NYT on ‘Class Imbalance’ in Politics

October 22, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Government of the rich

By Michael M'Gehee:

The New York Times recently published an opinion by Nicholas Carnes, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke University and author of the forthcoming book “White-Collar Government: How Class-Imbalanced Legislatures Distort Economic Policy-Making in the United States." The article, "Which Millionaire Are You Voting For?," though rather shallow, is very good when considering the source.

Carnes makes a number of points that highlights some problems of our political system.

For example: "Elections are supposed to give us choices."

Then there is this doozy:

In most elections, however, we don’t get a say in something important: whether we’re governed by the rich. By Election Day, that choice has usually been made for us. Would you like to be represented by a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire businessman? Even in our great democracy, we rarely have the option to put someone in office who isn’t part of the elite.

Where Carnes falters is he has difficulty placing his finger on the "problem," or the reason why, when it comes to whether or not "we're governed by the rich," that "that choice has usually been made for us." Carnes writes that "the working class itself probably isn’t the problem," and that "Something other than qualifications seems to be screening out people with serious experience in the working class long before Election Day." Carnes claims that "Scholars haven’t yet confirmed exactly what that is. (Campaign money? Free time? Party gatekeepers?)" He even makes it a point to stress that, "It’s true that workers tend to score a little lower on standard measures of political knowledge and civic engagement."

This last comment of Carnes' is disturbing because it seems to ignore the fact that available public opinion polls show that Americans are very knowledgeable on politics, and are way to the left of both parties—and this in a climate saturated by business propaganda and in the absence of an authentic working class media.

Here are some samples of the last few years:

  • 16% approve of the job Congress is doing. (CBS/New York Times 9/8-12/12)
  • 52% approve of labor unions. (Gallop 8/9-11/11)
  • 63% said Corporate America had more power than unions. (Bloomberg 3/4-7/11)
  • 28% have positive view of large corporations. (Pew Research Center 2/8-12/12)
  • 22% have positive view of banks. (Pew Research Center 2/8-12/12)
  • 86% agreed that "Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington." (Time Poll 10/9-10/11)
  • 75% said large corporations have too much influence. (CBS News 5/20-23/11)
  • 85% said "people like yourself" have too little. (CBS News 5/20-23/11)
  • 80% think Wall Street is "greedy." (CNN/ORC 10/14-16/11)
  • 77% say they're "overpaid." (CNN/ORC 10/14-16/11)
  • 65% say "dishonest." (CNN/ORC 10/14-16/11)
  • 24% think they're "community-minded." (CNN/ORC 10/14-16/11)
  • 61% approve of "Increased government regulation of banks and major financial institutions." (USA Today/Gallup 8/27-30/10)
  • 79% said "The gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large." (Time Poll 10/9-10/11)
  • 60% "feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people." (CBS News/New York Times 7/11-16/12)
  • 56% found "unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy" to be a bigger problem than the 34% who found "over-regulation of the free market" to be a bigger problem. (ABC News/Washington Post 8/22-25/12)
  • 71% said "Executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted." (Time Poll 10/9-10/11)
  • 68% said "The rich should pay more taxes." (Time Poll 10/9-10/11)
  • 47% favored letting Bush tax cuts for wealthy expire, with only 30% favoring keeping them. (CBS/New York Times 9/8-12/12)
  • 51% think keeping Medicare benefits as they are is more important than reducing deficit, which only garnered 34%. (United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection 9/7-9/12)
  • 52% favor a spending projects to boost jobs, with only 33% favoring cutting taxes. (ABC News/Washington Post 8/22-25/12)
  • 67% feel that "there should be limits on the amount of money individuals can contribute to campaigns for president, Senate and U.S. House"
  • 83% think the same limitations should be imposed on "CORPORATIONS, UNIONS and OTHER ORGANIZATIONS." (AP-National Constitution Center Poll 8/16-20/12)
  • 69% say super pac's should be illegal. (ABC News/Washington Post 3/7-10/12)
  • 23% say they are a supporter of the Tea Party (AP-GfK 9/13-17/12)
  • 33% say the have a positive view of socialism. (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Jan. 12-17, 2012)

Americans are not stupid. We know what is going on, who has the power, who doesn't, who should, and what should be done to remedy: get money out of politics.

Carnes is also misleading when he claims that "Scholars haven’t yet confirmed exactly what" is behind why "Something other than qualifications seems to be screening out people with serious experience in the working class long before Election Day." The answer is widely known and obvious: money.

In Iran there is the Guardian Council, a twelve-member group selected by the Supreme Leader, and whose job it is to filter out which candidates are suitable for election. Before Iranians ever get a "choice" their options are shaped by this council. So come election day, no matter who they vote for, the interests of the state are still ensured.

Here in this U.S. our priests who choose which candidates are fit to run for office are lawyers, bankers, oil men, and corporate officers. They bless the right candidates, not with holy water, but with campaign funding, so that they can finance expensive public relations campaigns.

In his groundbreaking book "The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History,1900-1916," historian Gabriel Kolko showed that the Progressive Era, including the New Deal, were actually quite conservative and business-friendly. In his "Conclusion: The Lost Democracy," Kolko wrote that,

The two major parties, as always, differed on politically unimportant and frequently contrived details, but both were firmly wedded to the status quo, and the workers were generally their captives or accomplices. No socially or politically significant group tried to articulate an alternative means of organizing industrial technology in a fashion that permitted democratic control over centralized power, or participation in routine, much less crucial, decisions in the industrial process. No party tried to develop a program that suggested democracy could be created only by continuous mass involvement in the decisions that affected their lives, if the concentration of actual power in the hands of an elite was to be avoided. In brief, the Progressive Era was characterized by a paucity of alternatives to the status quo, a vacuum that permitted political capitalism to direct the growth of industrialism in America, to shape its politics, to determine the ground rules for American civilization in the twentieth century, and to set the stage for what was to follow.

This is just as applicable to today's issues as it was in the era in which Kolko wrote on.

A hot topic for the Romney and Obama campaigns has been the debt and deficit, and their rhetoric about "reduction." Both candidates have talked about cutting Social Security benefits even though program has absolutely nothing to do with either the debt or deficit.

Social Security is taxed separately via its own trust fund, and on top of this it is taking in more revenue each year than it is giving out, and will continue to do for another twenty-five years. Rather than address this obvious fact, both candidates attack the program as if it is part of the problem. And while both candidates fail to address the real cause of the debt and deficit (i.e. tax cuts for the rich, military spending, and sending good-paying jobs overseas), they also fail to deal with more reasonable solution for Social Security and its potential solvency problem that looms decades from now: remove the cap and tax all income. As the program stands only earned income is taxed for the program. Income earned by "investment," for example, is not taxed at all. Worse, what income is taxed is capped. So whatever one makes beyond $108,000 a year is simply not taxed at all for the program. This means that a single-mom working double-shifts at IHOP will see 100% of her income taxed for Social Security, while some corporate executive who gets $250,000 a year will see less than half of his income taxed, and if he makes any income from investments, then none of it will be touched for Social Security. By taxing all income and removing the cap the program would not only have adequate funds for as into the future as economists can predict, but there would be enough revenue to increase, not cut, benefits to a level that people can actually live on.

That neither candidate even hints at this only goes to show how much their policies on the program are catered to the wealthy donors and industries that fund their political careers.

This view is expanded upon in Kolko's chapter on "Roosevelt and Political Capitalism" when Kolko wrote:

It is possible, of course, to find division in the rank of "business" if the opinion of a Morgan lawyer is balanced off by a resolution of the Alabama Board of Trade. Such a procedure assumes that there are no operational power of centers and that one opinion is as influential as another—a proposition almost disproven by stating it in a manner which allows one to realize what it really alleges. What is crucial is the opinion of key power groups, first of all, and the majority of all interests within a specific industry in which state or federal regulation is an issue. And, as so often happens, even if groups in different industries disagree on the broader theoretical propositions implicit in the general regulation of the economy by the federal government, it is the opinion of key power groups with interests in many fields that is the dominant concern to anyone studying general trends. It is possible to state that many businessmen—the drugstore operator being equated with the steel company president—opposed government regulation most of the time, even though most businessmen supported it at least when it was their interest to do so. The group that supported it consistently, the men in the top echelons of finance and industry attempting to attain economic centralization and stability, are the men who will primarily concern us here.

This is also what motivated political scientist Thomas Ferguson to explore this topic more thoroughly in his book "Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems." And without a doubt the most detailed explanation of our political system is Ferguson's investment theory which states that, "Political organizations are (sometimes very complex) investments; that while they need small amounts of aid and commitment from many people, most of their major endorsements, money, and media attention typically come as direct or indirect results of their ability to attract heavyweight investors," and that, "As a consequence not even former presidents with enormous personal popularity like Theodore Roosevelt could run insurgent campaigns without support from investors like U.S. Steel or investment banker George Perkins."

Ferguson found that, "If all major investors oppose discussing a particular issue, then neither party is likely to pick the issue up—no matter how many little investors or noninvestors might benefit—not because of any active collusion between parties but because no effective constituency exists to force the issue on the public agenda."

As for the "division in the rank of 'business' " that Kolko mentioned, Ferguson located the main fault line, and it was there in Kolko's own words: "the top echelons of finance and industry attempting to attain economic centralization and stability."

When you separate campaign investors into labor-intensive and capital-intensive industries you see that "Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate."

According to's "Contributions by Sector" page for this years presidential election the trend Ferguson wrote of nearly twenty years ago still holds for today: Republicans are largely labor-intensive, with their focus on lower taxes, anti-labor, and anti-regulations that in any way get at the bottom-line of their business masters. And Democrats are capital-intensive, and they too favor lower taxes and a business environment that is favorable to the business interests they represent. On business matters the two parties rarely butt heads, and the kabuki theatre they perform during election cycles where they try to paint themselves as opposition to the other is as Kolko put it: "contrived by politicians in search of votes, or seeking to create useful images."

This is why President Obama had no opposition with the National Defense Authorization Act, or why there was no real Republican campaign to challenge the legality of his foreign policy in Libya or elsewhere. And this is why there was no opposition to three so-called "free trade agreements" he signed last year with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, or the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" free trade agreements for the Asia-Pacific region being conducted as we speak—not to mention the financial reform that was hardly tough on the industry.

While former President George W Bush was notorious for his friendliness to the energy industry, which is labor-intensive, and his Vice President Dick Cheney likely met with industry executives to shape a policy to their liking, so too has President Obama met with capital-intensive banks to assure them he would not be a threat. Writing in his latest book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President," Ron Suskind quotes President Obama as telling bankers in a private meeting very early in his term: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and that, “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem." President Obama told them, "I want to help," and that, "I’m not out there to go after you," but rather he was in the highest office to "protect" them. He vowed "to shield [Wall Street] from congressional and public anger.” Suskind then goes on to write that for the bankers there was "Nothing to worry about" because, "Whereas Roosevelt had pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said, 'I welcome their hatred,' Obama was saying, 'How can I help?' "According to Suskind a banker told him, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief," because "The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability" where "he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” The banker told Suskind that it was the former Goldman Sachs executive, Tim Geithner, who Obama picked to run the Treasury, who helped in this regards. According to the anonymous banker, Geithner "was our man in Washington."

To say that scholars don't know what is the prime selective pressure on government and its policies is odd.

And apparently Carnes does not get that this class imbalance is a built-in feature to our form of government. It has been like this since day one. This was the premise to the early 20th century historian Charles Beard's classic book "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States" which argues that the economic interests of the wealthy merchants, landowners and slave-holders who formed our government played a decisive role in whose interests the government was biased towards.

One of our "founding fathers" (i.e. James Madison) felt that, "If elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure." And for him that was intolerable because in his mind,

Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body . . .

Madison let the cat out of the bag. For him, the function of the Senate was to protect the rich from the poor, because he knew that if we had a true functioning democracy that "the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure." Though, to his credit, he did come to his senses when it was already too late. In 1791 he wrote that, "The stock-jobbers will become the praetorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it by clamours and combinations."

And Madison was not the only one who understood this problem. Even Adam Smith shared this sentiment when he wrote in "The Wealth of Nations (B.V, Ch.1, Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth)" that, "Wherever there is great property there is great inequality," and that, "For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many." And of course Smith knew that "The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor." Therefore, "It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security."

What Smith was pointing out was that wealth inequality incites rebellion, but a police force is needed to protect the rich from the poor.

Even former president Andrew Jackson understood this. When he left office he warned of the power of the rich, especially the banks. President Jackson told the nation that, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.”

In what sounds similar to Eisenhower’s farewell speech where upon Ike warned that, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” President Jackson also warned of powerful interests that "endangered" the nation: "The banks . . . save themselves, and the mischievous consequences of their imprudence or cupidity are visited upon the public. Nor does the evil stop here."

Jackson went on to talk about how, "Many powerful interests are continually at work," and have "succeeded" at getting government to shape policies that were "bearing most oppressively on the agricultural and laboring classes of society."

The planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer all know that their success depends upon their own industry and economy and that they must not expect to become suddenly rich by the fruits of their toil. Yet these classes of society form the great body of the people of the United States; they are the bone and sinew of the country; men who love liberty and desire nothing but equal rights and equal laws and who, moreover, hold the great mass of our national wealth, although it is distributed in moderate amounts among the millions of freemen who possess it. But, with overwhelming numbers and wealth on their side, they are in constant danger of losing their fair influence in the government, and with difficulty maintain their just rights against the incessant efforts daily made to encroach upon them.

The mischief springs from the power which the moneyed interest derives from a paper currency which they are able to control; from the multitude of corporations with exclusive privileges which they have succeeded in obtaining in the different states and which are employed altogether for their benefit; and unless you become more watchful in your states and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges, you will, in the end, find that the most important powers of government have been given or bartered away, and the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations.

Of course, the working class no longer "hold the great mass of our national wealth," even if, "it is distributed in moderate amounts among the millions of freemen who possess it." The bottom 50% account for 2% of the nations wealth, and the bottom 40% have 0.3%. Whereas the top 20% enjoy 84% of our wealth, the top 1% account for a third. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, an amazing 93% of the wealth gained in the United States went to the top 1%!

But, going further still, the former president remarked that, “The men who profit by the abuses and desire to perpetuate them will continue to besiege the halls of legislation in the general government as well as in the states and will seek, by every artifice, to mislead and deceive the public servants,” and that, “So many interests are united to resist all reform on this subject that you must not hope the conflict will be a short one nor success easy.”

President Jackson also said that in his “parting counsels,” he wanted to warn that, “Knowing that the path of freedom is continually beset by enemies who often assume the disguise of friends.” This is remarkably similar to what Alex Carey wrote in his book "Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty":

The key political problems confronting the United States have neither changed nor ameliorated since Professor Robert Dahl defined them in 1959. "How much," he asked, "of the generally, favorable attitudes of American towards business [and the consequent] absence of any well-defined alternative can be attributed toward deliberate efforts to manipulate attitudes?"

If government of the people by the people for the people has any meaningful sense and if the American Dream is not to end in a business-appointed, more adroitly managed version of Orwell's 1984, then it is of cardinal importance that the problems described by Dahl are brought to light. That light would subvert those pragmatic processes for manufacturing consent and would lead to the development of a more critical cultural consciousness.

According to Jackson, we “have no longer any cause to fear danger from abroad.” Rather, the enemy we face “is from within . . . from cupidity, from corruption, from disappointed ambition and inordinate thirst for power—that factions will be formed and liberty endangered.”

Carnes says "elections are supposed to give us choices," but at the same time it's important to emphasize the point C Wright Mills once made on what freedom is in relations to politics. Mills said that "Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases," and that "neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives." Rather it "is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them -- and then, the opportunity to choose."

Furthermore, Carnes seems to miss the point when he says that, "The key is finding more lawmakers like Mr. Beard, politically adept working-class Americans." And while Carnes is right to say that "finding them will be the easy part," since we can look at people like Jill Stein or Ralph Nader," he says that, "The hard part will be persuading the people with resources to help them." The assumption built-in to this statement is that the power and influence of money in politics should remain, and that we should simply find a way to get the rich to throw their money behind politicians who are against their interests. This is absurd.

The hard part is getting the working class organized into its own social force to counter the influence of money. Slavery was not abolished because abolitionists got slaveholders to change their minds. Nor did women get the right to vote by getting men to oppose patriarchy. Rather, these and other social progresses were achieved by popular struggles waged outside the government and economic spheres of power. The hard part is to get money out of politics. The hard part is to make our democracy more open, inclusive, and participatory, so that we can not only get "the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them -- and then, the opportunity to choose," but to even get candidates like Jill Stein into events like presidential debates (as opposed to being arrested and hand-cuffed to metal chairs for several hours).

It's nice to see the New York Times point out the elephant in the room (i.e. our democracy is dominated by the interests of the wealthy elite), but—and with the "paper of record" there is almost always a "but"—Carnes' opinion piece falls far short of pointing out how entrenched this "class imbalance" is, how much it is an institutionalized feature of our government, and what needs to be done to undo it.


Readers Comments (0)

Sorry, comments are closed on this post.

Read previous post:
Times Building
New York Times Staffers Mull Byline Strike

By Jim Romenesko: A Sunday dispatch from the Newspaper Guild of New York says hundreds of New York Times staffers have...