Big money and Amer­ica’s lost decade

Antelope Valley Press - - Opinion -

El­iz­a­beth War­ren has been get­ting a lot of grief in the news me­dia lately. Some of it, no doubt, re­flects cam­paign mis­steps. But much of it is a sort of vis­ceral nega­tive re­ac­tion to her crit­i­cisms of the ex­ces­sive in­flu­ence of big money in pol­i­tics — a re­ac­tion that ac­tu­ally vin­di­cates her point.

It’s true that ear­lier in her ca­reer War­ren, like just about every­one else, did fundrais­ers with wealthy donors. So? Charges of in­con­sis­tency — “you said X, now you say Y” — are all too of­ten a jour­nal­is­tic dodge, a way to avoid deal­ing with the sub­stance of what a can­di­date says. Politi­cians should, af­ter all, change their minds when there’s good rea­son to do so.

The ques­tion should be, was War­ren right to an­nounce, back in Fe­bru­ary, that she would halt high-dol­lar fundrais­ers? More broadly, is she right that the wealthy have too much po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence?

And the an­swer to the sec­ond ques­tion is surely yes.

The first thing you need to know about the very rich is that they are, po­lit­i­cally, dif­fer­ent from you and me. Don’t be fooled by the hand­ful of prom­i­nent lib­eral or lib­eral-ish bil­lion­aires; sys­tem­atic stud­ies of the pol­i­tics of the ul­tra­wealthy show that they are very con­ser­va­tive, ob­sessed with tax cuts, op­posed to en­vi­ron­men­tal and fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion, ea­ger to cut so­cial pro­grams.

The sec­ond thing you need to know is that the rich of­ten get what they want, even when most of the pub­lic want the op­po­site. For ex­am­ple, a vast ma­jor­ity of vot­ers — in­clud­ing a ma­jor­ity of self-iden­ti­fied Repub­li­cans — be­lieve that cor­po­ra­tions pay too lit­tle in taxes. Yet the sig­na­ture do­mes­tic pol­icy of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was a huge cor­po­rate tax cut.

Or to take an is­sue close to War­ren’s heart — and her sig­na­ture pol­icy achieve­ments — most Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing a plu­ral­ity of Repub­li­cans, fa­vor tougher reg­u­la­tion of big banks; yet even be­fore Don­ald Trump took of­fice, the rel­a­tively mild reg­u­la­tions put into ef­fect af­ter the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis were un­der sus­tained po­lit­i­cal as­sault.

Why do a small num­ber of rich peo­ple ex­ert so much in­flu­ence in what is sup­posed to be a democ­racy? Cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions are only part of the story. Equally if not more im­por­tant is the net­work of bil­lion­aire-fi­nanced think tanks, lob­by­ing groups and so on that shapes pub­lic dis­course. And then there’s the re­volv­ing door: It’s de­press­ingly nor­mal for for­mer of­fi­cials from both par­ties to take jobs with big banks, cor­po­ra­tions and con­sult­ing firms, and the prospect of such em­ploy­ment can’t help but in­flu­ence pol­icy while they’re still in of­fice.

Last but not least, me­dia cov­er­age of pol­icy is­sues all too of­ten seems to re­flect the views of the wealthy. Take, for ex­am­ple, the is­sue of poli­cies to combat un­em­ploy­ment.

Un­em­ploy­ment in the United States is cur­rently at a his­tor­i­cal low, just 3.5% — and we’re achiev­ing that low un­em­ploy­ment with­out any sign of run­away in­fla­tion, which tells us that we were ca­pa­ble of this kind of per­for­mance all along. Re­mem­ber when peo­ple like Jamie

Di­mon, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of JPMor­gan Chase, told us that high un­em­ploy­ment was in­evitable be­cause of a “skills gap”? They were wrong.

But it took us a very long time to get here, be­cause un­em­ploy­ment re­ceded only slowly from its post-cri­sis peak. The av­er­age un­em­ploy­ment rate over the past decade was 6.3%, which trans­lates into mil­lions of per­son-years of gra­tu­itous job­less­ness.

Why didn’t we re­cover faster? The most im­por­tant rea­son was fis­cal aus­ter­ity — spend­ing cuts, sup­pos­edly to re­duce the bud­get deficit, that ex­erted a steady drag on the econ­omy from 2010 on­ward. But who was ob­sessed with bud­get deficits? Vot­ers in gen­eral weren’t — but sur­veys in­di­cate that even when the un­em­ploy­ment rate was above 8% the wealthy con­sid­ered bud­get deficits a big­ger prob­lem than lack of jobs.

And the news me­dia echoed th­ese pri­or­i­ties, treat­ing them not as the pref­er­ences of one small group of vot­ers but as the only re­spon­si­ble po­si­tion. As Vox’s Ezra Klein noted at the time, when it came to bud­get deficits it seemed that “the usual rules of re­por­to­rial neu­tral­ity” didn’t ap­ply; re­porters openly ad­vo­cated pol­icy views that were at best con­tro­ver­sial, not widely shared by the gen­eral pub­lic and, we now know, sub­stan­tively wrong.

But they were the pol­icy views of the wealthy. And when it comes to treat­ment of dif­fer­ing pol­icy views, the me­dia of­ten treats some Amer­i­cans as more equal than oth­ers.

Which brings me back to the 2020 cam­paign. You may dis­agree with pro­gres­sive ideas com­ing from El­iz­a­beth War­ren or Bernie San­ders, which is fine. But the news me­dia owes the pub­lic a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of th­ese ideas, not dis­missal shaped by a com­bi­na­tion of re­flex­ive “cen­trist bias” and the con­scious or un­con­scious as­sump­tion that any pol­icy rich peo­ple dis­like must be ir­re­spon­si­ble.

And when can­di­dates talk about the ex­ces­sive in­flu­ence of the wealthy, that sub­ject also de­serves se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, not the cheap shots we’ve been see­ing lately.

I know that this kind of dis­cus­sion makes many jour­nal­ists un­com­fort­able. That’s ex­actly why we need to have it.

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