Capitalism versus democracy in the U.S. • 5 August 2007 • The SnowBlog

Capitalism versus democracy in the U.S.


Oh no, it's the dreaded green 'P' of politics again. If you're easily offended by wacko-lefty politics (or easily bored by them) then back away. Here instead is a link to Cute Overload.

Something to think about if you have a spare moment: Should you be able to get a better seat at the theatre just because you've got the money to pay for it? Should you be able to have a nicer car just because you're well off? Should you be brought a glass of champagne before take-off just because you paid a lot more for your plane ticket?

It seems safe to answer 'yes' to all of the above. After all, what is wealth if it isn't the ability to get nicer things.

Now here are some more marginal scenarios to think about. Should the lawyer representing you in court be more capable because you have more money? Should your children get a better education, and thus have a better chance of getting a good job, than poorer people's? Should your medical care (and maybe your life expectancy) be superior to those with less cash?

And how about this next batch of questions: If you've got more money should you have proportionally more say about what goes on in government? Should you be exempt from certain regulations? Should you ever have to queue or show up in person for anything? Should people have to call you sir? Should you be able to pass on your wealth so that your children don't have to work, potentially for many generations? Should your integrity be called into question less readily than those with smaller back accounts? And finally: should you be allowed to use your money to influence the way democracy works in favour of rich people like yourself?

Capitalism is a collection of ideas, at the heart of which is the notion that if we each go after what we want then the web of deals and schemes we come up with will create an efficient economy. And it will work better than trying to design an economy. In principle, letting a few people get very rich is the same thing as rewarding merit. Those who put their money to the best use end up with more of it. And 'the best use' for them is also the best use for the economy because it's all about find the most productive use of capital, assets and labour. (Of course, equating wealth with ability only works if the system is fair - and if wealth, once amassed, doesn't just get inherited down an infinite number of generations like some sort of permanent aristocracy.)

Many people have so much faith in the ingenuity of the free market that they expect it to solve all the big problems that face us including, say, the climate change problem. And they can point to times in the past when despite much hand-wringing about some upcoming limit to growth, the free-market economy found a way round it.

And it's true; by itself that ingenuity knows no limits. And that's both a good and a bad thing. If free market self-interest can somehow get fresh food to the heart of a big city (a problem seen as a natural limit to urban growth in the past) why shouldn't it also find a way to turn democracy to the advantage of the economy's most capable investors? In other words, what's to stop good old free-market ingenuity subverting democracy?

The genius of the American Dream, it's always seemed to me, is that it *is* a dream. For every self-made, rags-to-riches, local-boy-made-good story there are a thousand women and men who never make it. But they don't despair because the chance of success is all they ask, not the promise of it. And you have to wonder, would the feudal system have endured a lot longer if every year one or two serfs had been turned into lords, perhaps through some nationwide competition where brains, brawn, personality and skilll each boosted a candidate's chances. Could you really complain about being poor when power and wealth was on offer... to those who proved they deserved it?

But look at someone like the current U.S. President. On academic merit alone it seems unlikely that Yale and Harvard would have been eager to see him. On business merit alone he would never have been a director of an oil company. And goodness knows, on talent alone, he should never have been elected to high public office. But it's extraordinary what the light-bending, reality-warping effects of money and influence can achieve.

Is it possible that money is all that stood between George W. Bush and a life of modest failure and total obscurity? In other words is altering the outcome of presidential elections one of the things that being rich - sufficiently rich - can achieve? So add that to the list of questions at the top: should you be able to get someone elected president just because you have a lot of money?

How would the irrepressible capitalist spirit even go about such a thing as warping the democratic process? Well, the trick, if you think about it, is to make everything expensive. It seems counter-intuitive that those with the most money might want prices to go up; that's not the way to hold onto your money. But it is the way to convert money into power. If you can put a price tag on something, and if that price tag is high enough, then the very rich become the only ones with access to it.

And somewhere along the line it became very expensive to get elected. You might be a presidential candidate in favour of helping the poor, but unless you can come up with at least three hundred million dollars you'll never get elected. And who has that sort of money? Not poor people, that's for sure. It is, literally, impossible to get elected president these days without a lot of very rich friends (or a fewer number of astronomically rich ones). Just think about that statement. You can only be president if enough rich people like you. That's not quite the definition of democracy most of us would come up with.

And from what I can gather, capitalism's secret weapon has been the thirty-second campaign commercial. TV is expensive so it's perfect as a forum for allowing election candidates to woo the citizenry - perfect if you're rich, I mean. An enormous part of any political campaign is conducted through ads, most of them on expensive TV.

Of course the second problem for democracy fans of using television as the place you go to in order to get elected is that TV stations are owned by people. Specifically rich people. With the 'concentration' of U.S. media in recent years, pretty much every TV station is part of an absolutely gigantic media conglomerate. I've talked about this before. Pro-big-business politicians done deals with media companies along the lines of: we'll repeal certain laws so you can expand if you'll bear in mind we can put those laws back. But besides that, those media conglomerates *are* big businesses. That's two very good reasons why the editorial side of TV is heavily in favour of the pro-big-business political candidate. People may talk about the so-called liberal media, but there are no billion-dollar corporations with left-leaning agendas. And there are no significant media outlets that aren't part of billion-dollar corporations.

So the entry fee to a presidential election is several hundred million dollars and the contest itself is fought largely on the airwaves of media mega-corporations with their own, pro-business axes to grind. And the same thing, to a lesser extent, happens with congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial races.

The proof that all this has a huge effect is in the legislation and the loyalties of the Republican party. They will, on occasion, cross their rabid-Christian base. They will gleefully abandon their small-government, fiscally-responsible historic principles. But what they won't do is abandon big business or the super-rich.

It not only explains why the Republicans push so hard in the directions they do, it also explain why the Democrats are afraid of their own shadows. Because not only do the Republicans have a Republican base, the Democrats have a Republican base too: the people who pay their bills. Any Democrat who actually tried to rein in big business, scale back military spending and tax the hyper-rich in proportion to their wealth would be reviled in mainstream (=corporate media) editorials, their every blunder mysteriously prime-time news, not to mention finding themselves short of the cash to rebut any of that negativity with a few much-needed prime-time commercials.

It may not make sense at first glance, but the best way to make sure that money converts directly into power is to make sure that everything - even democracy - costs a lot.


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