Mnuchin spent his time at Goldman Sachs, and then went on to purchase the failing OneWest bank and foreclosed on thousands of homeowners. He then sold that business for $3 billion, so good work there.
Mnuchin will replace Jack Lew, an attorney who has been in public service since the early 1990s and who previously ran the Office of Management and Budget. He served as COO for Citigroup from 2006 to 2008, and during that time caused exactly no elderly women to be evicted into the street in the dead of winter—so that’s some experience that Mnuchin has on him.
Sonny Perdue, Agriculture Secretary (maybe $6 million)
The Agriculture Secretary heads up the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the American farming industry. The department is responsible for improving public nutrition, food safety, meeting the needs of farmers and ranchers, and protecting natural resources. It administers the soon to be defunct food stamp program.
(As an aside, the United States is about the stingiest nation in the world when it comes to feeding its own citizens. Here is a map of the world and recognition of the human right to food by country. You will notice that there is “no known right to food” in the US and scattered countries in other parts of the world—none in the developed world. Also, the US is the only country in the entire world who refuses to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is in large part because of our draconian criminal justice practices for juveniles, but may also be a recognition of our refusal to acknowledge any right to food—or something like food stamps.)
Unlike many in Trump’s cabinet, Perdue has experience in government. Bad, ineffective experience. When he was running for governor of Georgia in 2002 he promised to reestablish the Confederate flag design on the state flag. He has special experience that Trump was no doubt interested in, because like Trump, Perdue failed to put his assets into a blind trust while he was governor; he therefore managed to sign a tax break into law on his own behalf.
As a longtime fertilizer salesman (his previous job) the Environmental Working Group seems to think he won’t be too avid about fighting and regulating farm pollution. At least we know he will pray publicly when needed; during a serious drought in Georgia he asked God for rain on the steps of the statehouse.
Perdue will replace Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa.
Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary ($2.5 billion)
It will be the Commerce Secretary’s job to deal with US trade policy—if we have any policy other than tearing up every single trade agreement we have ever made that isn’t with Russia—and to manage departments that monitor the nation’s fisheries, the weather, and patents and trademarks.
Ross is a former banker and an investor. In fact, his latest investment was in the Trump campaign, and it is yielding benefits in the form of this cabinet appointment. Ross has a history of buying and flipping assets for profit, and—big surprise coming—he hates trade agreements like his buddy, Trump. Like Tillerson, Ross has many close ties to Russian oligarchs and Putin allies.
Ross will be replacing Penny Pritzker, another American oligarch, albeit one who does not appear to hate trade at such a deep, personal level.
Rick Perry, Energy Secretary ($2 million)
(Did that $2 million look like chump change to you just now? That’s because this nightmarish situation is desensitizing us to this insanity. Anyway, back to it.)
The Energy Secretary’s job is to take care of our nuclear weapons, and to not blow us all into a nuclear winter and oblivion doing that job.
Rick Perry has 19 years of experience in government, all of which are troubling, at least from an intellectual standpoint—and by that I mean based on his apparent intellect during those 19 years. He favors smaller government, but not so small that he can’t have a job. He argued in the recent past for the elimination of the Department of Energy—just for throwing the whole damn thing out.
Perry will replace Dr. Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and former MIT professor. As you might imagine, his extensive education and background allowed him to represent the US very effectively in nuclear negotiations with Iran, because he understood the science and engineering of what he was talking about.
On the other hand, Rick Perry was unable to pass college level science courses and in fact failed on Dancing With the Stars. Moreover, he failed to remember the point he was debating about in a debate that he started. Finally, when he accepted this post, he believed his job was to do something totally different: he thought he would be a global ambassador for oil and gas. (Obviously, that is what Tillerson will be doing, so he should have known better.) But more importantly, he accepted a cabinet position, not knowing what it was. So, there’s that to consider.
Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education ($5.1 billion)
The Education Secretary oversees all federal policies and programs related to education, including student loans and grants and Title IX enforcement.
Her government experience includes being the leader of the Michigan Republican Party and an avid anti-public school activist. Wait! you might start to ask, isn’t that a problem? Well, according to every teachers’ union, yes.
Also, during her hearing before the Senate, it was clear that she had little knowledge about education, firearms, bears, or reality; she was not sure that campus rape reporting and investigation rules should stay in place, and said that not only would she not uphold a no guns in schools rule, that she believed guns might be needed in schools to defend students from grizzly bears.
I dearly wish that was satire; sadly, it is not.
However, due to her family’s $200 million in donations to the Republican Party, here she is, pursuing her dream of eliminating the public school system once and for all.
DeVos will replace John King Jr., who is a teacher with excellent credentials including a doctorate in education and a Truman Scholar.
Why does it matter if we are already an oligarchy?
Principally because things are about to get worse—significantly worse. The bold, careless stances of the Trump cabinet and Trump himself are actually perfect for the Republican majority, who is ready to take us for all they can. They don’t care how embarrassing the situation is internationally. They don’t care how many Americans get hurt, either—and their actions as legislators make that abundantly clear.
They are poised to repeal the meager healthcare that most of us have now. They will not replace it. They will do this because overall their aim will be to minimize the tax burden on the very wealthy and to be enriched by their fellow oligarchs, period. This actively harms much of their base, but their base is so certain that the real problem is other people—people of color, urban people, people who seem radically different—that they won’t object.
And even if they did, it would be too late.
They will roll back civil rights for LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, African Americans, latinos, anyone who demands them. They will do this because this is the bone for their base. It doesn’t help their base voters, but it hurts the “others” that they perceive to be their enemies. It also means they don’t need to enforce things like civil rights laws or pursue things like hate crimes: what a savings.
They will do this with or without Trump. If he becomes too burdensome, gets in their way, or just steps over the line, they can impeach him. If they were doing their jobs, they’d be doing it already. But this? This is better.
Because Trump is scary. He acts and feels like a dictator, and they know it. So when they finally do oust him, we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief—even though we will then be stuck with Pence, a right wing ideologue whose policies will be just as damaging to everyday Americans. He was not electable on his own, and thanks to our current divide and conquer mentality, he didn’t need to be.
People who have less compete even more fiercely. When stakes are objectively lower, they may subjectively feel much higher. And for more and more of us, the stakes just feel higher and higher as we lose more and more.
So we look toward the 2018 midterm election. We seek out people who will both be running for office and who might actually represent us. This is probably our best and only nonviolent shot.
It feels like a long shot, though, and that’s because it is. It’s a long shot because our political system is, at this point, deeply corrupt. It is owned by oligarchs, just like Russia’s, and like the political systems of many other countries.
Oligarchy by the numbers
In case you’re not convinced that there’s really such a wealth gap in our country, consider these numbers from a 2014 Pew Research Center Report. The upper-income families of today are almost seven times wealthier than their middle-income peers. In 1984 the difference was less extreme; they were 3.4 times wealthier. Upper income family wealth is 70 times larger than lower income family wealth.
Only the top 10 percent of Americans are seeing their wealth grow; the rest of us are actually slowly losing wealth over time. That is because the very richest, the top 0.1 percent, are seeing so much growth in their wealth: from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent today. In fact, the top 0.1 percent of Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
This reflects the global trend, which Oxfam reported recently: just 8 white men (most are Americans) own as much wealth as the entire lower 50 percent of the world. In other words, American oligarchy is impacting the world economy, not just ours.
Why is this gap growing so much?
Robert Reich (and others) point out several trends that support this growth, and they are all reliant on oligarchic rule in the US, the growing concentration of political control held by economic elites who then shape policy to further their continued economic growth. This breaks down into several basic trends:
Action: Enlarged intellectual property rights that create windfalls for pharmaceutical companies. Result: American pharmaceutical costs now the highest of any advanced nation.
Action: Weaker antitrust laws for the biggest corporations that face little or no competition
Result: Americans pay more for airline tickets, banking services, broadband Internet, and food than the citizens of any other advanced nation.
Action: Looser bankruptcy laws for large corporations but not individuals
Result: Airlines, automobile manufacturers, casino owners like Donald Trump can claim bankruptcy easily and do so, failing to pay workers. Bankruptcy not available to homeowners or graduates with student debt, and their debts are never forgiven.
Action: Big auto manufacturers and banks get bailed out in 2008.
Result: Working people and taxpayers bear the risks of economic failure.
Action: Contract laws require mandatory arbitration before corporate friendly private judges.
Result: Individuals lose.
Action: Securities laws relaxed to allow insider trading.
Result: CEOs use stock buybacks to boost their share prices and individual investors lose out.
Action: Tax laws favor partners of hedge funds and private-equity funds, the oil and gas industry, and the very wealthy.
Result: The rich get richer, the average and poor struggle.
Action: Workers’ rights slowly eviscerated as employment benefits shrink, workers with any pension drop to under 35 percent, labor unions weaken, and “right-to-work” laws are enacted.
Result: Higher corporate profits, higher shareholder returns, higher executive pay, lower worker pay, and higher prices.
In other words, thanks to the hidden policies of the oligarchy, there is a constant shift of wealth up the chain, not outward into society. The problem is only getting worse.
By December of 2015, half of all money contributed to both Democratic and Republican candidates came from only 158 families, and that was $176 million. On average, more than one million dollars each, just in that election cycle. They don’t need public services; they are investing in their own interests.
American oligarchy is white
Perhaps it goes without saying, but American oligarchy, which has a heavy influence over the rest of the world, is white. There were 12 black billionaires in the world in 2016, out of the 1,810 billionaires in the world. (540 of those billionaires are in the US.) Three of the 12 are Americans: Oprah Winfrey, television personality; Michael Jordan, basketball star; and Robert Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity shop.
There were no Latino billionaires in the US as of 2014. There were 12 Asian-American billionaires in the US in 2015. So, of the approximately 540 billionaires here in the US, around 15 of them aren’t white; if you’d like to leave a (totally unrealistic) margin for error, say 20. Either way, that’s hovering around 2 or 3 percent, compared with the at least 37 percent of the population that they represent overall.
The policies that this group of people promote obviously support not only their existing wealth growth and maintenance structure, but also the racial boundaries that come with it. As we look back at the cesspool that was the 2016 election—not to mention the disgusting barrage of racism directed toward the Obamas throughout their time in the White House—it seems clear that racism is a critical component of this system. Division along racial lines has somehow convinced people to vote against their own self-interest, again and again.
I have been using a new app lately: Countable. Countable is often very depressing, but that’s not the fault of the app. It’s very useful as it reminds you when important political issues are being voted on and lets you send messages to your Congresspeople.
Although I have been underwhelmed and unsurprised by the voting patterns of my Senators, I have been pleased and surprised by my Representative, Ruben Gallego. He is relatively new in town, and appears to be an actual, decent person. I even know some of his family members, who are just regular working people. I see how he votes on things, and although we don’t match up perfectly, it’s close—and in line with what people in this immediate area think.
He appears to be representing me, and others who live in our Central Phoenix area, pretty well! Go figure. I bring this up because that makes me feel that maybe it’s possible to be represented well, at least in theory. Maybe oligarchy isn’t our only option—if we can continue as a movement instead of a money-driven machine.
I worry that we won’t stay informed enough as a populace to make smart decisions. This will be especially difficult while a career fabulist and serial liar is in office, as his first official press conference from today—which was entirely, demonstrably false—illustrates only too clearly.
(Dishearteningly, as I searched for the link for that claim I saw that it had already been posted with headlines like, “Sean Spicer Exposes Media.” In other words, no matter how obviously incorrect or out of control this administration is getting, there is a sizable segment of America which absolutely believes in everything they say. I have written elsewhere about our need to move away from a commercialized media to fight problems like these; every day I see more evidence that supports that idea.)
But for now, I plan to back up Ruben Gallego whenever I can. I want to support others like him in 2018. And even though everything from the Gilens and Page study to every bit of political experience I have tells me it may be impossible, I want to push for big money to be gone from the system. I want these oligarchs out.
Can’t hurt to say it out loud, or write it down.