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How the Oligarchs Took Over America

Creating a country of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

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Tax guru David Cay Johnston recently crunched new Social Security Administration data and discovered an even starker divide. On the one hand, the number of Americans earning a steady income declined by 4.5 million between 2008 and 2009, and the average wage in the U.S. dipped by 1.2%, to $39,055. On the other hand, the average wage among Americans earning more than $50 million per year was $91 million in 2008 and $84 million in 2009 .

Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz put the situation Americans now find themselves in this way:

"Think of the American economy as a large apartment block. A century ago -- even 30 years ago -- it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most."

Let's call those select few in the penthouse the New Oligarchy, an awesomely rich sliver of Americans raking in an outsized share of the nation's wealth. They're oil magnates and media tycoons, corporate executives and hedge-fund traders, philanthropists and entertainers. Depending on where you want to draw the line, they're the top 1%, or the top 0.1%, or even the top 0.01% of the population. And when the Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United decision in January, it broke the floodgates so that a torrent of anonymous donations from this oligarchic class could flood back down from the heights and inundate the political lands below.

"The Thirty-Year War"

How did we get here? How did a middle-class-heavy nation transform itself into an oligarchy? You'll find answers to these questions in Winner-Take-All Politics, a revelatory new book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The authors treat the present figures we have on American wealth and poverty as a crime scene littered with clues and suspects, dead-ends and alibis.

Unlike so many pundits, politicians, and academics, Hacker and Pierson resist blaming the usual suspects: globalization, the rise of an information-based economy, and the demise of manufacturing. The culprit in their crime drama is American politics itself over the last three decades. The clues to understanding the rise of an American oligarchy, they believe, won’t be found in New York or New Delhi, but on Capitol Hill, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and around K Street, that haven in a heartless world for Washington’s lobbyists.

"Step by step and debate by debate," they write, "America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many."

Most accounts of American income inequality begin in the 1980s with the reign of President Ronald Reagan, the anti-government icon whose "Reaganomics" are commonly fingered as the catalyst for today's problems. Wrong, say Hacker and Pierson. The origins of oligarchy lay in the late 1970s and in the unlikely figure of Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president presiding over a Congress controlled by Democrats. It was Carter's successes and failures, they argue, that kicked off what economist Paul Krugman has labeled “the Great Divergence."

In 1978, the Carter administration and Congress took a red pen to the tax code, slashing the top rate of the capital gains tax from 48% to 28% -- an enormous boon for wealthy Americans. At the same time, the most ambitious effort in decades to reform American labor law in order to make it easer to unionize died in the Senate, despite a 61-vote Democratic supermajority.  Likewise, a proposed Office of Consumer Representation, a $15 million advocacy agency that was to work on behalf of average Americans, was defeated by an increasingly powerful business lobby.

 
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