How the Oligarchs Took Over America
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In 1999, President Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a bevy of deregulatory measures that obliterated Glass-Steagall. In December of the following year, Gramm quietly snuck the 262-page Commodity Futures Modernization Act into a massive $384-billion spending bill. Gramm's bill blocked regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from cracking down on the shadowy "over-the-counter derivatives" market, home to billions of dollars of opaque financial instruments that would, years later, nearly demolish the American economy.
As presidents, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wrapped their arms around financial deregulation. As a result, in a binge of financial gluttony, Wall Street grew fat in ways never previously seen. Between 1929, the year the Great Depression began, and 1988, Wall Street's profits averaged 1.2% of the nation's gross domestic product; in 2005, that figure peaked at 3.3% as industry bonuses soared ever-higher. In 2009, bad times for most Americans, bonuses hit $20 billion. So much wealth in so few hands. Nothing explains the rise of the new American oligarchy more starkly.
Of course, it's not just what politicians did that helped create today's oligarchy, but what they failed to do. A classic example: in the 1990s, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a private American accounting regulator, set its sights on a loophole big enough to drive a financial Mack truck through. Until then, stock options included in executives' skyrocketing pay packages -- potentially worth tens of millions of dollars when exercised -- were valued at zero when issued. That's right: zero, zilch, nada. When FASB and the SEC tried to close the loophole, however, big business leapt to its defense. An avalanche of money went into the pockets of an army of K Street lobbyists and leviathan business trade associations. In the end, nothing happened. Or rather, everything continued happening. The loophole remained.
Citizen United's Brave New World
Hacker and Pierson ably guide us through 30 years of "winner-take-all" policymaking, politicking, and -- from the point of view of the wealthy -- judicious inaction. They offer an eye-opening journey across the landscape that helped foster the New Oligarchs, but one crucial vista appeared too late for the authors to include.
No understanding of the rise of our New Oligarchs could be complete without exploring the effects of the Supreme Court's January Citizens United decision, which set their power in cement more effectively than any tax cut ever could. Before Citizens United, the rich used their wealth to subtly shape policy, woo politicians, and influence elections. Now, with so much money flowing into their hands and the contribution faucets wide open, they can simply buy American politics so long as the price is right.
There's no mistaking how, in less than a year, Citizens United has radically tilted the political playing field. Along with several other major court rulings, it ushered in American Crossroads, American Action Network, and many similar groups that now can reel in unlimited donations with pathetically few requirements to disclose their funders.
What the present Supreme Court, itself the fruit of successive tax-cutting and deregulating administrations, has ensured is this: that in an American “democracy,” only the public will remain in the dark. Even for dedicated reporters, tracking down these groups is like chasing shadows: official addresses lead to P.O. boxes; phone calls go unreturned; doors are shut in your face.
The limited glimpse we have of the people bankrolling these shadowy outfits is a who's-who of the New Oligarchy: the billionaire Koch Brothers ( $21.5 billion); financier George Soros ( $11 billion); hedge-fund CEO Paul Singer (his fund, Elliott Management, is worth $17 billion); investor Harold Simmons (net worth: $4.5 billion); New York venture capitalist Kenneth Langone ( $1.1 billion); and real estate tycoon Bob Perry ($600 million).