Now that the frenetic activity of the election campaign has passed, I’m finding more time than previously to read and go to movies. There is a film that I’ve just seen and there are two books that I’ve read recently that I’d like to recommend in this column: each of the three focused in somewhat different ways on the tightening grip of plutocracy in our country.
First, the movie that I’d highly recommend is filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, which my wife and I viewed at the Woodlands Square Theaters in Oldsmar. It begins with dramatic coverage of Iceland’s “meltdown” in the wake of a financial crisis brought on by the manipulations of bankers andthe pliable politicians who served their interests and then shows that the American crisis followed a similar pattern. Since my blood was already boiling over Wall Street’s continuing efforts to gut even the mild reforms enacted this year and over the granting of another set of unjustified bonuses to those who have caused most of our current economic pain, the film mostly reinforced the outrage that I was already feeling. However, I must say that it presented the evidence with unusual clarity and effectiveness in ways that only the mass media can. Since the Wall Street moguls refused to be interviewed for the film, Ferguson chose to rely largely on clips of their testimony in Congress – but these alone are quite damning. As a former professor, I found the interviews of such paid academic lackeys of the financial elite as Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of Columbia Business School (formerly head of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush) highly revealing and interesting. Realizing belatedly that he has made a mistake in opening himself up to Ferguson’s questions, Hubbard flounders helplessly on film under the relentless revelations that he is paid by the financiers to give academic and political “respectability” to their greedy demands. If the film has a weakness, it is that it leaves the audience feeling angry but with few clues as to how one might channel that anger constructively.
A highly critical but informative book that I’ve recently read is Robert Kuttner’s A Presidency in Peril:The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control Our Economic Future. Although I believe that the author’s criticisms of President Obama and his administration on corporate bailouts, economic stimulus, health care and Wall Street reform are sometimes exaggerated,and don’t fully take into account the political difficulties of coping with the enormous power of the economic elite today, I did find myself becoming increasingly critical of the Obama administration as I read the array of detailed examples that Kuttner has documented. The Obama administration’s recent waffling on the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich and the appointment of a commission of millionaires to make recommendations on deficit and debt reduction seem to provide new evidence for Kuttner’s conclusions that Obama tends to give away far too much too easily to the greedy rich and their Republican allies. Despite an analysis of the Obama administration that is almost unremittingly negative, Kuttner tries to conclude on a hopeful note. He cites Bill Moyers as a progressive who has “lost patience” with Obama and the current Democratic congressional party, and proclaims: “ We need more progressives to lose patience.” He advocates that we offer “tough love for Obama” and threaten to withdraw support unless he stands up for the public interest against the special interests of the corporate elite. Citing Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, he concludes: “Presidents grow in office, and they grow when they are pushed.” This conclusion, however, strikes me as too vague to be very helpful. How to push Obama effectively when power rests as fully in the hands of the top one percent as Kuttner has demonstrated is far from clear.
A readable and informative new book that reaches back well before the Obama administration to explain how our political economy has come to be transformed into a plutocracy is Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by political scientists Jacob S. Hacker (Yale) and Paul Pierson (Univ. of California, Berkeley). Though the authors cite precedents for American plutocracy in the late 19th century and in the 1920’s, they trace the roots of our current plutocracy back primarily to the 1970’s, when the executives of many giant corporations decided to reorganize themselves politically and pour huge sums of money into political campaign contributions, lobbying and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute aimed at weakening their labor union rivals and changing the agenda of politics and the content of public policy. In stages since then, Hacker and Pierson demonstrate, the economic elite have tightened their grip on the political process, creating a highly unequal society that undermines democracy, mocks humane conceptions of economic justice and threatens living standards for most of the population. The Republican Party has been purged of most moderate leaders and has become little more than an engine for enormous tax giveaways to the greedy rich and deregulation of their often unsavory corporate practices. Meanwhile, the more heterogeneous Democratic Party has seen many of its leaders “bought off” or effectively threatened by the rich. Hacker and Pierson conclude with a three-part reform agenda that meshes well with Kuttner’s but is only slightly more specific on details of how to effectuate it: 1) reduce the capacity of entrenched interests to block needed reform, 2) facilitate broader participation among those whose voices are currently drowned out, and 3) encourage the development of groups that can provide a continuing, organized capacity to mobilize middle-class voters and monitor government and politics on their behalf, as labor unions once did.
This film and these two books all offer enlightening diagnoses of the current problems that plague our political economy. However, after watching the film and reading the books, I fear that the task of finding specific solutions still lies mostly beyond our grasp .