McCutcheon, and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power

McCutcheon, and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power

By Robert Reich

If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.

Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.

That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.

It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.

As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.

Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.

In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few,” he said. “But we cannot have both.”

Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?

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  1. anonymous

    McCutcheon, One Victory for All

    As a Nation, our fundamental First Amendment activities have been upheld and expanded by our highest Court in the McCutcheon et al, v. Federal Election Commission decision. This should be a cause for great celebration conditioned on other indisputable Democratic measures of the same spirit, that are certain to be discussed by the Nation as a whole here shortly.

    We should all celebrate. For, not only must this be a victory for freedom and liberty to those with the means to support their favorite political candidates, it must be a victory shared with those whose support may, perhaps only presently, be limited to their vote. Therefore, unless the voices of all are required to be heard, the ruling will afford little comfort or stability and will surely lead this great Nation down an un-Democratic path.

    The wealth of the richest Nation in support of the virtues of its political process requires a pure and truly representative Democratic undertaking. There is no more solid a conservative position than to demand that the voices of all be heard. Anything less than enacting and upholding the voices of all will surely lead this mighty Nation down the path of socialism, perhaps even communism.

    It shall be with great wisdom and foresight that the McCutcheon ruling should be followed with strong bi-partisan support for a National Voting Holiday coupled with mandatory voting of all this great Nation’s Citizens. The ruling is wholly incomplete and a true injustice to the now more fully liberated Democratic process if a mandatory Voting Holiday and law is not called forth and set in place.

    Liberty compels, at times, that regulations must be instituted and upheld to maintain order and to oversee a person’s right to support their candidates and causes; now is one such time. For, “the right to participate in electing our political leaders” has to be secured by a National Holiday as well as making that very right of voting participation, a universal and mandatory affair. It must not be left otherwise; we cannot risk to chance or force majeure this great Democracy.

    In this, the hardest working Nation on the planet, a full holiday must be decreed in order to support this monumental ruling. A day for all to reflect, relax, consume, and join together is the only true way a Democracy can work. The very freedom of our markets and the vigor of our entrepreneurship depends upon the force of our political process. It is an economic certainty that having more voters per aggregate campaign contribution is the most efficient use of our money. In making voting mandatory we are mandating the efficiency of the United States Dollar. This ruling, if not backed by measures to ensure proper economic outcomes, will most likely be wasteful, resulting in unnecessary and unwise spending.

    Claims of cost are illegitimate. In instituting the requirements only but a fraction of a small share of funds would be needed, if any. With a day off for all to enjoy, in leisure and consumption, the spending generated in consumption taxes would pay it all off in spades. And, in the Nation most technically advanced there can be no claims of fraud or malfeasance, for most certainly we can verify and securely endorse the votes of our Citizens. Still, there may be a few bad actors but they must not be allowed to spoil this for Us all. True Democracy demands that there can be no idleness or sloth on this enlightened and sound future Voting Holiday.

    These final and fulfilling measures to the McCutcheon victory will curb those tyrannical tendencies that are still so very close in the world of even today. We must, as a Nation, demand and require Democracy or we will perish under a certain authoritarianism. In such a rich and prosperous Nation the luxury of requiring all citizens to vote must be enacted. “Democratic legitimacy” will not be forthcoming unless there is truly liberty and justice for all, and, from all.

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