Everyone around here knows where I stand on politics. I am a liberal on social as well as economic issues. But I don’t think much about the social issues. Without a decent amount of economic equality, how ever we go about accomplishing that, the social issues are of limited importance. Regardless, as long as we live in an oligarchy, we don’t have the ability to affect social policy anyway. As the Princeton study pointed out: poor people occasionally get the policies they want because they just happen to agree with the policies that rich people want. It’s coincidence, not power.
It was in this context that I heard last week that Michael Bloomberg was planning to spend $50 million to start a group to counter the NRA. This was not exactly news, because Bloomberg started a political campaign after Sandy Hook. And I noted at that time that he was going after some good economic liberals. I’m not keen on the NRA. But I would much rather a representative be beholden to them than to be beholden to Wall Street—as most politicians are. So I figured it made sense for Bloomberg to spend that kind of money on this cause. He is, after all, a one-issue guy. He can offer some crumbs to liberal mindedness, as long as no one gets in the way of his money.
It seems there are very few issues that I disagree much with Thomas Frank, but today I felt like he read my mind when he wrote about Bloomberg’s new venture, “I’m a strong supporter of gun control, so hooray, I guess.” It’s part of a larger argument, Straight into the Fox News Buzzsaw: Why Elite, Billionaire Liberalism Always Backfires. After taking a scalpel to Bloomberg, he gets to his main point: we can’t depend upon rich liberals because their interests are not our own.
Think about Milton Hershey, who was one of the most beneficent plutocrats ever. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for his workers. But when they wanted to start a union, he fought them with everything he had. It was all fine as long as he was the great patriarch who showered his employees with living wages. But when the workers demanded independence, that was just too much. And Hershey was far greater than plutocrats then, and light-years ahead of plutocrats now. Frank sums up the plutocratic as only he can:
We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back. The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like Bloomberg—a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one—have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk, and he would denounce it as a Soviet-style interference in private affairs.
During the Occupy Wall Street protests, he declared that we should stop criticizing investment banks; it would cost us jobs: “If you want jobs you have to assist companies and give them confidence to go and hire people.” Later on, when confronted with a successor who didn’t share his views, he graduated to straight-up trickle-down: “The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people.” Only by helping the rich, and helping them more, and then helping them even more, can we ever hope to do something for the poor.
Unusually, Frank’s article actually ends on an upbeat note. And I agree with him that as individuals we really do have power if we work together. I have long thought that the key to saving our country is unionization. But at this point, the only way that’s going to happen is if we all get out there and vote, because for the last 60 years our rights to organize as workers have been steadily destroyed.
Unfortunately, I am not upbeat nor am I very hopeful. And the reason I’m not is the current state of the Democratic Party. It has become primarily a socially liberal party. In terms of economic policy, the Democrats are now far more conservative than any Republican could have ever hoped for in the late 1960s. And voters seem to have largely accepted this. I don’t think it is a knowledgeable acceptance. I think most people—young people especially—have come to believe that having no real choice on economic policy is not only the way things are, but the way they should be.
What hope I have is found in the recent Democratic Party embrace of raising the minimum wage. But we have to look at this clear-eyed. Getting a (still too low) minimum wage pegged to the inflation rate will only happen with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of both branches of Congress. And even then, it wouldn’t surprise me that a Democratic president would veto a minimum wage increase—if that Democrat was someone like Andrew Cuomo, who claims to be for it but always finds a way not to support it in practice. What’s more, I’m sure there are at least three people on the Supreme Court that would love to find the minimum wage unconstitutional.
But whatever hope I have is dependent upon all of us. We can’t depend upon rich benefactors. We have to do it ourselves. We have to vote. We have to organize. And above all else, we have to stop believing this nonsense that the laudable improvements in gay rights make up for ever increasing poverty and an ever shrinking middle class. We mustn’t mistake our own issues that just happen to overlap with those of the plutocrats as any indication that they are on our side. They aren’t. We are alone in this struggle.
I’m not an expert, but I’ve read quite a lot about that period. In general, the plutocrats of the Gilded Age were concerned about wealth inequality. It was mostly only because they didn’t want to look like jerks to other plutocrats. But largely because of Ayn Rand, today we have this philosophy that just being rich is doing good works. That is what’s behind the “job creator” myth and it is why the myth is so damaging to society. Anyway, this is why I think today’s plutocrats are worse than they were a hundred years ago.