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America Is Ruled by Billionaires, and They Are Coming After the Last Shreds of Our Democracy

America is a plutocracy through and through -- what are we going to do about it?

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The ultimate episode of egregious lawlessness is the MF Holdings affair – whereby under its chief, former Senator and Governor Jon Corzine, this hedge fund took the illegal action of looting a few billion from custodial accounts to cover losses incurred in its proprietary trading. JP Morgan, which held MF Global funds in several accounts and also processed the firm’s securities trades, resisted transferring the funds to MF’s customers until forced to by legal action. Punitive action: none. Why? The Justice Department and regulatory bodies came up with the lame excuse that the MF group’s decision-making was so opaque that they could not determine whose finger clicked the mouse. To pull capers like these and get off scot free, without chastisement, is the ultimate ego trip.

Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber of the 1940s, explained his targeting banks this way: “that’s where the money is.” Today’s financial swindlers go after the high risk gambles because that’s where the biggest kicks are. That is more important than the biggest bucks – although they add to the thrill. For the ever status striving, identity insecure financial baron is a compulsive gambler. He needs his fixes. Of winning, of celebrity, of respect. Of deference. All are transitory, though. For American culture provides few insignia of rank. No ‘Sirs,’ no seats in the House of Lords, no rites of passage that separate the heralded elite from all the rest. Oblivion shadows the most famous and acclaimed.

Thus, the grasping for whatever badges of regard are within reach – however ludicrous they might be.   When IR Magazine awarded JPMorgan the prize for “best crisis management” of 2012 for its handling of the London Whale trading debacle, at a black-tie awards ceremony in Manhattan, Morgan executives were there to express their appreciation, rather than bow out gracefully. The only Wall Street personage who has played the celebrity game without being marginalized in the public mind is Robert Rubin. Through nimbleness and political connection he has semi-institutionalized his celebrity status. Yes, there is Paul Volcker – but that is another world all together. His stature is built on an unmatched record of service to the commonweal and unchallenged integrity. The Blankfeins and Dimons and Welchs not only lack the critical attributes – they also lack the sense of what it means to serve the public from which they habitually distance themselves.

The plutocrats’ compulsive denigration of the poor, the ill and the dispossessed is perhaps the most telling evidence of status obsession linked to insecurity that is at the core of their social personality.  They find it necessary to stigmatize the latter as at best failures, at worst as moral degenerates – drug addicts, lazy, parasites, in part to highlight their superiority and in part to blur the human consequences of their rapacity.  Behavior of this kind is the antithesis of what could be the cultivated image of the statesman of commerce – even though they pay a price in public esteem. They also pay in price in terms of the other aspect of their own self-image.

Second, Americans have a craving to believe in their own virtue – as well as to have others recognize it.  The perverse pride in beating the system cannot in and of itself compensate for the feeling that you’re a bad guy. Blankfein again: “I have been doing the Lord’s work.” No one laughs in public – so I’m right about that. Dimon swaggering through the Council On Foreign Relations or Brookings with the huddled masses in his audience  – and on the dais –   beaming their adulation as they bask in his fame and thirst for his wisdom on the great affairs of the world. Perhaps, his views on whether the BRICS can rig the LIBOR rate with the connivance of the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve – or ignore regulatory reporting rules when they threaten to reveal a madcap scheme that loses $6 billion?

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