The U.S. is a plutocracy, and here's why.

[li]It takes money to run for national office. This is especially true of the presidency. Personal wealth is usually a prerequisite for any serious candidate, and constant fundraising is a must. Which brings us to…[/li][li]The bulk of campaign contributions come from wealthy individuals and corporations. Since campaigns are expensive and fundraising time is finite, candidates naturally solicit money from as many big donors as possible. To this end, both parties have set up giving clubs which offer special perks and privileges for sizeable donations. Which is one of the reasons that…[/li][li]Money gets you access to officeholders. Hey, it’s quid pro quo. I give $100,000 and I’ll expect a little of the candidate’s time. And don’t think we won’t be talking shop. In 1999, over 20 corporations gave at least $50,000 to each party. That’s not altruism, it’s covering your bases. Candidates are so dependent on these contributions, in fact, that more time is spent fundraising than any other activity while campaigning or in office. Which is why…[/li][li]Donors are an officeholder’s core constituency. It’s only natural. We’re creatures of self-interest, on the whole. Politicians are surrounded by wealth all day long–wealthy contributors, wealthy consultants, wealthy colleagues. They’re probably wealthy themselves. Their world, in short, is pretty homogenous–and so are the perspectives by which their world-view is rationally informed. If liberalized trade barriers (or deregulation of the telecommunications industry, or China’s admittance to the WTO) benefit you, and benefit your friends, and benefit your donors–well, you’re not likely to consider any other points of view, are you? Which leads us to conclude that…[/li][li]The interests of the wealthy exert disproportionate influence over public policy. Look, the wealthiest twenty percent of the population has more money than the other eighty percent combined. Rich people are a distinct demographic minority, yet are overwhelmingly represented in Washington. I think it’s fair to say that there are issues on which people of different incomes will have different opinions. Furthermore, a millionaire is more likely to agree with another millionaire on matters of policy than with a single mother who works two jobs and earns $20,000 a year. Yet there are far more of these single mothers–or others in similar circumstances–than there are millionaires. But whose opinions do the politicians most often hear?[/li][/ul]

To sum up: Rich people run for office and get elected. Other rich people give money to the rich people who run for office and get elected. To get more money from the rich people who give money, the rich people who run for office and get elected offer those rich people time and access not given to poor or middle-class people. The people who make policy decisions in this country are almost always rich, and usually have the interests of the rich foremost in mind. The interests of the rich are not always compatible with the interests of the rest of us.

The United States is a plutocracy, Q.E.D.

Any questions?

"I always get so overwhelmed on Election Day… I stand in the voting booth and think back to the framers of our constitution, who made it so you didn’t have to own land in order to vote… I think of the suffragists who fought for votes for women… I think of the civil rights movement which brought votes to blacks… I think back to all these people who worked so hard so that I, a poor black woman, can stand here and choose between a bunch of rich white men.
“I think I’m gonna be sick.”
-Diane diMassa, Rude Girls and Dangerous Women

But of course. I’m not going to disagree here- the US probably is such. But why is that? The US * is* a capitalist country, you know, so should it be surprising that the same values that determine society should also run the government?
So, should we be concerned about this? Hmm, well if you’re in that top 20% and aren’t a very compassionate person, then no, but if you’re in that other 85% of the population, then I’d say you’re in trouble- or at least you don’t have a voice in your governemnt. ha ha ha ha ha.
What, then, is there to do about it?

-Find a cheap way to broadcast to the masses.
Those politicians still depend on that 85% to be elected, and if one were able to find a cheap way to get their attention and broadcast his ideas then he could well be elected.

Any others?

Also, look at how these people acquire their wealth. Not all of it is from the familly, and because they are wealthy they often well educated. I do not think it would be a good idea to have a badly educated president, and, therefore, a poor (as in not wealthy) one.
Lastly, and I always come out like a jerk when I say this, but I’ll stand by it anyway, we’re a republic and not a democracy for a reason. The founding fathers made that choice, is it still a good one?

If the rich have the power in the US, why do they pay a much higher percentage of their income in taxes than the less well-off?

Because the power of the rich isn’t absolute…yet.

Being rich still isn’t quite enough to always get your way with the government. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. You also have to make sure that the general populace either 1.) doesn’t know, 2.) doesn’t care (free trade with China, WTO, etc.) or 3.) thinks it’s a good thing for them.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to in the lower to middle income brackets who are all for a flat tax or national sales tax. They’ll say things like, “It would do away with the IRS, and make things so much easier,” or “It would encourage people to save their money and not spend it.” When I tell them that either proposal would almost certainly result in them paying more taxes than they do now, while the richest people would pay less than they do now, they don’t believe me. (Never underestimate most people’s inability to comprehend mathematics.)

It really is easier to keep people in the dark or make it seem like policies couldn’t ever affect them. It’s not so easy with taxes, which everyone pays and everyone watches like a hawk. Fortunately, the powers-that-want-to-be haven’t found a way to spin a flat tax that will make enough people buy it.

Dr. J


Hmm. I’ve heard lots of arguments shooting down flat taxe plans, but never much about the national sales tax.

I don’t think it’s so much that people don’t understand the math, but that they’re given extremely dubious numbers to work with. Flat tax plans really do sound good when their proponents present them, but fall apart when you plug other numbers into the formulas.

To add to what the good Doctor said, don’t forget that the capital gains tax rate is substantially less than the income tax rate–and capital gains is where the wealthy make most of their money. Also, remember the myriad loopholes, tax shelters, and writeoffs that can be employed by anyone able to afford a good CPA–with the result that many corporations end up paying little to no tax, period. Some of these loopholes are written into legislation at the express request of donors–Jim Hightower’s new book tells how the Amway founders parlayed a $1 million contribution into a $29 million tax exemption. As DoctorJ pointed out, too, sales taxes are inherently regressive. Finally, take a look at Dubya’s proposed tax plan sometime: the bulk of its tax cuts go to those earning $100,000 or more, and it would–if I’m not mistaken–eliminate inheritance tax entirely.

Gadarene–I was just going to tell you to pick up Hightower’s new book if you feel this way, but you’ve obviously beaten me to it.

The main idea of this book (entitled If The Gods Had Meant For Us To Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates), as well as most of his writing, is the same point made by just about every media outlet during the China trade vote–the country isn’t lined up left to right anymore, but top to bottom. The Corporatists vs. the Populists. Read this book–I guarantee, it will piss you off.

Dr. J

O-K, Gadarene, I’ll bite. What do YOU suggest we do about it?

(P.S.- Communism is not an option).

I think that the rich do wield a lot of power. Being rich will get you into the best schools, let you shmooze with people who already have power, pay for your campaigns, etc. However, the rich are elected by the people (those who bother to vote, anyhow) and if the rich politicians piss them off too much they’ll be out at the end of their term. The rich may drive the car, but the rest of us have our foot on the brake. I don’t think the rich have any loyalty to “the rich” as a group; they care about themselves and their pals, but they do understand that they can’t do much if they get voted out of office by irate voters who don’t like a 50% tax cut for everyone who makes over 5 mil.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherent with having a lot of money that makes a person less suitable for civil service. Heck, at least they have practice handling large amounts of money; if they’ve made the money themselves or at least managed not to blow it all, they’ve demonstrated some rudimentary competence, and they generally have the best education money can buy :wink: and have been exposed to a more global view of issues. The government-by-the-rich argument also does not consider smaller local governments, which tend to be run by middle to upper-middle class, in my experience.

Elections run on money, currently; for a poor person to be elected to high office, they’d need rich friends, and those same friends might demand favors later. However, they can only really abuse their power if the non-rich let them, by not screaming bloody murder (and voting them out) when tax loopholes and such go through (and if we’re talking tax loopholes, small businesses have a ton of ways to hide money from taxes as well). I also have my suspicions about claims that corporations take advantages of loopholes to pay little or no tax; this seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. There is also a certain check built into elections, because if someone has favored “screw-the-poor” tactics in their political career, their opponents will exploit that to the max. However, as Dr. J noted, the only way the voters will object is if they know they’re getting screwed, which can be difficult to figure out, and difficult to get the news out once you have figured it out.

The way to ease the effects of a plutocracy seems to be 1) voters really knowing what’s going on and 2) campaign reform, so you don’t have to be rich or sell your soul to the big corporations to get elected. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a proposed campaign reform that makes it possible to get elected without gathering vast amounts of money, yet doesn’t allow resources to be sucked up by everybody who can read a speech.

I always find it interesting how people equate being rich with being evil. In fact, wealthy people span the entire political spectrum, which is why neither party has dominated politics in this country.

I would also like to see some statistics as to the wealth of politicians and the percentage of their contributions that come from the rich. Keep in mind that due to this being a capitalist country, the people competent enough to get elected to a national office are probably competent enough to earn a decent living.

I believe the main reason that capital gains are taxed at a lower rate is that often the capital gains are made from selling something of value that was purchased with income that had already been taxed. A low capital gains tax is beneficial to more people than just the rich, many of whom do make money from income (for example, those high CEO salaries that I hear so much bitching about).

A plutocracy is a society that is ruled by the rich, not one where the rich have undue influence over the government. The quickest way to erode their power would be take away power from the government. Then there is far less that the rich could do with their influence.

Especially since, as we all know, the Republican and Democratic parties are the endpoints of the entire spectrum of possible political ideas.

(Matt, the New Democratic Party member, rolls his eyes)

I said that rich people span the political spectrum. Which they do (minus the extremely socialist end, probably). Like all groups of people, the ends of the spectrum are sparsely populated. In order for a politician to be successful, he (since all politicians are rich white men there is no “or she” here) must have more than a fringe appeal.

I never said anything about rich people being evil. I’m contending that the interests of the wealthy are many times quite different from the interests of the rest of us–as can be evidenced when a company lays off 5,000 people and its stock price goes up. When you consider that policy is most often formulated with the interests of wealthy people in mind–not all wealthy people, necessarily, but whoever is formulating the policy–then you start to see a disconnect between “the people” and their putative representatives.

Are you serious? I can find the numbers for you if you want, but my claims that politicians tend to be wealthy and that rich people and companies give more than anyone else hardly seem controversial. What’s your intuition on the matter?

Well, you know, I could make the argument the other way 'round. There are many, many people that would be competent politicians, but the only ones given a chance are those that have (or can raise) hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is kind of a tangent, but I think you get elected in this country on the basis of your ability to campaign, rather than your ability to govern. And that’s a significant thing, because the two skills don’t always go hand in hand. And, given the choice, I’d rather have a politician who’s adept at governing than one who can raise money really, really well. And make no mistake about it–it takes lots of money to get elected. Which, once again, could be seen as a subversion of representative democracy, unless you’re saying that only people with money have proven themselves competent to govern. …Guess it wasn’t a tangent after all.

But the fact remains that if Joe Millionaire made $5 million last year, and $4 million of it was a return on various investments, most of the money he made is taxable at a very low rate. Not to mention the aforementioned loopholes, tax shelters, and writeoffs.

Oh, give me a break. I singled out political influence because government is the one institution which is supposedly representing the country at large. And, however incompletely, it still does a better job of it than private businesses driven by a profit motive. If you want to talk about a society ruled by the rich, I could point to the thousands of lobbyists stumping to Washington on behalf of predominantly monied interests. If government was disempowered, you think those lobbyists would just pack up and call it a career? Or would they be redirected to wherever influence could best be sought? I could point to the mega-mergers of business and media, as the landscape of commercial and social discourse becomes increasingly less diverse. National news anchors and Washington bureau chiefs make six figures–you think they don’t have a particularized world-view that might be different than a farmhand in Iowa? These people–wealthy people–have the power to decide what goes on the air and in the news. I’d say that’s pretty substantial influence. I could point to the CEOs who dictate foreign policy by dint of their holdings overseas, or the Fed economists and Wall Street investors who help shape fiscal policy, and get paid damn comfortably doing it. And unlike politicians, the lobbyists and media moguls and CEOs and donors and investors can’t be thrown out of office if their actions too obviously benefit the rich over the rest of us. Most of the influence in this country comes from people we don’t elect–government is probably the least of it, if you extend the influence into cultural and economic spheres. Really, waterj2, how is this society not ruled by the rich?

Again, I’m not saying that’s automatically a bad thing–simply that wealthy people are a tiny portion of the population, and the interests of the rich aren’t always coincidant with the interests of the middle or lower class.

Humph. I say we ditch the current government and form an anarchistic society, that is, SELF-governed. check out and read ‘Everything I ever wanted to know about Anarchy (but was afraid to ask)’ if you have arguements as to why anarchy would be a bad idea, because I really don’t have the time to address all the contingencies. If you find something not addressed on that site, THEN talk to me.

I take issue with your description of personal wealth being a “prerequisite” for being a serious candidate for political office. True, there are many rich people in government, as shown by

However, this doesn’t establish that someone who has personal wealth is more likely to be elected. Think of the numerous wealthy types who have tried and failed to spend their way into office just in recent years: Perot, Trump, Huffington, etc etc etc.

I think what is more likely is that people who are elected to government generally have a track record of success in their chosen careers, whether its business, law, medicine, journalism, or whatever. People who are successful in these sorts of fields tend to become rich. Success not strictly limited to personal wealth is a much better indicator of who will win elections or gain appointments.

First, corporations have been barred from contributing to candidates for quite a while. Second, without a doubt the majority of contributions come from individuals. Nice graph at:

Also, the role of small donors is often overlooked. For example, in the 1998 election cycle, there are more than 20 times as many people who give small contributions than there are large contributors. The total amount of money given by small contributors (<$200) in the last two election cycles represented about a third of all contributions.

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but there are many other factors that rank higher on the access importance scale than money. That is, those representing issues important to a lawmaker’s constituency have a great deal more access than those who represent unimportant issues. Are Microsoft and Boeing important to Washington’s political delegation because they give a lot of money, or because those companies represent tens of thousands of jobs which could be gained or lost through government action?

Actually, the voters are an officeholder’s core constituency. That is, constituents who are politically active draw the most attention. Those that are politically active and represent local interest in public policy are the ones that really count. Recall the title of Tip O’Neill’s autobiography: All politics is local.

Yes, politicans do meet with the Fortune 500 types on a regular basis. However, and I doubt you will find anyone in politics who disagrees with me on this one, a politician that alienates the blue-collar types like cops, teachers, small business owners, and farmers doesn’t have much of a chance. Why is it that your congressman continually shows up at chamber of commerce meetings, marches with veterans, and is always on the side of the police? It’s not for money, it is for votes. A politician, no matter how well funded, has to make the voters happy.

Finally, since it’s so damn late over here, the one fundamental point not addressed in your argument is that more money somehow equals better results in elections. Aggregate numbers showing how much winning and losing candidates spent in their race aren’t a good measure, since low spending of losing candidates in heavily GOP or Democratic districts skews the data. If you look at close races, however, there’s not that much difference between how much money the candidates spent.

In fact, that chart shows that in a number of races, a challenger spent significantly less money than an incumbent and still won.

Conclusion: A candidate needs money to run a campaign, but needs votes to get elected. At least in the US, votes are not easily bought, and political support, not big warchests, measures who will win and who won’t.

This doesn’t establish it, but if we looked into it I’m fairly sure it would be the case.

Yes, like Gore, who was quite successful at…um…well, OK, there’s Dubya, who really did some great things as a…er…well, let’s see, there’s Mitch McConnell, my own Senator, who was…dammit…wait! My other Senator, Jim Bunning! He was a pretty good baseball player!

You’ll also notice that the majority of the Congressmen in the top ten of that list either inherited or married into their money.

You’re forgetting the practice of “bundling”. Corporations don’t write a check to the candidate out of the company checkbook–they just amass the $1000 maximum donations of their executives, and often their executives’ wives and children. Then there’s soft money, in which the corps don’t give to the candidate but to the party. Read the aforementioned book by Jim Hightower for descriptions of these excesses.

If you believe that, I have some land you might be interested in.

This is what I mean by the fact that money is necessary, but not sufficient. What about an equally important issue that has just as much popular support, but no money behind it? (Say, gun control, or environmental legislation.) Do you think the spokespeople for those causes have just as much access as Boeing?

Politics, perhaps, but not policy. Do you think that McConnell keeps getting re-elected because we Kentuckians are dead-set against campaign finance reform? He’s probably the biggest ally to the monied interests in Congress, and he keeps getting elected by a decidedly poor state.

The trick is to alienate the little guy without letting him know he’s being screwed. As we magicians like to say–misdirection works.

I’m glad that your Congressman does this. I wish ours did. To my knowledge, they only make it back to KY for fund raisers and the occasional election.

Rather than skewing the point, that is the point. The reason incumbents are so hard to beat is that you just can’t outspend them. They spend their whole term in office making the connections to the big donors and raising money for the next run. When the opposition realizes that even if they bust their ass, they won’t be able to raise a tenth as much as the incumbent, they just give it up, and the only opposition is a potted plant.

Perhaps explaining why the race was close.

To quote my backwoods relatives, the sun shines on a dog’s ass every now and then.

Dr. J

PS: Long posts mean that Dr. J is tired of studying.

What DoctorJ said.

(Sorry, I’m tired…and about to embark on a lengthy proposal for the revision of government, as per Rousseau’s request. Plus, DoctorJ, that was one damn fine post.)
Anyway, if you really believe that corporations don’t give to individuals anymore…well, let’s just say that you seem like a smart guy, and I’d hate to have that impression contradicted. Aside from bundling and soft money (in which contributions can be earmarked to a particular candidate or region, even when given to the party organization), there are issue advocacy ads–where a putatively independent organization can spend unlimited money to stump for a candidate, as long as they don’t use certain phrases–and the various lobbying and consultancy firms with corporate ties.

And when I said “personal wealth is usually a prerequisite for any serious candidate,” I didn’t include that ‘usually’ just for scansion. Wealth does not guarantee anything–look at Steve Forbes. But then again, look at Steve Forbes. He ran what was essentially a single-issue campaign–the flat tax–and got incredible media coverage for his cause. Or look at Perot. Damn crazy fool could’ve won in '92 if he hadn’t entered the race for the sole purpose of screwing over Bush Senior. The point is, today’s political climate has made it virtually unimaginable for a lower or middle-class person to make a serious run at the presidency…or, to a lesser degree, Congress. You’ve got to be backed by money, and lots of it.

Gad said

Well, actually, the corporation does that because it has the interests of company profits in mind. The best company is one that makes money.

But what the hell, let’s just say most rich and most companies are populated by money grubbers who leach off society by turnign profits and employing folks and call it a day.

Fine, but what is in the interests of a particular corporation and its shareholders may not be in the interests of society at large. I thought I said that already. Not everything in the world should be decided by potential profit margin, especially when the profit benefits only a few.

Wow, I don’t recall saying anything even close to that. That sure is a nice anthropomorphic haystack you’ve got there.

What the hell, let’s just say that all the poor are lazy leeches who are too stupid or too weak to survive on their own without government help, and that their existence just gets in the way of good old American capitalism. And call it a straw-damn-diddly-man day.